The Death of a King

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand, visits the Netherlands, October 24, 196
Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand, visits the Netherlands, October 24, 1960 (Nationaal Archief)

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej had a long run: from 1946 until today, his living memory involved Japanese occupation, cold warriors burning Vietnam, the self-immolation of Cambodia, the shunning and decades-later rehabilitation of Myanmar and the rise of China.

His death leaves many questions for Thai politics, not the least of which is what to do with the widely disliked crown prince, heir apparent to the throne.

But it also reveals the slow grind down of monarchy as a system, as Thais contemplate — quietly for now — whether they even need a king at all. Read more

Thai Coup Leader Says Return to Democracy Will Take Year

A Thai policeman smiles while talking to a member of the Royal Guards in Bangkok, September 29, 2011
A Thai policeman smiles while talking to a member of the Royal Guards in Bangkok, September 29, 2011 (Jack Zalium)

Thailand’s army and coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha appealed for patience from the country’s population and its allies in a speech late Friday night, saying the return to democracy would take about one year.

Prayuth, who ousted the civilian government last week to end six months of deadlock between supporters and opponents of the Pheu Thai party, said a temporary constitution would be drawn up and an interim cabinet installed after three months of “reconciliation”.

Thailand is polarized between the royalist establishment in Bangkok and other southern cities that is dominated by old money families and the military and an upstart clique led by former telecommunication mogul Thaksin Shinawatra which draws its support from the rural north.

Thaksin was deposed by the army in 2006 and now lives in Dubai. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, became prime minister in 2011 and continued many of his populist economic programs, including rice subsidies for the poor, that enabled their Pheu Thai party to win election after election. She was forced by step down by the nation’s supreme court earlier this month which ruled unconstitutional her dismissal of her national-security chief three years ago, who was a supporter of the opposition party.

The political crisis in heightened by anxiety over the royal succession. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world’s longest reigning monarch and spent almost four years in hospital between 2009 and 2013. The “yellow shirt” royalists and urban elites suspect that his designated successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, sympathizes with the Shinawatras and their “red shirt” supporters.

Despite imposing marital law and flooding downtown Bangkok with police and soldiers on Saturday, small protests against the military takeover are held almost daily in the capital. But there has been no serious violence.

Thai Army Stages Coup After Months of Political Unrest

General Prayuth Chan-ocha, commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army, in a meeting, June 17, 2010
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army, in a meeting, June 17, 2010 (Government of Thailand)

Thailand’s army took control of the government in a coup on Thursday, two days after declaring martial law.

In a television statement, the country’s army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, said talks between rival political factions to find a solution to six months of deadlock had failed, requiring the military to restore order and push through necessary reforms.

“In order for the situation to return to normal quickly and for society to love and be at peace again … and to reform the structure of the political, economic and social structure, the military needs to take control of power,” he said.

Soldiers ordered cabinet ministers to report to an army base in the north of Bangkok, the capital, by the end of the day and imposed a curfew.

The army’s intervention came two weeks after the country’s supreme court forced Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai party to step down over her dismissal of her national-security chief, who was a supporter of the opposition party, three years ago.

Shinawatra came to power in 2011 after succeeding her brother Thaksin as party leader — who was himself ousted in a coup in 2006 and now lives in Dubai. She continued many of his populist economic programs, including rice subsidies for the rural poor, that gave Pheu Thai strong support in the north.

The urban middle classes and elites in the southern cities, by contrast, resisted the Shinawatras’ economic policies and their lock on power and refused to participate in democratic elections in February which were certain to return to a majority for Pheu Thai.

The political unrest caused Thailand’s gross domestic product to shrink 2.1 percent between January and March and could scare away tourists who account for 6 percent of its economy.

The Thai army has a long history of intervening in politics. There have been eighteen previous successful or attempted coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The only institution that seems able to unite the country is the monarchy. But King Bhumibol Adulyadej has ruled since 1946 and is believed to be ailing. The “yellow shirt” royalists and urban elites suspect that his designated successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, sympathizes with the Shinawatras and their “red shirt” supporters.

Thai Supreme Court Ousts Prime Minister Shinawatra

Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Berlin, Germany, July 19, 2012
Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Berlin, Germany, July 19, 2012 (Wikimedia Commons/Gerd Seidel)

Yingluck Shinawatra’s prime ministership abruptly ended on Wednesday when Thailand’s Constitutional Court ordered her and several of her cabinet ministers to step down. The court ruled that it had been unconstitutional for her to replace her national-security chief three years ago.

The decision has the potential to spark more violence witnessed over the last several months as deep economic and political divisions roil Thailand resulting in paralysis in government.

During a news conference, Shinawatra thanked her supporters and denied breaking the law. She said she would remain committed to democracy, social equality and the public interest, possibly signaling an intention to remain in politics.

In 2011, Shinawatra removed her national-security chief, Thawil Pliensri, in order to give the position to her brother in law. Pliensri was a supporter of the opposition Democrat Party.

The remaining cabinet ministers nominated Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, the commerce secretary, to replace Shinawatra and announced that the July 20 elections would take place as scheduled.

The prospects for Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party remain bright. It has won six consecutive elections going back to 2001. Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has not supported holding elections in July over fear of losing again, calling for a referendum instead on proposed political changes.

The court decision was viewed as the milder of measures versus fears of the entire cabinet being removed. Only the ministers who came in three years ago and who were closely aligned with Yingluck Shinawatra were targeted. Even so, Shinawatra’s supporters, the “red shirts,” promised a mass demonstration on Saturday in Bangkok.

This is the third time the court ruled against the Shinawatra family and its party, removing the prime minister in each instance. Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin, was removed in 2006 and is now living in Dubai. His economic programs, including rice subsidies, mainly benefited the poor and were continued under his sister’s leadership, despite causing great consternation among the ruling and middle classes in Thai society.

The court’s ruling is the latest in a series of political differences over the direction of the country. Most of the red shirts believe the court supports the Democrat Party. Meanwhile, the yellow shirted supporters of the royal family staunchly oppose the populist policies of the Shinawatras. Months of protests and counterprotests has resulted in gridlock.

The only institution able to hold the country together remains the monarchy but King Bhumibol Adulyadej has reigned since 1946. He is currently in his eighties and said to be ailing. His successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is believed to sympathize with the Shinawatras and would therefore be an unwelcome replacement for the opposition.

Why Ukraine, Thailand Are Not Venezuela

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro delivers a speech
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro delivers a speech (Palacio de Miraflores/Miguel Angulo)

After the “color revolutions,” the European “indignados,” “Occupy Wall Street” and the “Arab Spring,” pundits are again trying to make sense of a wave of public demonstrations around the world. Parallels have been drawn between the protests in Thailand, Ukraine and Venezuela but only a superficial analysis could conclude that these are equivalent.

The advent of new social media and the easier ability for unorganized demonstrators to mobilize themselves has facilitated the emergence of such phenomena. However, the lack of political coherence often implies an inherent anarchic and unsubstantial character to such demonstrations. If all these protests have something in common, it is that they largely failed to achieve any meaningful change. The Arab Spring did shake things up but it is difficult to see how overthrowing the old regimes has managed to improve living conditions in the Middle East and North Africa.

That said, in 2014, Venezuela’s is probably the most consistent and rational of the protests and it differs starkly from realities in Bangkok and Kiev when it comes to legitimate grievances as well as methodology.

Grievances

When the first protests were held against the “Bolivarian” revolutionaries back in the days of Hugo Chávez, the regime called them American led agitation. Those were the times of high oil prices and boon social programs after all; the public was still unaware of just how disruptive the government’s reforms would become. After a decade of Chavismo, however, it is quite clear that any good it may have brought is easily eclipsed by the catastrophic mismanagement of the state.

It would be easy to say that Chavismo brought corruption but all Venezuelan governments are corrupt. A more accurate critique would be that the revolution misrepresented itself since the old aristocracy was not eradicated; it was replaced. The new regime is not more transparent than the old one but unlike the old one, the new claimed it would be, well, revolutionary. This is the danger of grandstanding and Chávez excelled in the art. Unluckily for his successor, Nicolás Maduro, who is the one left to pick up the pieces.

In what concerns the economy, Chavismo was an unmitigated disaster. More corruption, less foreign investment, gross mismanagement, greater dependency on oil — and thus on the United States — and generalized dysfunction of the economy. Planned economies have failed in the past. Venezuela is no different.

What is worse for the regime is that this is not an academic debate such as the ones being held in the West on how best to deal with the crisis. In Venezuela, even something as basic as toilet paper has become a scarce good and the masses have taken notice. Crime has skyrocketed and the government’s wise policy is to arm paramilitary forces against “imperialist enemies.”

In foreign policy, too, the regime has brought only embarrassment. Venezuela’s oil diplomacy in Latin America has gained it few real allies, its anti-American stance brought it isolation and the few partners it has managed to put together are completely useless. Cuba and Iran are themselves isolated and could not help the regime in Caracas if it actually required foreign aid, be it in military assets or funds. If Venezuela truly wanted to oppose the United States, the way to do it as an Atlantic state would be to befriend the European Union and Brazil instead and help foster such initiatives as Mercosur. Instead, the regime’s buffoon of a leader ensured the enmity of most Western investors. The kitsch tracksuit transpired lack of sophistication in both fashion and statesmanship.

Conversely, neither Yingluck Shinawatra nor Viktor Yanukovich dramatically altered the status quo of either Thailand or Ukraine. This is not to make an argument against change since change can be successful. But between status quo and catastrophic change, the choice is more than obvious.

Yanukovich, in spite of having been elected by a more Russophile base, did not dramatically side Kiev with Moscow. His decision to postpone an association agreement with the European Union seems to have been based on pragmatic and expedient calculations and to have been everything but the product of some type of bias. Ukrainians rising up against him were clearly disappointed in his policy and critiques pointing to shortsightedness may deserve merit. Nevertheless, not only was his policy perfectly legitimate; he was hardly the first politician ever to opt for the short term. Indeed, Ukraine’s economic woes may well have required faster, more decisive action rather than a macroeconomically sound long-term solution.

Yanukovich’s government has been called bullish and exceedingly corrupt, so much so that even many oligarchs have denounced it. Again, as true as this may be, it is hardly revolutionary and even less worthy of any dramatic moves to overthrow the government. Political intimidation and corruption have long been embedded in Ukraine’s political fabric and Yanukovich can hardly be begrudged by those who previously voted for such pristine politicians as Yulia Tymoshenko. The incumbent president may have concentrated power in his and his family’s hands but such phenomena are hardly a monopoly of this administration, even if it may be more shameless about it.

Shinawatra did continue many of her infamous brother’s policies in Thailand such as distributing subsidies to poor communities to unethically secure constituencies or being largely complacent with her associates’ business interests which have long been suspected of corruption. Even so, this hardly marks a big departure from business as usual.

While demonstrators in Venezuela have thus ample cause for revolt, it is difficult to see how Thais or Ukrainians can possibly justify their explosions of anger other than with political bias. Indeed, in the early days of both crises, most commentators had trouble finding a discernible motivation for them and many press articles ended with question marks. In the case of Thailand, Western media have remained far more detached and noncommittal.

Methods

The methods of the protesters also vary. Whereas in Venezuela, the opposition calls for the resignation of a government that has objectively curtailed freedom of speech and sunk the economy, in Ukraine, it has yet to blame the current economic crisis on the government. In Thailand, it is the opposition that is actually hurting the economy by keeping the country politically unstable. Ukrainians demonstrating in Kiev have pushed for the removal of the president from the onset but only recently did they have grounds to use the human rights card.

While Venezuelans are largely on their own, Ukrainians have sought to enlist the aid of outsiders to their cause by framing theirs as a struggle against tyranny and oppression.

Ukrainian media are hardly up to Western standards but it would nevertheless be wrong to believe there is no freedom of speech in the former Soviet republic. Indeed, one has to wonder how many regimes — democratic or otherwise — would have allowed a string of foreign activists and politicians to pour into their country to lend support to the opposition. The same can be said of police tactics which, confronting severely belligerent extremists within the crowd, still allowed for the protests to continue strong for months on end.

In truth, Chavistas and the West have more in common than they would like to admit for both appeal to “international solidarity.” In opposition, Yanukovich is more parochial.

In Ukraine as well as in Thailand, the opposition has been impervious to compromises. Time and time again, Yanukovich offered terms for the protesters to leave which they repeatedly rejected only to recall their demand that he be deposed. In Thailand, Shinawatra called early elections but the opposition would not relent, knowing full well that they lacked the votes to unseat her democratically.

Democracy is a bit of a problem for Ukraine’s opposition as well. Contrary to the image of a country united against a tyrant that they wish to convey, Yanukovich’s poll numbers have remained steady. While not high enough to win an election outright, they are certainly enough to at least take him into a second-round runoff.

In Venezuela, on the other hand, the regime’s numbers have dwindled as the economic crisis worsened.

In violence the crises also differ with escalation and provocation of security forces being a constant in Bangkok and Kiev. In Venezuela, there have been fewer victims.

Change

Finally there is the issue of change. What could be achieved by each of these revolts?

In Venezuela, that much is clear: a government led by the opposition would dump the planned economy and move back to free markets. Poverty would likely remain but employment and diversification should ensure the growth of a healthy middle class in the medium term. Geopolitically, Venezuela would no longer be ignored by international investors. In short, the basket case that is Venezuela today would make a comeback. Politically, too, it is easy to envisage a more transparent and competent regime in place of the “Bolivarians.”

In Thailand, however, things are murkier. If there is no doubt the opposition would pursue lawsuits against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and call off subsidies to peripheral areas, it is difficult to see how any of that would significantly reduce corruption in the country or alter current electoral trends. If, as the opposition wishes, the army were to intervene, would this stave off corruption? Unlikely.

In Ukraine especially, the country would not become particularly more democratic or humane. Corruption is a cultural trait rather than the feature of a given government. Whereas in Venezuela, nationalizations have fostered political appointments and governmental corruption as well as mismanagement on a wide scale, in Ukraine, the levels of corruption have suffered little variation.

According to Transparency International, during Yanukovich’s rule, Ukraine has slipped ten places in its Corruption Perceptions Index ranking. While Yanukovich may have introduced malpractices, it is convenient to remember that the period between 2010 and 2013 was also when the financial crisis hit hardest. Western investment dried up and lowered the energy derived revenues of countries like Russia which Ukraine also depends on. A depressed economy is a paradise for corrupt practices. Comparatively, another peripheral European country like Portugal fell seven places during the crisis.

These are, of course, largely contextual variations whereas Venezuela has been slipping in the ranking ever since Hugo Chávez rose to power and stands today thirty places below its ranking in 2005!

Cautious politicians would do well to listen to tales of human rights violations, on the part of status quo regimes, with more than a grain of salt. This is especially true of those seeking some sort of international legitimacy and support. Too often has Western voluntarism been used as a proxy instrument in unrelated conflicts.

As grey as international relations may seem, good judgement always depends on objectivity, not emotion.

Snap Elections Fail to Put Thailand’s Political Crisis to Rest

Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra addresses the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, September 9, 2013
Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra addresses the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, September 9, 2013 (UN/Jean-Marc Ferré)

Despite snap elections on Sunday, Thailand’s two largest political forces remain at a stalemate and with class and ethnic divisions deepening, tensions remain high across the country.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s ruling Pheu Thai party was almost guaranteed to win a majority with the opposition Democrats boycotting the vote. They insist on constitutional reforms before participating in any more elections, knowing that otherwise Pheu Thai, which is most popular in the rural north of the country, will stay in power.

Opposition protesters have occupied large parts of Bangkok, the capital, surrounding key government buildings and virtually shutting down the government. Last week, thousands of police forces were deployed in and around Bangkok and a state of emergency was declared after violence had prevented some early voting.

On Saturday, a gunfight broke out when opposition “yellow shirts” blocked access to an administrative building containing ballot boxes. The government later announced that voting would be delayed in the area. Voting was eventually canceled in more than 12 percent of districts around the country, most of them in the south which is the Democrats’ stronghold.

Despite Pheu Thai’s likely victory, it might not be able to form a new government. The opposition refused to contest the elections in at least 28 seats, preventing the ruling party from achieving a quorum in parliament. Thus, the political legitimacy Shinawatra sought by calling snap elections ahead of massive protests appears fleeting. The crisis will continue.

The ultimate arbiter in Thailand remains King Bhumibol Adulyadej. On the throne since 1946, the monarch is 86 years old and said to be ailing. Many Thai believe that his son and likely successor, Maha Vajiralongkorn, will be easily influenced Shinawatra’s brother, the former premier Thaksin, who was deposed in a coup in 2006.

Thaksin is still a polarizing figure in Thai politics. Accused of corruption, vote rigging and of using the military in bloody crackdowns against southern insurgents, the populist leader diverted government spending programs away from the elite and vested interests in Bangkok in favor of rural districts in the north that have traditionally lagged behind the rest of the country. The ruling class harbors deep resentment against him and his family for this reason.

Rice subsidies that were instituted by Yingluck Shinawatra have recently come under investigation with the opposition seeing them as tantamount to bribes for rural voters. What is more, the opposition is firm in believing that Thaksin is really still in control of the government. When Yingluck considered stepping down in early January, it was her brother who convinced her to press on. Another sister is in charge of the Pheu Thai party.

The other major player in this is the army which has so far chosen to remain above the fray. But given its extensive history of coups — it has staged up to twenty since the beginning of the constitutional monarchy in 1932 — there is always the possibility of it deciding to resolve the political impasse on its own. After the last putch in 2006, which ousted Thaksin, it came under withering criticism worldwide. His sister Yingluck was elected in 2011.

The crisis flared up again in October when Pheu Thai proposed to pardon those officers involved in the 2006 coup. An amnesty bill would have also covered those responsible for the crackdowns on Shinawatra’s supporters in 2010 as well as the political reprisals through May 2012.

The opposition, numbering in the tens of thousands, took to the streets, fearing that the bill would mean the return of Thaksin.

The seeming dichotomy of the position held by anti-government protesters, led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, is that they are undermining a democratically-elected government with calls for greater democracy. They argue for a temporary suspension of the Constitution to be replaced by an unelected “people’s council” that would run the country until “fair” elections could be held. Which presumably means elections that the Democrat Party can win.

With an incomplete election, the Constitutional Court will likely step in and annul the result. This could result in more demonstrations and possibly more violence. The only certainty is that Thai politics is in for more of a rough period. Where it ends is anyone’s guess. Or more accurately — when the army or the monarchy decides it has had enough.

Between Illiberal Democrats and Undemocratic Liberals

A demonstration against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev, December 2, 2013
A demonstration against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev, December 2, 2013 (Alexandra Gnatoush)

The political upheavals in Egypt, Thailand, Turkey and Ukraine share a striking commonality which suggests that democracy is not enough to Westernize these countries.

In all four, a liberal minority has agitated against a majoritarian government that, unlike majority governments in Europe, is primarily concerned with advancing the interests of its own supporters.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, freely elected after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, was seen as looking only after its own kind, disregarding the mounting concerns of the nation’s Christians, secular Muslims and women. The dissatisfied, and sometimes terrified, minority became a majority last year, giving the military a mandate to topple the Islamists. An overwhelming majority of Egyptians has since approved a constitutional rewrite that could pave the way for the army to return to power.

Opponents of Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was elected in 2009 after her brother Thaksin was exiled, would rather like the same to happen in their country. They intend to boycott an election this year, knowing that the majority of Thai voters, especially in the poorer north of the country, will reelect the Shinawatras.

An army coup is less likely in Turkey where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is similarly popular in the least developed parts of his country. Minority Alevis and Kurds as well as young and urban voters have grown wary of his increasingly authoritarian style of government yet Erdoğan could very well defy his own party’s rules on term limits and stand for reelection again in 2015 — and win.

Ukraine’s opposition accuses President Viktor Yanukovich of authoritarian behavior in the way he suppresses demonstrations against his government’s deepening of ties with Russia instead of Europe. In the west of the country, many urban, middle-class Ukrainians had hoped their country would sign an association agreement with the European Union last year. Yanukovich reneged on the deal and turned to his former Soviet master for financial support. Yet he still seems to enjoy the backing of the majority of Ukrainians, especially in the east of the country which is home to some eight million ethnic Russians.

The Egyptians who opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, the Thais who oppose the Shinawatras, the Turks who oppose Erdoğan and the Ukrainians who oppose Yanukovich tend to be urban, better paid and altogether more worldly than the majority of their compatriots. Their values are relatively more liberal, more Western, and can be more important to them than democracy — exposing a distinction between the two that many Westerners don’t have to make. Indeed, the political divide in these countries risks being one between illiberal democrats and undemocratic liberals. Between the two, who should the West support?

The European Union and the United States promote democracy abroad, assuming that democratic regimes are inherently more stable and likely to cooperate with each other on multilateral issues. In the four countries discussed here at least, that has proven to be not the case.

Democracy in Egypt brought to power a movement that not only had fundamentally different values from the West but was less of a stalwart ally than Mubarak had been.

When Turkey’s generals ruled the country, they were similarly more likely to line up behind the United States than Erdoğan has done. He also soured relations with Israel, the only democracy in the proper Western sense in the Middle East, calling into question the notion that democracies are always natural allies.

In Thailand and Ukraine, democracy has privileged one group over another — conservative and mostly rural voters from the north and east of the two countries respectively against middle and upper class voters from the cities in the south and west. It has not fostered a culture of consensus, as exists in Western Europe. It has caused confrontation instead.

Whichever group happens to be in power in Bangkok matters little to the West. Thailand is likely to ally with the United States in East Asia in either case. But the outcome of the power struggles in Egypt and Ukraine are relevant to Europe and the United States.

Had the Muslim Brotherhood remained in control of Egypt, the country could have gone on to pursue a less vigorous anti-terrorist policy and broken the axis of American allies in the region. The army, by contrast, seeks to undermine Hamas’ legitimacy in Gaza and is backed Saudi Arabia an the other Arab Gulf states. The United States should have no desire whatsoever to encourage an Islamist resurgence in Egypt.

Even if Ukraine’s association with the European Union could have cost the bloc whereas now Russia has had to throw the country a lifeline with $15 billion in credits, its longer term goal of expanding the European sphere of influence and decreasing its dependence on Russian natural gas has been damaged by Yanukovich’s snub. Why should European countries still support democracy in Ukraine when it produces a government that is hostile to them? Certainly Russia wouldn’t if it were the other way around.

The focus on democracy can thus harm the Western interest. European countries and the United States should care a little less about helping organize elections wherever they can and pay more attention to people who share their values — who are more likely to share their interests as well.