Monday, April 13, 2009



The unrelenting political confrontation between the supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, former Thai Prime Minister, now living in exile abroad and those opposed to him, which started in 2005 and led to a brief period of military rule in 2006-07, has taken a nastry turn. His supporters, who have been agitating in the streets of Bangkok since December,2008, for the resignation of Abhisit Vejjajiva , the PrimeMinister and fresh elections, managed to force the cancellation of an ASEAN summit with leaders from India, China and Japan at Pattaya on April 11,2009, despite the strong security measures taken by the Government. The cancellation of the summit has been widely interpreted as a major blow to the prestige of the Prime Minister, who had staked his personal reputation on the Government's ability to hold the summit as scheduled.

2. The expectations of the supporters of Thaksin that the Prime Minister would resign following this humiliation have been belied. On the contrary, the Prime Minister, who enjoys the support of Bangkok's political and business elite, which looks upon Thaksin as a rural upstart, has imposed a state of emergency, called out the army and directed the security forces to disperse the supporters of Thaksin,who have been gheroing (surrounding) the offices of the Prime Minister and some other Ministries since January. A few days ago, they even allegedly surrounded the houses of some Privy Councillors, who are advisers to His Majesty the King, who is highly respected by the people.This unprecedented act of defiance by the supporters of Thaksin came in for strong criticism, but despite this the protesters have shown no signs of relenting in their agitation against the Prime Minister.

3.The Army's attempts to disperse the protesters and arrest their leaders have been resisted by the supporters of Thaksin, leading to at least two reported instances of controlled firing by the Army on the protesters after midnight on April 12. Seventy of the protesters are reported to have been injured. There are no reports of any fatalities.In a message from his exile to his supporters, Thaksin is reported to have warned of a revolution, if the Government uses force against his supporters.

4. The political confrontation, which was triggered off by allegations of arbitrary and corrupt governance by Thaksin and his erratic style of functioning when he was the Prime Minister twice before the military coup of September,2006, has been made worse by the divide between Bangkok and rural Thailand. The Bangkok elite,which has always exercised like the Parisian elite of France, a disproportionately large influence over the country's political landscape despite its numerical minority, had difficulty in accepting a leader, who owed his political rise and survival to the support of the rural poor and not to the elite of the capital. Thaksin is Thailand's Laloo Prasad Yadav, a regional and rural leader, who has consistently ridiculed and challenged the urban elite's pretension to superior wisdom and right to govern the country.

5.Thaksin, an ex-policeman of Chinese origin, who himself came from Chiangmai in the rural north, gravitated to politics from the world ofbusiness, where he had made a name as Thailand's telecom tycoon after leaving the police. He tried to introduce into the corridors of the Government the lessons on efficiency and success which he had learnt in the corporate world. Even his worst critics admit that his contribution to improving governmental efficiency and the resulting economic prosperity was considerable. For a tycoon from the corporate world, he showed more sensitivity to the welfare and problems of the rural and urban poor than any professional politician had done in the past.

6. What undid him despite this was the widespread perception in Bangkok of nepotism and corruption and his seeming disregard for the rules of the democratic game. The overwhelming support of the rural poor for him and his ability to win elections with their support made him disregard the views and criticism of the urban elite, which united against him in 2005 to start a long period of street agitation in the name of good and democratic governance free of the evils associated with his tenure.

7. They projected his continuance in politics as incompatible with good and democratic governance and boycotted the parliamentary elections of April, 2006, which robbed the elections of any constitutional validity despite his securing a majority for his Thai Ruk Thai party. He made a temporary exit from the post of Prime Minister in order to satiate the opposition and make it amenable to participation in a fresh election, scheduled for November, 2006.

8. When the opposition agitation seemed to have started losing steam as a result of his temporary exit, he resumed charge again as the caretaker Prime Minister, thereby provoking them again into a state of confrontation. It was the intervention of the King, who is venerated by the entire country, which managed to restore a semblance of balance to political life in the country. But this did not change his ways of functioning. The on-again, off-again political confrontation between him and the opposition and his chronic inability to change his style of functioning endangered political stability in Thailand, creating fears of its likely negative impact on its prosperous economy.

9. In the face of this confrontation between the Bangkok elite and the rural "aam admi" (common people), who solidly stood behind Thaksin,who has done more for the rural poor than any other Bangkok-centric political leader, the Army intervened in September,2006, and took over power after dismissing Thaksin, when he was away to New York to attend a UN session. He went into exile in London, where his daughter lives.

10. The army, which held power for a little more than a year, had the Constitution amended to make it difficult for Thaksin's party to return to power. It was got declared illegal due to corrupt practices.When fresh elections were held, the supporters of Thaksin, under a new name, managed to come back to power. Thaksin returned from exile and continued to guide his party without holding any position in the party or the Government.

11. His opponents struck back with a street agitation during which they occupied the Bangkok airport for 10 days last September. The Supreme Court intervened and the new party of Thaksin and many of its leaders were held guilty of corrupt practices. Thaksin managed to go into exile once again evading a warrant for his arrest on a charge of corruption and misuse of office. The Government of his supporters was replaced by a Government of his opponents headed by Abishit, aBritish-born Thai, who is the present Prime Minister.

12. The four-year-long confrontation between the Bangkok/urban opponents of Thaksin (known as the yellow shirts from the colour of the T-shirts they wear) and his rural supporters (known as the red shirts) is having a severe impact on the Thai economy, with tourism badly affected. Unless the elite of Bangkok reconciles itself to the political rise of the rural forces and accommodates them in the political structure of the country, this confrontation will not only continue, but will become nastier and unpredictable. The ultimate losers will be the urban elite. The impoverished rural masses have nothing to lose because they have nothing by way of prosperity.The Bangkok elite, which has prospered due to the economic development in the country since the 1990s, has much to lose if the confrontation takes an unpredictable turn. (13-4-2009)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt.of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. )