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Thailand: Same faces, new crisis

The Diplomat - November 6, 2013

Steve Finch At 5:11 pm on July 3, 2011, after all but winning Thailand's most recent election, Yingluck Shinawatra posted a Facebook message outlining her two main priorities for office: prosperity and national reconciliation. As of November 2013, the signs aren't promising.

On Tuesday, after at least 10,000 people marched across central Bangkok to protest a blanket amnesty bill that could smooth the return to Thailand of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck appealed for calm amid a rising political storm. "If people learn how to forgive, the country will move forward," she said in a nationally televised address.

Just over halfway through her four-year term and more than seven years into an enduring political battle, Thailand appears as divided as ever, and possibly on the brink of another crisis. While thousands of protesters accumulated around central Bangkok's Democracy Monument, led by opposition Democrat Party MP Suthep Thaungsuban, anti-Thaksin protests were gathering numbers and momentum elsewhere.

Seven years after Thaksin was ousted in a coup and later sentenced to two years in prison in absentia for corruption following a probe by a military-appointed graft body, crowds heckled a blanket amnesty that could overturn the cases, and possibly unfreeze assets worth 46 billion baht ($1.47 billion).

In Silom, another central district of the capital, business owners closed down a major road and blew whistles to show their discontent. By the end of Monday, Bangkok's stock market had lost 2.85 percent as investors began to worry of yet further political chaos, wiping 776.75 million baht ($24.86 million) off Thai shares.

A number of private-sector organizations issued statements condemning the bill, as did 25 of Thailand's leading universities, as protests escalated across the country. Many of those who have opposed the bill are long-term opponents of the billionaire telecoms tycoon turned politician.

More worrying for Thaksin, his sister's government and the ruling Pheu Thai party are increasing signs that the bill passed by the lower house on Friday may be causing irreparable damage to key support, whether it passes the Senate in the coming weeks or not. In a recent survey conducted in Thailand's northeast, among the poorest regions of the country in which almost every province was won by the ruling party in the 2011 elections, 46.6 percent of respondents disagreed with a blanket amnesty with just 31.6 percent in support.

Although Pheu Thai MPs voted unanimously for the bill last week amid an opposition boycott, many were whipped into line, Key leaders of the so-called "Red Shirts" have been vocal in their opposition. Ahead of Friday's contentious vote, the Red Shirt United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship said in a statement it wanted Thaksin to return "gracefully," which meant it felt the amnesty route was anything but.

Many Red Shirts want former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva held accountable after the army opened fire on their numbers in Bangkok in April and May 2010 in street battles that left more than 90 people dead, most of them civilians. Murder charges against Abhisit and Suthep, Monday's protest leader, were filed last week but would be nullified if the blanket amnesty passes into law as it stands.

Even Thaksin's son, Panthongtae Shinawatra, has opposed the bill. In a message on his Facebook page last week he said he and his two sisters were against a clean slate for the "murderers" of 2010. Meanwhile, Yingluck and Thaksin remain the few major figures caught up in Thailand's latest political mess to defend the bill in public, calling it a chance for Thailand to move on. "We [politicians fighting] will soon be gone," Thaksin told the Thai-language daily Post Today in Singapore two days before last week's divisive vote in the lower house. "It is our children who will take our place and they will have to live in a bruised and battered country because we just want to win... to be in power and have no thought for our country."

In a teary meeting on Monday with the relatives of Red Shirts killed in the 2010 violence, Yingluck appeared to reconnect with the Shinawatra support base, those few who said they still backed the bill.

In fact, passage of the bill is far from certain. On Monday, 70 senators out of a total 150 issued a statement pledging to vote against the draft in its current form, leaving 76 of the remaining 80 members of the upper house needed to guarantee its passage. Even if it does pass through the Senate, analysts have speculated the bill will have a tougher time getting through the Constitutional Court, despite assertions by Pheu Thai MPs that its wording does not violate Thailand's charter. Among the sections most likely to get the bill shot down is a part that aims to nullify Section 309 of the 2006 constitution, adopted after the coup against Thaksin, despite the inherent assertion that it is constitutional and shall remain so.

Have the Shinawatra siblings miscalculated? If the amnesty bill is testing their popularity, it appears to be resurrecting Abhisit and the Democrats, at least on the surface. As Suthep led protestors to the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Abhisit took a leading role in protests in Silom. But many protestors were quick to point out that they were far from happy with either men, while dismissing Yingluck as Thaksin's puppet.

Supaporn Saguanphan, a 64-year-old civil servant at the Ministry of Finance, said that while she particularly despised Thaksin, she also said that Abhisit had been "wrong" in the past. "We're against this amnesty bill, not just because of Thaksin, but also because of people who have killed others," she said, minutes after Suthep led a minute's silence to remember those who had died in Thailand's political violence in the past. Like Abhisit, Suthep was charged with murder last week over the events of 2010 and would benefit from charges being dropped against him if the blanket amnesty passes into law.

Thanet Aphornsuvan, a political historian and professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok, told The Diplomat that the amnesty bill showed that Thailand's recent cycle of political retribution was far from over. Yingluck hasn't achieved much towards ending the impasse, he said, and Thaksin's return would only make things worse given how many people oppose his return from exile without punishment. "It seems like no-one can handle this, no-one can create a new way," said Thanet. "There's no common ground."

Among the accusations and efforts to bring the other side down, Pheu Thai and the Democrats only appear to agree on two things, at least publically: Their love for King Bhumibol Adulyadej and that there should not be an amnesty for those convicted under lhse-majeste, the draconian law that has resulted in lengthy prison terms for anyone who criticizes, or even discusses in too much detail, the role of the palace in the country's constitutional monarchy. Because of the law, debate and media coverage both domestic and foreign is restricted due to the very real fear of prosecution, this article included.

Songkran Grachangnetra, an entrepreneur and writer, says that it is a failure to reform lhse-majeste that represents the biggest failure of the current government. "This deal is tantamount to nothing less than a betrayal by Thaksin and the Pheu Thai Party of the electoral promise that this abortion of a law, namely Section 112 (lhse-majeste), will be once and for all eliminated from the arsenal of all Thai political operatives," he wrote in a column in Tuesday's Bangkok Post. As the self-prescribed defender of the monarchy, and by extension lhse-majeste, Abhisit and the Democrats will go down as the "Rasputin" of Thai history, he added.

Benjamin Zawacki, senior international legal advisor for Southeast Asia at the International Commission of Jurists, said that there remains little prospect of legal reform to lhse-majeste and as such no chance of real political debate as Thailand lurches towards its latest political crisis. "To discuss Thai politics without honestly, critically, objectively discussing the monarchy something that can only be done in the absence of the lhse-majeste law is to discuss religion with no mention of a deity," Zawacki told The Diplomat.

With the King due to turn 86 next month, it's this issue that must be addressed at some stage, said Matt Wheeler, Southeast Asia analyst for International Crisis Group. "Thailand needs to achieve a new consensus on political rules of the game for the post-Bhumipol era based on democratic principles and rule of law," he said. "It could begin by rejecting the notion that a majority of Thais are not fit for participatory democracy, but it must not end by enabling a different brand of authoritarianism."

[Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.]

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