With an ailing king, a military junta in power and an attack apparently aimed at the key tourism industry, Thais have reason to fear instability, reports Chris Pritchard
Expect turbulence and turmoil in Thailand. That’s the stark warning from analysts keeping a close eye on the nation.
Typical of this nervousness is a recent assessment from United States geopolitical assessment company, Stratfor: ‘For more than a decade, centuries-old regional rivalries and political fractures have routinely paralysed Thailand at a time of rising economic competition and immense regional change. Through it all, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been at the centre of the unrest. A telecommunications tycoon, Thaksin’s rapid rise to power and excessive corruption destabilised an elite-dominated system of checks and balances under which the country generally flourished. But since Thailand’s military assumed power in a May 2014 coup, politics in the country have effectively been put on pause…’
The most recent example of renewed instability came on August 12, Queen Sirikit’s 84th birthday, when 11 small bombs exploded in key tourist destinations – including Hua Hin, a favourite of the royal family, and Phuket, further south and the country’s top tourist area. Four people were killed and 33 injured, including 11 foreigners. Though the bombers remain unidentified, the Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, insisted that the explosions were an attempt by domestic political malcontents to ‘cause chaos’, and had nothing to do with international terrorism.
A former army chief, Prayut heads a military junta calling itself the National Council for Peace and Order, which now rules. Junta leaders have spoken of democratic elections next year, but critics of military rule harbour doubts. A national referendum on August 7 approved a redrafted constitution which entrenches military control, but opposition figures pointed out that only about 55 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote, well short of the target of 80 per cent.
There are fears that Thailand’s important tourism industry, accounting for about 10 per cent of GDP, would be badly hit by instability and negative publicity. Key activities, including aviation and the retail sector, also depend on a strong tourism industry, and there is evidence that investment has been dented by recent events. It was suggested that the bombings could be aimed at damaging tourist inflow, and therefore the economy, but the military leadership, while conceding that the country’s image had suffered, denied that tourism was badly hit. Tourism officials from around the country echoed the prime ministerial assertion that cancellations were few, and the governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Yuthasak Supasorn, insisted: ‘Thailand is a safe place to visit. Increased security and a stepped-up police presence nationwide offer reassurance that events and festivals in Phuket or elsewhere in the country will be trouble-free, and that people attending them are safe.’
As under previous periods of military rule, day-to-day life in Thailand continues with apparent normality. Soldiers are not highly visible on the streets, and there are few overt signs of how the country is run. But
The world’s longest-serving monarch, the ninth member of the Chakri Dynasty to rule is considered a ‘god king’ in this avowedly Buddhist country, and revered across the political spectrum. But the king is 88 and ailing, and has appeared in public only once this year.
Though Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, only son of the king and queen, is heir, he is held in far less esteem than his father. But the question of the succession is scarcely discussed, because Thailand has the world’s most stringent lèse–majesté law. The military has proved tougher than its predecessors in prosecuting those deemed to have insulted the monarchy, some of whom have ended up with long prison sentences.
Thailand is no stranger to military rule. The current government springs from the 21st attempt by the generals to take power since democratic rule replaced absolute monarchy in 1932. Twelve of these attempts, including the most recent, were successful. In between, various political parties have won power through the ballot box. Prime Minister Prayut professed reluctance to assume power in the weeks before the military takeover, but, like many coup leaders, he seems to have developed a fondness for decision-making since then, and has done nothing to indicate any haste to return to civilian government.
Most agree that if a free and fair election were held tomorrow, the populist Pheu Thai Party would win easily. It is the grouping associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who held office from 2001 to 2006. A billionaire with varied interests, his loyal power base is the mainly rural and poor northeast of Thailand. He shunned the Bangkok-based elite, who led accusations against him of corruption and cronyism, and was removed from office in another coup.
Thaksin, facing a prison term if he returns to Thailand, now lives in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates, but he and his family remain powerful. His younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, a successful businesswoman who strongly denies she was a mere proxy for her older brother, became Prime Minister from 2011 to 2014, and their supporters believe both still have a political future.
Mass street protests were organised six years ago by Thaksin’s supporters, known colloquially as the ‘red shirts’ from the colour of their T-shirts, and more formally as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, though the former Prime Minister denies any control over the movement. The ‘red shirts’ are mainly rural workers from outside Bangkok, but their numbers are swelled by urban supporters who include students, left-wing activists and those business people who decry attempts by the elite to control politics and subvert democracy.
Ranged against the ‘red shirts’ are the ‘yellow shirts’, who also sponsored mass protests. A coming-together of royalists, ultra-nationalists and the urban middle class with anti-Thaksin fervour in common, the ‘yellow shirts’ are more properly known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy. Thaksin’s supporters call them the ‘Bangkok elite’, and say they fail to realise the country would come to a standstill without an influx of labour, mostly from the northeast. Some ‘red shirts’ claim the ‘yellow shirts’ have the quiet support of the monarchy. Though both groups continue to exist, they are not currently active.
Soon after the August 12 bombings, several ‘red shirt’ leaders and Pheu Thai Party supporters were detained in the south. But no evidence has emerged that investigators have discovered who planted the bombs, or co-ordinated the attacks. Both Thaksin and Yingluck, Thailand’s two highest-profile politicians, denied advance knowledge or involvement. From Dubai, Thaksin threatened to sue those who claim otherwise.
‘People are sending messages through social media accusing Thaksin Shinawatra,’ said Noppadon Pattama, a Pheu Thai leader. ‘This is slander and defamation. All former prime ministers love and worry for their country. None of them would condone such evil acts.’ Yingluck expressed sympathy for those affected, saying: ‘These incidents cause loss, destroying the country’s confidence and economy.’
Some local politicians believe that despite the explosions, military rule will once again prove a mere interlude, as it has done before, and that Thailand’s economic growth and improving living standards will be little affected. But others fear that the political stalemate identified by Stratfor will continue. Instability, worsened by the king’s poor health and a growing Muslim separatist insurgency in the south, could harm the economy and allow rivals such as Vietnam to capture more markets at Thailand’s expense. Whatever the future holds, however, the Shinawatra siblings seem destined to play prominent roles.
Sydney-based Chris Pritchard has travelled widely in the Asia-Pacific area – including Fiji and its neighbours. He has visited many countries in Africa and South America but these days concentrates mainly on Asia where he follows political developments closely and is a frequent visitor. He is a former Wall Street Journal and BBC correspondent.