The Elephant in the Parliament

What is the Thai government to do when letting democracy take its course could lead to civil war?

A ‘red shirt’ protester atop an elephant during Bangkok’s siege. VIVEK PRAKASH/REUTERS
01 July, 2010

ELEPHANTS ARE EVERYWHERE in Thailand, symbolic at every strata of a Thai society that, following two months of violent protests that left 80 dead and 1,800 injured, has once again shown just how stratified the Southeast Asian country really is.

Whether you’re one of Bangkok’s purported ‘elites,’ ‘a yellow shirt’ loyal to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a ‘red shirt’ backing prime minister-in-exile Thaksin Shinawatra, or just someone who used to live in Thailand trying to link the red shirts’ demands for the government to hold fresh, fair elections and how those in power always manage to delay them: there is another elephant at large in Siam, the biggest one in the room—democracy itself. And this pachyderm is waiting to kick the Land of Smiles’ teeth out.

Since the 1932 revolution deposed then King Prajadhipok, a rarely broken chain of oligarchies and four coups d’état—the first of which ousted Thailand’s lead-off prime minister only a year after the monarchy went constitutional—have kept parliamentary circuits closed.

Since the monarchy was forced to take a step back, no less than 17 constitutions have been drafted, all of which have altered who appoints the seats of the National Assembly. The privilege changed hands from constitution to constitution, coup to coup, where cabinet members would either be royally appointed or voted in by other parliamentarians. The only constant player: the king. The only ones never consulted: the people of Thailand, now standing at 63 million.

It did almost happen once, in the autumn of 2006, when to adhere to the ‘People’s Constitution,’ drafted in 1997, Thais would be allowed to cast their votes to assemble the first ‘people’s’ Parliament. But one month before it should have come to pass, the Royal Thai Military stormed Government House, ousting the notoriously corrupt Thaksin Shinawatra, the only prime minister in Thailand’s history to have served a full term. The army replaced  all international and national media for the following hours with placatory messages from the king—officially head of the army—and Thailand, a country about double the size of Uttar Pradesh, was under martial law. The king-approved coup assured the drawing back of parliamentary control from the Thai people into tighter, more familiar circles. His. And nothing’s changed since.

Only after the monarchy is truly removed from Thai politics—like those of Sweden, The Netherlands, Japan, etc—and perhaps, even with a system similar to caste reservation in India to guarantee seats to marginalised communities, someone who didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge could participate in the National Assembly, giving agrarian Thais—the majority of the population and the ones most swindled by Thaksin Shinawatra’s ruse—a real representative, and all voters, rural and urban, a real choice.

It’s easy to make Thaksin out to be the bad guy. He was obviously playing to the dreams of the farming majority when he vaulted into power on their backs in 2001, but he was the closest thing to a voice in Bangkok they’d ever had. In the north and the northeast, where Thaksin’s agricultural programmes have assured his own king-like reverence, many families display pictures of the Chiang Mai native in their homes in a way most visitors to Thailand see King Bhumibol over shop counters and residential mantelpieces.

Now that Thaksin is a wanted man, and most leaders suspected of being linked to the fugitive have been incarcerated or banned from politics, fingers of the ruling government are pointed at him for fomenting and even funding the riots that left central Bangkok paralysed for two months. Bad-mouthing Thaksin is now a national pastime; bad-mouthing the King can still land you in jail. During the two years I lived in Thailand, the feudalistic fear-fueller of lèse majesté was enforced at least twice.

Now that Bangkok’s not burning anymore, headlines have scaled down from using words like ‘siege,’ ‘lockdown,’ ‘curfew’ and ‘war-zone’ to backlashy jargon involving ‘investigations’ and ‘probes’ by ‘task forces’ into the deaths of those too close to the flaming tyres and rebel encampments that shut down Ratchaprasong, the area of Bangkok that is home to some of the most sought-after real estate in Asia—much of it owned by the Royal family; King Bhumibol, by many counts, is the richest monarch in the world, with a personal fortune somewhere around 30 billion dollars.

Following all the reports by mainstream networks who had paratrooped into the chaos of Ratchaprasong wrapped in their flak-jackets, there appeared a short, understated article published by the Chinese wire agency, Xinhua, on 6 June, that to me, drove this indignant elephant of democracy that much further out of the bush. The headline: “King of Thailand endorses 8 new-appointed cabinet ministers: PM.”

The royal endorsement of these eight new ministers—more in line with current party policies than the dissenting loudmouths who had to go—marked the first public utterance since the uprising by the long ailing, US-born King Bhumibol, and he didn’t say a thing about events that have the characteristically mild-mannered Thais talking shit. The frail octogenarian simply told the lads to do their boy scout best. The eight were appointed by the British-born prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, now legally free and clear of using unnecessary force while clearing the red shirts from one of Bangkok’s major throughways with a swift military trouncing. The no-confidence vote was passed by a parliamentary majority of his coalition party members.

Despite Thaksin’s Napoleonic megalomania, you don’t need to have the memory of an elephant to remember that his rule was the only time in Thailand’s history that the rural majority had anything even close to a say in how their government was run. And international watchdog Freedom House actually classifies the years leading up to and during Thaksin’s rule as the most “free” in Thai history. 2006, the year he was turfed, was evaluated as “Partly Free.” 2007? “Not Free.”

Abhisit says this year’s planned elections “would be difficult,” and he’s right. What kind of civil war could break out if a Thaksin-backed candidate democratically earned his desk at Government House? Would the elites go lightly, or would the best-case scenario be another coup with the royal seal, another interim junta and another puppet prime minister?

Letting democracy take its course is not in the interests of those in power, and Thai history shows it hasn’t ever been. Despite the sway King Bhumibol holds over so many of his subjects, he has to go—his death may be the next step to a real democracy in Thailand. Not the most pleasant thought for anyone who’s heard so many Thais speak reverently about “my King,” and the alternative of a re-elected Thaksin or some nepotistic tyrant like him doesn’t look much prettier. The elephant in the room waits.