Election is Thailand’s “last hope”


A Thai anti-government "Red Shirt" protester shouts slogans during a rally at Democracy Monument in downtown Bangkok on March 12, 2011.


Christophe Archambault

BANGKOK, Thailand — Before Arab protesters sparked a season of revolt, there was Thailand: another U.S.-backed government pit against protesters determined to topple it.

Unlike in Tunisia, Thailand’s uprising last spring did not succeed. Nor were protesters, the aggressively anti-establishment Red Shirts, cheered on by Western heads of state like demonstrators in Egypt.

But as Thailand’s government readies long-awaited elections, its opponents hint that any unfair play could stir an Arab-inspired reprise of last spring’s protests.

Since Thailand’s 2006 military coup, Thailand has endured escalating spasms of political violence. This time last year, the Red Shirts, a faction of self-proclaimed “have-nots,” were angrily dousing the prime minister’s front gate with their own blood. By May’s end, after an army crackdown on protesters’ Bangkok camps, more than 90 were dead and 1,800 wounded.

But there is hope. For the first time in years, both the government and its opposition party are preparing for a proper election in early July.

This is a crucial turning point for Thailand. The government can ensure a fair election free of meddling from the army or courts. Protesters of all creeds can accept the result, even if they don’t like it, and refrain from seizing government buildings or sowing urban chaos.

If all that happens, Thailand’s shaky democracy can rebuild its credibility. But few, it seems, are optimistic.

“The last hope is this election,” said Phongthep Thepkanchana, a cabinet member during the premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra. Forced out in a 2006 army coup, Thaksin is still idolized by most Red Shirts and many of Thailand’s rural and urban poor.

“What did the people in the Philippines do to the Marcos regime? The same thing will happen in Thailand” if the vote is rigged, Phongthep said.

Recently freed from prison after last year’s protests, Red Shirts co-leader Nattawut Saikua has opted for the more contemporary analogy. “The wind of change that’s blowing through the Arab world is re-energizing the Red Shirts, who are still hurting and tired from last time,” he told AFP. “But the fight will go on.”

But many less politically inclined Thais are tired as well. A full two-thirds of the population want “large demonstrations” banned, according to a recently released Asia Foundation poll conducted face-to-face across the country.

Few are hopeful the unrest will cease. More than 80 percent polled predicted “more violence related to political conflicts within the next year.”

The coming election will pit the ruling party, the Democrats, against Peau Thai (translation: For Thais), a party aligned with the Red Shirts. They are known to consult heavily with Thaksin, who is fleeing charges ranging from fraud to terrorism in self-imposed exile.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, decried as a “tyrant” by the Red Shirts, has depicted the vote as an easy choice between stability and a movement beholden to billionaire Thaksin’s desire for revenge.

“I cannot think of another election where they have such clear choices,” Abhisit said in a meeting with foreign reporters in mid-March.

“At the very least, it’s an opportunity for the silent majority, the majority of Thai people who’ve not been heard nearly enough,” he said. “We’ve heard from very loud groups of people, but they don’t make up the majority.”

According to the Asia Foundation poll, this is true: only 12 percent of Thais identify as either “strongly red” or “strongly yellow,” the hue adopted by a much smaller band of nationalists who seized Bangkok’s airports in 2008.

An even tinier contingent — 2 percent — had attended a political rally in the past two years. And 22 percent would be more comfortable with a “strong, unelected leader” instead of a messy democracy.

Could that figure embolden the Thai military, which has staged 20-odd takeovers in the last 100 years?

It better not, warns the opposition. Thais will resist en masse, they say, if the military nullifies their victory with a coup. And though the army chief insists there will be no coup, they are keen to note that the army leadership made the same declaration shortly before the 2006 putsch.

The Middle East revolts have likely scared the military off coup plans, said Suranand Vejjajiva, a columnist and cousin of the current premier who served in Thaksin’s cabinet.

“Egypt and Tunisia certainly helped,” he said. “I think the military generals, although they have their own mindset ... they also realize the world is changing.”

And if the army does stage a coup?

“They’re in for a fight,” Suranand said.