THE ROVING EYE Thai protests turn a darker color
By Pepe Escobar
BANGKOK - A protest leader, backed by a street revolt, demands that a sitting prime minister to step down, and, instead of calling new elections, to hand over power to an unelected "People's Council". The prime minister says she can't do it. Yet she hints she may self-depose and dissolve the current House of Representatives.
This political thriller is actually developing, right now, in real time, in Thailand. The narrative should have a global audience at the edge of their seats; but the feeling is more one of perplexity because the plot is even more muddled than in the US cable TV sagas Homeland or Lost.
On November 11, Thai Democrat Party MP Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, resigned to lead a popular revolt
against the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. This past Sunday night was showdown time. Suthep gave a two-day ultimatum for Yingluck to "return power" to "the people". The ultimatum expires later today. And it's non-negotiable. Yet Yingluck herself admitted, "We don't know how to make it happen. Right now we don't see any way to resolve the problem under the constitution."
Enter the Thai army. The Suthep-Yingluck showdown was brokered by army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The heads of the navy and air force were also there. But then it was their turn to be perplexed as Suthep stuck to his "all or nothing" strategy. As it stands, only the Buddha knows what the army will do next; it has agreed only to meet later this week. Yingluck herself insists on its neutrality and commitment to "peace".
Nobody knows what "peace" means under the current volatility. It could mean the peaceful "Occupy" of Government House grounds in Bangkok this Tuesday, as the prime minister, only one day after a major street battle in the capital, left to the beach resort of Hua Hin, some 200 kilometers south and at present home to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose 86th birthday will be celebrated on Thursday. Or it could mean just a pause in the shadow-play before the battle restarts next week.
Pick your shirt
It's impossible to even begin to understand this Thai thriller without the context of an inexperienced prime minister totally out of her depth on every major dossier while the country is virtually run from a table at the Cafe Fauchon in Dubai by her exiled billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.
How the protesters have been organized and financed, and what array of interests they serve, remains an extremely murky story. Suthep himself - from a family of wealthy landowners in the southern province of Surat Thani - is part of the Thai elite. He's been an MP since 1979.
The fact that so far he has not been arrested - although now there's a Criminal Court warrant on an "insurrection" charge, carrying the death penalty - implies significant backing, especially from forces active in the 2006 military coup against then prime minister Thaksin.
Still, the facts on the ground point to Thaksinism - or what the protesters define as the "Thaksin regime" - only having itself to blame for the whole drama.
Thaksinism - via Pheu Thai, its latest political party incarnation - won the 2011 elections, securing over 48% of the popular vote. It's unclear how many of these were "reward" votes - as in the trademark Thaksinism patronage of using the entire government network to reward an array of clients, plus its variations, from widespread cash vote-buying to more discreet tactics such as rice pledging. Thaksinism may afford money politics because the star of the show, after all, is a billionaire.
In spite of it all, there was some measure of stability in Thailand for the past two years. But then, about a month ago, the plot thickened - via a monstrous miscalculation.
It started with a shady amnesty bill that would in the end have absolved Thaksin from convictions for corruption and abuse of power. The bill was easily approved by the Pheu Thai majority in the lower house but was finally killed in the Senate, when the Yingluck administration finally noticed how unpopular it was even with its own "red shirt" brigades; those actors the "red shirts" deem responsible for the violent repression against their street demonstrations in Bangkok in May 2010 would also be pardoned.
Thaksinism also pushed a constitutional amendment to change the Senate from half-appointed to fully elected. The Constitutional Court duly vetoed it. In Thailand, Constitutional Court judges swear an oath of allegiance to the King. Their key argument against a fully elected Senate is that it would become a replica of the free-for-all money politics of the lower house.
Predictably, the Pheu Thai Party refused to accept the Court's verdict; after all, this was the same court that had already dissolved Thaksinism's previous political parties.
The whole government-instigated drive to bring Thaksin home could not but be the certified issue capable of amassing a lot of angry people in the streets of Bangkok all over again. Suthep then formed and led the "People's Democratic Reform Committee", which evolved from anti-corruption street protests to the recent occupation of government ministries and state agencies.
Over a week ago, hundreds of thousands of people in this sort of Occupy Thailand movement were demonstrating peacefully in Bangkok by blowing their whistles. By then, though, the opposition Democrat Party was sniffing blood - and the precious opportunity to turn an anti-corruption movement into a regime change operation.
So it's back, in a sense, to the same color-coordinated fissure that's been the story of Thai politics since the mid-2000s; "red shirts" versus "yellow shirts", now joined by the protesters "Thai shirts" (emphasizing the red, white and blue of the national flag).
This past weekend, people started to get killed - four is the figure given so far, with more than a hundred people injured. This op-ed in the local English-language press convincingly argued the implied responsibility of the Yingluck administration. (Suthep and then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva already face what they call politically-motivated murder charges over the deaths of pro-Thaksin and other protesters in 2010.)
As it stands, Yingluck's promise to self-depose may be just a ruse by her advisers to buy time. They know that even if that happened, it would be the sign for the "red shirt" protest wave to swell all over again, just as in 2009 to 2010.
A rational way out, supported by an array of Thai scholars, would be for Yingluck to apologize to the nation for the amnesty bill, accept the ruling by the Constitutional Court, and announce an election for mid-2014. Yet Thaksinism knows - as much as Suthep and the forces behind him - that that would translate into yet another Thaksinism victory, just like the previous four elections. Thus Suthep's insistence in his "People's Council".
Lost in all the rumble, of course, remains how to conduct the fight against endemic corruption all across the Thai political spectrum and how to ensure that the Constitutional Court and the anti-corruption commission are really impartial.
Thailand as Ukraine in reverse
Western corporate media coverage of Thailand has been beyond appalling. Pro-EU protesters in Ukraine against their government are depicted as righteous heirs of the Orange Revolution, while in Thailand political protesters are nothing but a "mob". Anyone surveying the images sees how the Thai police have been using the same methods of crowd control as in the Ukraine. Not to mention that Ukrainian hardcore thuggery was replicated in Thailand by the infamous "black shirts".
Then there's the reductionist characterization of the "yellow shirts" as the reactionary royalist middle class in Bangkok. Not really. Contradictions do abound when you are a pro-democracy protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, Occupy-style, while carrying a picture of the King. Yet protesters do include a cross-section of the roughly 40% of the Thai population which has consistently voted against Thaksinism.
While droves of "red shirts" are bused from the countryside into Bangkok - enjoying free food and a fee - the lower middle class is also strong among the protesters, alongside urban young adults who include university students from elite families.
A key question is why the central and southern Thailand lower middle class happens to align with the "yellows shirts" and not the "reds". A possible explanation is that government schemes mostly benefit the north and northwest. Then there's the extra complicating factor that the central and the southern regions depend on migrants from the north - as in the private-sector migrant workforce and the security apparatus.
In Bangkok, there seems to be a rule that as protests remain peaceful, there's more middle class and even part of the elite in the streets. When it turns into street battles with the police, then it's mostly the "expendable" lower middle class that does all the fighting.
The big puzzle of these current protests is that were they happening elsewhere in Southeast Asia, a lot of people would have been arrested. Not in Bangkok - even with police aligned with the Yingluck administration. (Anti-government protesters who had laid siege to the headquarters of Bangkok's Metropolitan Police Bureau were allowed entry to the grounds on Tuesday after police dismantled barbed wire and concrete barriers, the Bangkok Post reported. Demonstrators were able to enter peacefully the grounds of Government House.)
This points once again to Thaksinism's fear of bloodshed really bringing the government down.
So whole socio-economic treatises could be written about protest dynamics in Thailand. Don't expect even a hint of nuance on Western corporate media. The definitive case of myopia, so far, revolves around what happened this past weekend on the other side of Bangkok, away from the protests.
Thaksinism was holding its own "red shirt" 24/7 counter-rally in a stadium near Ramkhamhaeng University. Thousands of university students began protesting against the counter-rally. The clash was inevitable - and featured shady "black shirts" duly captured on photo and video shooting students.
The fatalities this past weekend were in the university, not in the protests. University students as well as the university rector confirmed how a girl was attacked, then a boy was shot dead while the police did nothing, even though several students were under sniper fire by a "black shirt" captured on camera. It was up to the army to move in to protect the university.
Talk to the billionaire
No question; even "invisible", self-exiled Thaksin is the undisputed star of this thriller. For the rural poor masses in the north and northeast (the majority of the country's population, and his voting base), Thaksin is nothing but a billionaire Buddha.
Outside Bangkok, Thailand remains essentially feudalistic. Thaksin was always wily enough to position himself as the ultimate populist savior. No wonder the traditional political establishment in Bangkok felt threatened by a northern family who made its fortune in silk dispensing massive patronage and building an alternative state-within-a state.
Even forced into exile after the 2006 military coup - but virtually back in the saddle after Yingluck became prime minister in 2011 - Thaksin can always count on the finest PR money can buy. And all those crucial friends in Washington.
As prime minister, in 2003, he offered Thai troops to the occupation of Iraq (the Thai Army, by the way, was totally against it). He also offered Thailand as a base for the CIA's extraordinary renditions. As for the widespread perception that Yingluck is Thaksin's puppet, that was in fact configured by the man himself when he described his sister, on the record, as his "clone".
So all these elements are not going away: personality politics seducing a loyal clientele; Thaksin as a quasi-feudal family patriarch; the "red shirt" popular base fascinated by Thaksin's charisma; the autocratic, family-run operation trying to bypass the courts and deploying "red shirts" to do the dirty work.
Yet there are no good guys/bad guys in this script. Everyone - including the opposition and the military - is tainted.
Then there's the calendar. The celebrations of King Bhumibol's birthday on Thursday will go on until Sunday; traditionally in Thailand dirty political squabbles are off-limits during this period. On Tuesday, there were indications of a suspension of the theater performance, probably to be reopened next week.
The current mess is extremely bad for business; no wonder the Thai Chamber of Commerce has desperately offered whatever mediation necessary. It's bad for the tourism industry (over 7% of GDP); Hong Kong travel agencies are already canceling package tours. The stalemate does nothing to improve Thailand's exports (60% of the economy), already down due to recession in the West and China's slightly slower growth.
Dwindling exports are compressing the Yingluck administration's budget - already in trouble because of a failing rice subsidy, a credit bubble, and the need of massive investments in infrastructure. Just two months ago, the government put forward a 2 trillion baht (US$64 billion) infrastructure development bill to parliament covering high-speed rail, port and other projects, but even upgrades can highlight all-too-evident problems, as in the derailment of a train on Monday with the country's railways chief on board.
On the other hand, some very interesting developments may lie ahead in the whole US "pivoting to Asia" drama. With Thailand polarized and the government in Bangkok paralyzed, Washington is paying more attention to the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam, not to mention the spectacular strategic opening of Myanmar, just as the Yingluck administration was turbo-charging its ties with China. Thaksin, by the way, is a Hakka ethnic Chinese.
Beijing is characteristically silent about all the mess in Bangkok. Yet there's no question Beijing will keep betting on Bangkok as a key node in the larger Southern Silk Road. After all, the Chinese want to build a high-speed rail line north from Bangkok to Nong Khai, and there's plenty of extra investment as well.
So Beijing bets on continuity and stability - as most of Southeast Asia carefully positions itself to reap tangible benefits from either the US or China, and preferably both. Yet much to the chagrin of those who love Thailand, all the main actors in the current incendiary thriller seem to care is to blindly plunge the country into further paralysis and irrelevance.