After a remarkably cold month, the mercury in my thermometer is rising rapidly. And since it’s (probably) election year, things are heating up in Thai politics just as fast.
The principal players are:
Prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has promised an election in 2011, and recently suggested that it might take place sooner rather than later.
Abhisit heads a coalition government installed in a parliamentary vote in 2008. His Democratic Party currently holds 172 of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives but can usually rely on the support of some smaller parties.
The largest party in parliament is Phak Phuea Thai (PTP) with 189 seats. One PTP MP is a prominent leader of the red shirt movement. PTP is the latest incarnation of the serially-banned political parties associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. PTP remains a strong candidate to win a popular vote. The previous incarnation, Phak Palang Prachachon (PPP) got 226 seats in 2007, enough for it to form a short-lived coalition. The last time a party won a general election outright, it was Thaksin’s own party, Thai Rak Thai. Thaksin’s regime was deposed in a coup in 2006.
Abhisit has been focused on holding out against the red-tinged Phuea Thai, but is increasingly feeling the squeeze from the yellow side also…
The yellow shirts, or People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), were the catalysts for the 2006 coup that deposed Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai government. They were not best pleased when a new Thaksin-friendly party, the PPP, came first in the 2007 elections. They began a campaign of protests against that government’s constitutional stance and in particular its support of Cambodia’s bid to make the Preah Vihear temple a World Heritage site. Land adjacent to Preah Vihear is of disputed sovereignty. The yellow shirts’ activities, culminating in the airport occupations of November 2008, achieved their goals when the PPP was dissolved by the constitutional court. The yellow shirts had insisted that Abhisit Vejajiva be made prime minister. He duly was.
Two years later, the fiercely nationalist PAD are disillusioned with Abhisit’s Democrat party, and again the key issue being touted is the Preah Vihear site. They claim that Thailand should assert its sovereignty over a 4.6km² area beside the temple, by force if necessary. They are unhappy that Abhisit has not reversed agreements that previous governments made with Cambodia. PAD spokesman Panthep Puapongpan has even gone so far as suggesting that Abhisit’s position on Preah Vihear could make him liable to the death penalty.
Despite their name, the People’s Alliance for Democracy sometimes shows strikingly anti-democractic tendencies. PAD leaders have proposed that rural voters are too poorly educated to be allowed to participate in elections, and that the Thai parliament should instead constituted primarily by royal appointment.
The red shirts, or United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), argue that the present government is illegitimate, since the ruling party, Abhisit’s Democrats, actually lost the last election. They want a new election.
The red shirt movement mainly consists of northern and north-eastern Thais who decry the way power in Thailand is centralised in a metropolitan, upper-class elite. They say that upcountry Thais are treated as second-class citizens while the elite act with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they are protected by the apparatus of the state.
Red shirts highlight the aggressive response by authorities to last year’s anti-government UDD rallies. In total 93 people, mostly red shirts, were killed in the ensuing violence. Red shirt leaders remain in detention since May, and the investigations into the deaths appear to be a lesson in how not to handle the aftermath of protests against double standards.
Opponents counter that the red shirts are being manipulated by “external factors” (by which they mean the exiled Thaksin) and that the level of red shirt violence – in particular the actions of the shadowy black shirt militants – is disproportionate to that of other groups.
The UDD continues to hold monthly rallies. January 23 saw one, 30,000 strong, in Bangkok at the site of some of last year’s violence. The campaign is likely to gather pace as a general election approaches. However there is some question over the control hierarchy of the red shirt movement. Leaders may find it difficult to sculpt the diverse red shirt membership into a electorally coherent entity.
The three provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani remain beset by violence between the government and separatists. Ethnically distinct from the rest of Thailand, the region has always had a separatist bent. The bulk of the population does not speak Thai and does not share a common religion with the rest of the country. The three provinces have been officially part of Thailand since the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty, having spent the previous century as part of a semi-independent sultanate. The Malay inhabitants were not party to the treaty negotiations.
Last week’s audacious raid on an army outpost in Narathiwat gave the lie to government claims that the troubles are on the wane. It also suggests that common conceptions of the insurgency’s structure may be overly simplistic. The weapons plunder was not the extemporised act of a small, autonomous runda kumpulan kecil cell: this took large-scale coordination and planning.
The high number of recent bombings indicate a ramping up in hostilities. A symbol of Thai Buddhist hegemony, the education system has been a focus of separatist anger. Meanwhile the use of roadside IEDs continues unabated. Most of the latter tend to target military vehicles. Worryingly, the bomb in Yala on Jan 25 killed nine civilians. No military personnel were present. There has been some suggestion that villagers were targeted in response to the killing of three muslim civilians by an unknown gunman on Jan 21.