Thailand: Military coup-linked parties back in government despite losing election

September 13, 2023
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Kanyanatt Kalfagiannis speaking to Green Left's Peter Boyle. Image: @GreenLeftOnline/YouTube

The conservative, military coup-linked parties were decisively defeated in Thailand's elections on May 14. But three months later, an undemocratic constitution, designed by the military coup leaders, has allowed these parties to get back in government in alliance with the Pheu Thai party, which the last military coup targetted. The Move Forward Party — which won the most votes — has been side-lined and democracy activists are outraged, if not surprised.

Kanyanatt Kalfagiannis, spokesperson for the Australian Alliance for Thai Democracy, told Green Left that she along with others from the new generation of Thai democracy activists feel “disappointed and deeply betrayed” by the installation of the new government under Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin.

“We feel betrayed by the Pheu Thai party because during the election campaign they assured us that they would not have any partnership with the military junta parties. But now they say that the situation forced them to abandon the Move Forward Party and join hand in hand with the military junta parties.

“This is another time that Thai ‘democracy’ has failed us.

“The current constitution, which was drafted by the military junta, is why it has come to this.”

Because the PM is appointed by a joint sitting of 500 elected members of the National Assembly and 250 appointed Senators, “there is no way any democratic party can form government without winning by an impossible margin”, Kalfagiannis explained.

Over the past three months, while there was still hope that Move Forward might lead a coalition government with Pheu Thai and other non-military junta parties, it appeared that there might be a revival of the democracy movement in the streets. However, there have been no mass protests since the new government was appointed.

Kalfagiannis explained that “most of the leaders of the youth-led democracy movement are on strict bail conditions that forbid them from leading or participating in another protest movement. The movement seems to be waiting for new leaders to emerge.

“Many people are also tired and some are waiting for the new government to show if it will do something to move the country forward.

“Many people are angry that Move Forward was excluded but others want to give a chance to Pheu Thai to lead the country. There is still some trust in Pheu Thai even though that hope is wearing out.”

In the past, the division over democracy was clearer. It was “between the Red and the Yellow”, said Kalfagiannis — referring to the popular Red Shirt rebellion that followed the 2006 military coup against the elected government of then PM Thaksin Shinawatra — or “the democracy supporters versus the royalists”.

But now that Thaksin has “bowed down to the monarchy” the democracy movement has been divided.

During the negotiations for the formation of a coalition government there was also a negotiation to allow Thaksin, who is still seen as an informal leading figure in Pheu Thai, to return to the country after 15 years in self-imposed political exile.

Thaksin had been convicted in absentia for alleged abuses of power and corruption. I asked Kalfagiannis whether a deal was done for Pheu Thai to form a government coalition with the military-backed parties in return for a reduced imprisonment for Thaksin.

“Thaksin gave hints months before the election that he wanted to return to Thailand on condition that he does not have to stay in prison for the full eight-year term he was sentenced to. However, his daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, one of the leaders of Pheu Thai, has denied that there was such a deal.

“But it has all come out now. There must have been a deal,” Kalfagiannis said.

Since Pheu Thai formed a governing coalition with the military-backed parties, she explained, Thaksin has been given a royal pardon and his sentence has been reduced from eight years to one.

Some of the country's 250 unelected Senators are due to retire next year. Pheu Thai leaders have promised they will reform the constitution so that appointed Senators cannot block a popularly elected government. They could do this by making the Senators subject to election.

But Kalfagiannis says she does not trust Pheu Thai after the latest betrayal. Even if the new government did amend the constitution there are sure to be new conditions imposed that will restrict democracy due to Pheu Thai's partnership with the pro-military parties.

“Last month, Move Forward tried to put a motion to the National Assembly to reform the law about the appointment of the Senators but the Pheu Thai party and their new pro-military allies voted it down.”

Pheu Thai has even “taken on the narrative of the Yellow Shirts that we have to play by the rules” of the constitution written by the military coup leaders.

Kalfagiannis also has little faith that the new government would reform the lese-majeste laws in Section 112 of the Criminal Code that make it an offence, punishable by imprisonment of 15 years on each count, to defame, insult, or threaten the country's monarch.

“Nevertheless, Move Forward has promised that they are going to try to reform 112.”

Kalfagiannis said it was clear to her and other young democracy activists that this was, to a large extent, a generational divide.

“It couldn’t be clearer to me that we have a fight between the newer generation and the old generation. People my age see this deal [between Pheu Thai and the pro-military parties] as unreasonable. I understand that no one, including Thaksin, should be forced to leave the country because of unfair legal proceedings, but there is an unfair double standard here. What about all the other political prisoners who didn’t get the same treatment as Thaksin? What are we fighting for here?”

The new generation of democracy activists would never accept that there should be special treatment for the wealthy leaders of Pheu Thai, she added, but unfortunately, some of the old generation —  including some Red Shirt veterans — still see the great wealth of these political leaders as some sort of assurance that they will know how to lead the whole country to prosperity.

“There are people who still believe that the success of their business empires means that they can bring wealth to the people. But it doesn’t work that way and the new generation does not believe in this.”

Video: Struggle for democracy in Thailand divides generations. Green Left.

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