Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Bad for the constitutions

One could be forgiven for seeing the recent protests in Bangkok heralded the coming of an South East Asian analogue of the Colour Revolutions. After Rose, Orange and Tulip (Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan respectively) which plucky group of democratic protesters would save Thailand from its government.

If only it were so simple. The airport demonstrators were almost entirely aligned to The Democrat Party, a somewhat ironically-named opposition party. They are democratic in the sense that, in the 2006 coup d'état, they supported the army. In this coup Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown, and he, along with his party of Thai Rak Thai (TRT), are key to the story that has developed ever since.

Mr Thaksin is not an easy figure to summarise. He is, in his own words, 'not a perfect man'. This is a man who was condemned, famously, as 'a human rights abuser of the worst kind'. These comments stem from concerns that Human Rights Watch (HRW) have over the campaign Mr Thaksin led against the narcotics trade in Thailand's south. It is not to condone any wrongdoing that may have occurred if it is stated that HRW show something of lack of proportion in this statement.

For a Prime Minister who was dogged with these claims, and those of corruption, it was perhaps surprising how slowly the opposition could provide any evidence to the courts after the coup. In the evidence the charge was lamentable: that his wife had, in a sealed bidding process for a piece of land, put in the highest bid. Mr Thaksin was convicted on an anti-corruption law that prevents spouses of the government doing business with the state - hardly a ringing endorsement of the need for a coup. Earlier this year the erstwhile Prime Minster jumped bail and fled to the UK.

The coup replaced Mr Thaksin with the militarily-appointed Surayud Chulanont. Given the justification for the coup it surprising that Transparency International, and NGO that seeks to expose corruption, stated that Thailand had a "significant worsening in perceived levels of corruption in 2007".

Once the coup was over Thai Rak Thai morphed into the People's Power Party (PPP) and the impressively unpalatable Samak Sundaravej took over as Prime Minster, a man who helped incite violence at the 1976 student protests that led to 46 deaths. Not to be outdone the courts struck Mr Samak's premiership down on the grounds that he appeared as a TV chef, something apparently not compatible with his day job.

It is Mr Samak's successor, Somchai Wongsawat that this week's protesters have (successfully) sought to depose. In reality they have done so not because of the corruption allegations against him. The Democratic Party are loathsome, something well summarised by their comment that the PPP's power base, the rural poor (who Mr Thaksin championed improved health care for), are 'too ill-educated'. On numerous occasions the Democratic Party has accused the PPP or its precursor of being anti-royal. In the UK this may seem trivial, but in Thailand, with its surprisingly backward lèse-majesté laws, it is all to easy to paint an enemy as a denigrater of the King and thus influence the opinion of a public that is hugely fond of its monarch.

The king is not the cause of this trouble - he has indicated the importance of him being open to criticism. Unfortunately the farcical constitutional ban on criticism of the monarch allows the Democratic Party to act as the King's saviour. The protests are not about the forces of good democracy overthrowing a corrupt regime. They are about little more than the elite of Bangkok, who are shocked by the power the rural poor are able to wield by electing the TRT/PPP, seeking to redress the balance in their favour.

Accordingly the fall of Mr Somchai is a tragedy for Thailand's democracy, and could spell the beginning of yet another constitution for Thailand (this would be number 18), one that sought to limit the power of the rural poor and cement the influence of Bangkok elite.

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