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    Southeast Asia
     Dec 6, 2008
ASIA HAND
A right royal silence
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - King Bhumibol Adulyadej failed on Thursday to make his annual birthday speech, with his royal family members citing poor health as the cause of his non-appearance. The now 81-year-old monarch has historically used his nationally televised address to speak to matters of national urgency, and his words were highly anticipated this year in the wake of the political chaos that has engulfed the country.

There was widespread speculation after this week's Constitution Court decision, which disbanded the ruling People's Power Party (PPP) and two of its junior coalition partners, that Bhumibol might encourage the formation of a government of national unity in a royal bid to defuse the dangerously escalating political tensions

 

pitting supporters and detractors of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Those tensions came to a lull for the monarch's birthday celebrations, but many fear they could reignite with upcoming political developments. Remnants of the PPP, now bidding to form a new government under the Peua Thai banner, have promised to fight against any national unity government, regardless from whom or where it is proposed. They have held steadfast to their, now legally debatable, democratic mandate to rule.

Bhumibol has only visibly and overtly intervened in politics in response to bloodshed on Bangkok's streets, as seen in the 1973 and 1992 crises pitting pro-democracy and military forces. The king's inaction in the wake of the current and still unresolved political struggle is consistent with that last-resort precedent; his silence on Thursday, his loyalists say, was more meaningful than any speech.

The silence also meant Bhumibol failed to bestow royal legitimacy to the PPP-led caretaker government, whose members had assembled to extend well wishes. With his ailing health and advanced age, it's not clear to many that the respected monarch has the energy or inclination for yet another intervention. And with the country polarized between competing political camps vying for supremacy in the post-Bhumibol era, it's also not clear to many that this timely guidance from above would necessarily lead to a lasting resolution.

Instead, judging by his encouragements to judges, it seems Bhumibol would prefer that the courts arrive at a rule-by-law conclusion to what the revered monarch himself has referred to as the country's "mess". The legal process, however, could yet call for a royal intervention. Members of the Senate have indicated in the wake of this week's Constitution Court decision that they will challenge the constitutionality of former PPP party list members moving over to the Peua Thai party and thus the legitimacy of the entire 2007 elections.

The PPP and opposition Democrats each received about 37% of the total votes at last year's polls, with the Democrats receiving about 200,000 less than the PPP out of a total 32 million votes cast among the two dozen or so competing parties. Regional gerrymandering gave the PPP more parliamentary seats, but the Asia Foundation’s James Klein notes in a recent report that 63% of Thai voters did not support the PPP, "Thus, PPP claims that they represent the majority of Thai citizens cannot be labeled as simple sound-bite rhetoric; it is outright smoke-and-mirrors deception."

Thus a Constitution Court or Election Commission ruling in the senators' favor would conceivably open a new political vacuum, which, depending on how interpreted, the Thai charter's vaguely worded Section 7 could allow Bhumibol to intervene and establish an interim ruling body. There were widespread rumors before the Constitution Court's ruling to disband the PPP that judges would order the formation of a Supreme Council to fill the political vacuum. With the Senate's constitutional challenge, the Supreme Council case scenario is still very much in play.

Many Thais were also looking towards Bhumibol's address to set the record straight about any royal connection to the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) anti-government protest movement, which had campaigned on the platform of protecting the monarchy from alleged usurpers in former premier Thaksin's camp, including ranking members of the now disbanded PPP and their aligned red shirt-wearing United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest movement.

The PAD's debilitating week-long closure and occupation of the country's main domestic and international airports tainted the image of the yellow-clad movement in the eyes of many previously supportive Thais and stranded foreigners. It's unclear if the PAD was given a signal to abandon its encampment after the Constitution Court decision. But some commentators, including the well-read Bangkok Pundit blog, note a decline in the number of Thais who wear yellow on Mondays, previously in a show of support for King Bhumibol, after the PAD, which had co-opted the color for its rallies, became more violent in its actions and retaliations.

Speculation about royal support for the movement came to a head in October when Queen Sirikit presided over the funeral of a PAD supporter who was killed in a police crackdown on the movement on October 7. Some of Thaksins' supporters in the PPP-led government and others interpreted her attendance as an indication of royal support for the protest movement, though Queen Sirikit has not publicly taken sides in the conflict. By law the Thai monarchy is above politics.

Yet nor is it clear to many observers and some diplomats that the monarchy has a unanimous view of the conflict: Princess Chakri Sirindhorn was quoted in an Associated Press story reported from the US in October saying that the PAD acted on its own behalf. The royally appointed Privy Council, which some of Thaksin’s supporters are keen to rein in through constitutional amendments, is also known to consist of members who pursue agendas independent of the crown.

There is also the increasingly ambitious military, whose leaders deployed royal symbolism when staging the 2006 coup and justified it by claiming the putsch was meant to protect the monarchy from Thaksin's alleged threat. At the time, certain of Thaksin supporters claimed to have seen footage of a woken-from-sleep Bhumibol on the night of the September 19 putsch sternly asking the coup-makers "why there had to be a coup?" They have taken more critical aim at Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda for allegedly orchestrating the coup - charges the senior statesman has denied.

With Bhumibol's advanced age and declining health, and with one palace insider saying his private principal secretary, Asa Sarasin, handles most of the monarch's day-to-day affairs, diplomats and others speculate that the military now marches mainly to the beat of the royal advisory Privy Council. Both institutions would likely see their powers legally diminished in a post-Bhumibol era were a pro-Thaksin administration allowed to rule and amend laws without the resistance of a PAD-like protest movement.

What's clearer is that the country is now in the throes of an intense power struggle between two elite camps which has little to do with democracy or class struggle, as popularly presented. Both business-minded groups, one led by Thaksin and backed by his northern and northeastern popular power base, and the other by a more traditional elite led by the opposition Democrats and buoyed by the party's southern, Bangkok and outlying central regions popular support, have less-than-sterling democratic credentials.

The mainstream Western media's presentation of Thaksin as a democratic symbol overlooks his authoritarian and rights-abusing tendencies during his six years in office, including his aversion to parliamentary debate and penchant for rule by decree. His government systematically undermined the free press and lent overt support to rights abuses in state-sponsored campaigns against drugs, dark influences and a Muslim insurgency.

Thaksin's well-marketed populist hand-outs to the rural poor, which amounted on average to less than 80 billion baht per year (US$2.242 billion at today's rate), were a pittance to the over 1 trillion baht in bad debts his government opaquely took over, reprocessed and handed back at a sharp discount to the original business owners who misspent the loans. Nor did his government, as popularly presented, invent rural handouts: his village development funds were a recycled - and better marketed through his use of monopolized state media - grassroots program first launched by the Democrats in the 1970s.

That same pro-Thaksin business clan now hopes to wrest control of the various licenses, concessions, enterprises and land holdings which the traditional elite, who through varying degrees of association with the monarchy, have derived their power and privilege. Those traditional interests, many affiliated with the Democrat Party and politically excluded from Thaksin's generous bailouts and state-directed credit schemes, are known to be among the biggest of the PAD's behind-the-scenes backers.

Their fears of a changing post-Bhumibol order are reflected in the rapid clearing and development of various royal-related lands in Bangkok; their hopes for maintaining the status quo are seen in the state enterprise workers, threatened by Thaksin's privatization plans, who have supported both incarnations of the PAD.

It's not clear, in the name of democracy or even class struggle, that one side to Thailand's debilitating elite conflict, with each side mobilizing their masses on regional lines, has more right to dole out these resources than the other.

Thaksin became a billionaire from state-tendered telecommunications concessions, one of which he is on record profusely thanking a military general involved in the 1991 military coup that overthrew democracy. (An estimated US$2.2 billion of Thaksin’s personal wealth is now frozen in Thai banks and could be seized on corruption charges.) Earlier this year, Forbes magazine ranked Bhumibol as the world's richest monarch with a net worth of US$35 billion derived in part from over 3,000 acres of prime property in Bangkok.

To lay the blame for Thailand's dysfunctional democracy and collapsing social order at Bhumibol's feet, as some international media have done in recent days, seems critically misplaced in light of the various stakeholders who are more clearly contributing to the country's recent instability. In terms of popular legitimacy, even with the frequent mobilization by political actors of his royal symbolism, nobody has more in a Thai context than Bhumibol. And while many wish the aging monarch would righteously intervene, as he has in previous conflicts, his silence over his birthday spoke volumes to a divided nation.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online’s Southeast Asia Editor. He may be reached at swcrispin@atimes.com.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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