Thailand: Gov't wins round one after royalist protests

December 3, 2013

A semblance of calm has returned to Bangkok as the royalist anti-democratic Yellow Shirt protesters were allowed to symbolically occupy Government House. They took pictures and left.

A temporary truce has occurred around the king’s birthday (December 5), since the royalists did not want to appear disrespectful to their “dear leader”.

The government also wants to show its loyalty by staging the usual ceremonies in a calm atmosphere. After all, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, like her brother, former PM Thaskin Shinawatra who was overthrown in a 2006 military coup, is a royalist too.

But don’t be fooled. The aged king has no real power and has never been brave enough to do anything under his own initiative. He is the tool of the military and the elites. The real power is with the army.

So what is the score so far in the battle between the royalist conservatives and the elected government?

On the government’s side, the fact that it refrained from using violence against the unruly mob of Yellow Shirt royalists is to its credit and has strengthened its position on the moral high ground.

Its legitimacy already far outweighed the royalist thugs because the government was democratically elected. The royalists, however, have called for a dictatorship.

So far, the government has refused to resign or dissolve parliament. But we do not know what will happen in the days and months ahead. There was much pressure on the government from reactionary academics and NGOs who called for parliament to be dissolved.

The Thai University Rectors’ conference even added the view that a future PM need not be elected.

These people’s political position is not a surprise. They all supported the 2006 coup, accused the majority of the population of lacking intelligence and cheered the military crackdown on pro-democracy Red Shirt protests in 2010.

What was more surprising was that a few naive academics, with good democratic credentials, also called for the dissolution of parliament. This was a mistake.

In 2006, Thaksin dissolved parliament and called fresh elections. But the opposition refused to stand in the elections because they knew that they would lose. The royalist mobs have said they would reject an election anyway.

One way out would be a referendum, perhaps on the need to abolish the military-installed constitution. If the government won, it would be a vote of confidence. If they lost, they would have to resign. But it is unlikely that the Pheu Thai Party are progressive enough to want such a referendum in the first place.

As for conservative Democratic Party strongman and former deputy PM Suthep Thaugsuban, his proposal for an unelected assembly, appointed by himself and his mates, with “good” dictators, did not win him any extra friends.

Suthep hoped to use the protests to spur the military into staging a coup, but so far the military do not want such a coup. The military did a deal with Thaksin and his Pheu Thai Party back in 2011.

Even if the military stepped in once again, it would hardly put Suthep’s agenda into practice. Why give power to a monkey when the organ-grinder makes the key moves?

The Thai ruling class know from bitter experience that it needs some kind of democratic processes and that it cannot just brush aside the Red Shirt democracy movement, based on the poor. Suthep has led his troops to the top of the hill and down again, and that has not raised his credibility.

Former Democratic Party PM Abhisit Vejjajiva had to come out with a string of pathetic lies in a CNN interview to justify their position. That hardly bolstered their legitimacy.

There is still a real danger that in the coming days, influential members of the elite and military will pressure the government to make way for a “government of national unity”. This would almost be the same as a coup and it should be opposed.

Most Red Shirts and probably most of the electorate would be against this. But the government and the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) leaders might try to sell it to the Red Shirts by saying that there was “no alternative”.

There is an alternative. The democratic space can be expanded through the actions of pro-democracy movements, including pro-democracy trade unionists. The various reform proposals by the Nitirat Group should be placed at the top of the agenda and the lese majeste (insulting the monarch) law should be abolished. These would just be first steps in the right direction.

[This article first appeared at Giles Ji Ungpakorn’s blog, He is a member of Thai group Turn Left who has lived in exile in London since 2009 after being charged for insulting the king.]

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