ASIA HAND No deal behind Thailand's polls
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - In the run-up to Thailand's mid-2011 elections, speculation was rife that the military would stage a coup if self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's allied Peua Thai party won the vote. A behind-the-scenes deal brokered between Thaksin, the royal palace and military top brass, however, kept troops in their barracks when Thaksin's younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, swept to power in a landslide victory.
The pre-election accommodation set the stage for a two-and-half-year period of relative political calm, underpinned by Yingluck's obeisance to royal authority, non-intervention in military affairs and separation from the radical, anti-royal elements of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group that Thaksin mobilized and financed to topple the Democrat Party-led
government in 2010 after a court seized over US$1 billion of his personal assets.
That deal finally came undone last November after Peua Thai parliamentarians passed a blanket amnesty that critics claimed aimed to whitewash Thaksin's criminal corruption conviction and other pending complaints and cases against his family members and political allies. While the royal establishment was willing to work alongside the conciliatory Yingluck, Thaksin's rehabilitation and return from exile is still deemed as non-negotiable at the highest royalist levels.
Fronted by former Democrat party member Suthep Thaugsuban and tacitly backed by a royal establishment with power centers in the bureaucracy, courts, military and monarchy, the People's Democratic Reform Council (PDRC) protest group has mobilized at times massive numbers in a national capital-paralyzing bid to force Yingluck's resignation and purge Thaksin's family's influence. The PDRC maintains systemic democratic reforms, including stronger anti-corruption measures and an overhaul of the police force, must be implemented by an appointed ruling "people's council" before new elections are held.
Thaksin and Yingluck are vying instead for an immediate electoral solution to the mounting crisis, a democratic prescription widely endorsed by Western governments and foreign media but discouraged by the national Election Commission tasked with overseeing the polls. Earlier this week, Yingluck refused a request from the commission to postpone the polls based on ongoing political instability. With no compact in place between Thaksin and an opposed royal establishment, unlike in 2011, this weekend's polls will almost inevitably be marred by violence and finally ruled null and void by establishment-aligned agencies and courts.
In line with the PDRC's stance, the opposition Democrats are boycotting the polls. PDRC blockades of candidate registration stations in 28 southern constituencies means that 95% of parliament will not as legally required be seated 30 days after polling day. It is also doubtful that Peua Thai or other parties will garner at least 20% of all registered voters in several southern constituencies, as is required by law to win a seat. More disruptions and violence are anticipated on polling day, particularly in the national capital and southern provinces where the Democrats hold electoral sway.
Inconclusive polls will provide further legal ammunition for the PDRC's and Democrat Party's drive to impeach Yingluck and topple her beleaguered caretaker government. Other cases, including a fast-tracked impeachment motion against Yingluck for her alleged role in overseeing a mismanaged and widely criticized rice price-support scheme and pending charges against over 250 Peua Thai politicians for trying to amend the constitution, threaten to create a political vacuum before the Election Commission, as widely expected, officially nullifies the poll result. Yingluck could be indicted in the rice-price case as early as mid-February.
While Thaksin's and Yingluck's election plan has won considerable international support, the sibling pair are running out of survival options vis-a-vis an opposed royal establishment as dual protest and legal pressures mount against their family rule. PDRC disruption of the vote will cast its political reform agenda in a dim international light while adding shine to Thaksin's and Yingluck's defense of democracy claims. But as voters head to the February 2 polls, Thailand is more likely headed towards a period of appointed rather than elected governance, a political shift that royalist institutions will justify with rule-by-law arguments and will be backed but not overtly orchestrated by military force.
Failed talks, royal traps
While recent media coverage has focused largely on the PDRC's street actions and the caretaker government's and its supporters' responses, the push and pull is a reflection of ongoing and unresolved behind-the-scenes negotiations between Thaksin and senior royalists comprised mainly of retired senior soldiers, according to diplomats, mediators and a well-placed military insider familiar in varying degrees with the situation. Those negotiations through intermediaries have to date failed to reach a new stabilizing accommodation.
General Prawit Wongsuwan, a former army commander, defense minister and elite Queen's Guard, is the most visible of what some diplomats refer to as an amorphous "council of elders" now negotiating with Thaksin through varied channels and intermediaries. Other military "elders" reportedly include 2006 coup maker Lieutenant-General Winai Phattiyakul, former National Security chief and known Thaksin nemesis Squadron Leader Prasong Soonsiri, and retired General Saiyud Kerdphol, a former Supreme Commander and father of current army chief of staff Gen Aksra Kerdphol.
PDRC calls for Yingluck's resignation, a purge of Thaksin's and his family's political and business influence, and appointment of a "people's council" are all consistent with the royal establishment's hard-line negotiation stand, according to the same sources. Since Yingluck's protest-motivated dissolution of parliament on December 9, top royalists have bid to leverage the two-sided squeeze of anti-Shinawatra street protests and legal impeachment pressure to force Yingluck's resignation and Thaksin's acquiescence to the formation of an appointed ruling council.
Establishment negotiators have offered in exchange to suspend scrutiny of Thaksin's and his family's assets for one year, a delay that would allow Thaksin's and his former wife Pojaman's Damapong family members to liquidate their assets before fleeing into exile, informed sources claim. An establishment overture conveyed by intermediary former deputy prime minister Suwat Liptapanlop offered Thaksin discretion over a minority of the proposed council's appointments. That offer was rescinded in the wake of the January 17 grenade attack on a PDRC march, according to a mediator familiar with the situation.
Unlike the deal before the 2011 elections, the now military-led establishment is offering Thaksin only lose-lose propositions. A military-appointed Asset Scrutiny Committee formed in the wake of the 2006 coup paved the way for the court-ordered seizure of $1.2 billion of Thaksin's personal assets in 2010. If and when Yingluck's caretaker government falls, a "people's council" administration could aim to nationalize various Shinawatra family-controlled businesses, including the Yingluck-linked SC Asset property company, in the name of anti-corruption reform.
One Bangkok-based diplomat raised concerns that companies the Shinawatras have already divested, including mobile phone leader AIS, could also be at risk of state seizure under an ultra-royalist "people's council". The head of research at a prominent investment bank in Bangkok has raised questions about whether the partial privatization of national and oil and gas giant PTT that Thaksin fast-tracked and his business allies allegedly cornered in 2001 could be reversed by an appointed government bent on purging Thaksin's legacy.
A hard and highly visible purge of Shinawatra family interests would serve the establishment's parallel purpose of pushing Peua Thai party members fearing similar asset treatment to abandon Thaksin and join other political parties led by erstwhile machine politicians Banharn Silpa-archa, Suwat Liptapanlop and Newin Chidchob. A "people's council" government would likely aim to reorder national politics in ways that guard against the one-party dominance Thaksin achieved and restore the old order of wobbly, squabbly ruling coalitions guided and manipulated from behind-the-scenes by royalist forces.
The royal establishment's broader unspoken agenda is to ensure that a Thaksin-steered government and legislature is not in power at the time of the royal succession. Many royalists believe Thaksin could aim to complicate the transition through control over the National Assembly, which under Thai law plays a role in the succession process, including prominently in any scenario where a princess rather than prince is put forward for the crown by the royal advisory Privy Council.
Analysts had earlier speculated that the royalist military may move to suspend democracy and usurp power upon the 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulayadej's passing to ensure a smooth and desirable royal transition. Now, the PDRC is providing the pre-emptive means to assume power by proxy and purge Thaksin's perceived threat ahead of that delicate day, nominally in the name of democratic reform and without an overt military intervention in politics. A purge of Thaksin's influence would also serve to alleviate certain royalist concerns about the potential for the former premier to receive a royal pardon after the succession.
Since Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit moved from a Bangkok hospital to a southern seaside palace in August, heir-apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has asserted his royal authority, including in calls for stability ahead of planned PDRC protests and through the formation and recruitment of his own dedicated royal guard.
While previous anti-Thaksin protests led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) rallied around defense-of-the-monarchy themes, the PDRC has shied from such overt "yellow" symbolism and instead garbed its "Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand" movement in the red, white and blue colors of the Thai flag. Still, Princess Chulabhorn, Bhumibol's youngest daughter, recently posed in a social media posting wearing a Thai flag hair-ribbon and with a message apparently directed towards recent government threats to protestors saying she, too, could be considered a "traitor" for donning the national colors. Others note that the PDRC's main Pathum Wan protest stage is symbolically positioned in front of the personal palace of Princess Sirindhorn, Vajiralongkorn's immediately younger sister.
Still, there is no sign yet Thaksin intends to fold without a fight. Some analysts believe that Thaksin may have been lured into an establishment-set trap, whereby the former premier was led to believe the military and palace would, in reward for his sister's conciliatory gestures towards royalist institutions, not resist the passage of a blanket amnesty that absolved him of his corruption conviction. The richly financed mass popular response put the lie to that pretense and arguably closed any future legal channels for Thaksin to return barring a palace pardon.
Another theory on Thaksin's apparent miscalculation speculates that last June's transfer of Deputy Prime Minister for Security Chalerm Yoobamrung to the less influential Labor Ministry cut crucial intelligence channels, while less-seasoned advisers, including in Yingluck's prime minister's office, recommended that Thaksin move with the amnesty amid perceived weakness-from-illness in the palace and disarray among the royalist top brass in the absence of high-level royal guidance.
In a reversal, the tough-talking Chalerm was appointed to lead Yingluck's new center for enforcing an emergency decree imposed on January 21 amid recent protest-related violence. While Yingluck's previous Center for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO) vowed not to use force to suppress the sprawling protest, a strategy aimed at avoiding government responsibility for protestor deaths, Chalerm has announced plans to arrest PDRC leaders and recapture protestor-occupied government offices and public spaces.
As his strategic options narrow, Thaksin has largely withdrawn from public view and closed channels of communication he once used to engage with outside mediators, according to sources familiar with the situation. Some analysts now wonder whether that withdrawal signals a will to ramp up violence, both to scare away middle-class supporters from PDRC rally sites and portend an armed response if Yingluck is eventually knocked from power through either judicial or extra-legal means.
Shadowy figures have launched a series of grenade and gunfire assaults against PDRC rally sites, street actions, and leaders' private residences, resulting in ten protestor deaths and hundreds of injuries. Both sides of the current conflict have blamed the anonymous attacks on one another, though many independent analysts and foreign diplomats monitoring and evaluating the attacks believe most were likely launched by government supporters.
One military insider claims that January 17 and 19 grenade attacks on the PDRC were perpetrated by mafia elements involved in illegal video-game gambling and with links to police in Pathum Thani province north of Bangkok. The source believes rogue police may have hired proxies to exact revenge for PDRC assaults on its personnel and property, while avoiding direct confrontations with military members, including soldiers in plainclothes serving as PDRC guards at certain protest sites. Thaksin is known to have strong support across the police force.
Police officials have suggested that the PDRC, or allied military-linked culprits, have staged the attacks to frame the government and regain momentum amid signs of flagging popular support for their protests. Police arrests of active Navy Seals near one protest site, and the capture of an apparent military-linked suspect transporting war weapons from the army base central town of Lopburi to an unknown recipient, feed that narrative. Whatever the case, both sides have hidden incentive to escalate the shadowy violence.
Even with escalating armed attacks and a rising death toll, it is still unlikely that army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha will stage a controversial and unpopular coup with various judicial levers at the royal establishment's disposal. Throughout the PDRC's nearly three-month-old protest, Prayuth has maintained the military's neutrality, a bid to position the top brass as mediators rather than participants in the crisis.
While Prayuth has publicly declined PDRC calls to protect its protest sites from unknown assailants, few analysts foresee a scenario where Prayuth deploys troops to suppress protesters - as he did to lethal effect in tandem with then deputy prime minister Suthep in 2010 against the pro-Thaksin UDD. With Bangkok and surrounding areas now under emergency rule, troops positioned on the perimeters of PDRC protest sites are more clearly geared to guard against assailant attacks than to dismantle the PDRC's makeshift barricades.
Security analysts are now weighing Thaksin's potential ability to mount an insurgent response through the mobilization and transformation of the UDD into a fighting force if and when Yingluck is bumped from power. Civil war scenarios splitting the country between the pro-Thaksin north and northeast and the pro-Democrat south and national capital floated by certain Thai academics and perpetuated by the foreign media, however, seem overwrought in light of recent half-hearted UDD mobilizations.
UDD pro-election rallies organized in Thaksin's and Yingluck's geographical strongholds failed to galvanize large numbers, a languor some analysts attribute to disenchantment with Thaksin's bid for amnesty that would have absolved top soldiers and Democrat Party leaders involved in the killing of scores of UDD protesters in 2010. Many of the UDD offshoots Thaksin nourished during the fight against the Democrats were allowed to wither after Yingluck's election win and as part of their terms of engagement with the royal establishment.
Security experts argue that if Thaksin had the capacity or will to launch a UDD-led rural insurgency aimed at partitioning the country, he would have done so in the highly charged aftermath of the 2010 military crackdown. The only apparent response then was an anonymous low-grade bombing campaign in Bangkok that mysteriously stopped soon after the two sides entered talks about holding new polls. Now, the terms of that deal have broken down and signs of a new power-sharing accommodation are nowhere in sight ahead of Sunday's doomed polls and a rising tide of violence.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.
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