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The Political Situation Mid-2007

By Bertil Lintner

Is Thailand now being run by a dictatorship, or is it on the road back to truly democratic rule? Or something in-between? Assessments differ widely after the decision by Thailand's Constitutional Tribunal on May 30 to drop charges of election irregularities against the Democrat Party, and to dissolve the once-mighty Thai Rak Thai for manipulating the annulled April 2006 polls. Thai Rak Thai, which was formed in 1998 by telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, won 248 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives in the 2001 elections, and as many as 375 seats in 2005, enlarging the previous absolute majority.

But despite the party's massive election victories, its behaviour while in power was far from democratic. The party used its might to suppress the media and silence its critics. Then, on January 23, 2006, came the bombshell. Temasek Holdings, a firm owned by the Singapore government, bought a 49 percent stake in Shin Corp, a telecommunications and satellite company founded by Thaksin and owned by his family. The sale was done through a shelf company registered in the British Virgin Islands, which meant that the Shinawatra family—the richest in Thailand—did not have to pay tax to the Thai government. The deal was worth nearly two billion US dollars. Many also objected to the sale of a strategically important, national asset to a foreign company. After the deal was announced, more than 100,000 people gathered on an open field near the old Royal Palace in Bangkok to demand not only Thaksin's resignation but also his impeachment. Thaksin also locked horns with the institution that is supposed to bridge such gaps in society: The Privy Council, and, therefore, the monarchy itself.

For several months, there were almost daily demonstrations against him, and his call for a snap election in April only served to deepen the crisis. The opposition, led by the Democrats, boycotted the election, and Thai Rak Thai allegedly paid a number of small, newly-formed parties to run against it to make the election valid, which was the charge brought against Thai Rak Thai before the Constitutional Tribunal. The charge against the Democrats, which now has been dropped, was that they had tried to frame Thai Rak Thai to commit such offenses.

But the election was annulled by the courts only a few weeks after it was held, and Thaksin thus headed a non-elected caretaker government until the military ousted him in a bloodless coup while he was out of the country. He remains in exile mainly in London but sometimes also in Beijing and Sydney.

The international community criticised the military takeover, but in Thailand it was actually popular, because it was hoped that it would put an end to the sharp divisions in Thai society that had torn the country apart for nearly a year. According to opinion polls at the time, 81.6 percent in Bangkok approved of the coup. The support for it was even stronger in the countryside, where Thaksin was believed to have enjoyed massive support: 86.3 percent. But there was also another reason for the military to step in at this juncture. The Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-serving monarch, is nearly 80 years old, and universal respect for him and the institution he represents is the nation's strength. Thailand's rigid lese majesté laws make it impossible to discuss the succession issue, but it appears clear that the Privy Council, and by extension the military, did not want to see a powerful and manipulative politician at the helm when the succession takes place. Before the coup, there were suggestions that Thaksin had to be forced to resign, or be neutralised, ahead of the trauma that the succession will inevitably entail.

And, today, Thaksin appears to have been neutralised. Despite the expectations of many, there were no large-scale protests after the May 30 verdict, which also bans him and 110 other Thai Rak Thai executive members from entering politics for the next five years. In theory, this leaves the road open for the Democrats to do extremely well in the next election, which the junta has pledged will be held by December this year. The Democrats is Thailand's oldest political party. It was founded in 1946 and has since then formed several coalition governments, usually in times of crises. A victory for the Democrats could ensure stability and bring back foreign support for the government in Bangkok - but it would be a mistake to assume that Thaksin is completely out of the picture. He can, through intermediaries, form a new party and thus, once again but indirectly as he is banned from participating in politics himself, challenge the Democrats and Thailand's social and political institutions. The military is well aware of this, and that is why they will most likely continue to remain a player even after the next election. So even if the Democrats then win and a new, elected government takes over, Thailand is likely to be ruled by a "guided democracy" - which means that the country's political crisis is far from over, and its democratic future less than secure.

WATCHPOINT: The Thai military is unlikely to lend its support to the Democrats but may engineer the formation of a new political party, or through loyal politicians and its influence over the Privy Council, make sure it remains a potent force behind the scenes even after the scheduled December 2007 election.

This article first appeared in Asian Analysis, June, 2007

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