With the dust settling on the rubble of the former Red Shirt strongholds in Bangkok, Crikey spoke to Professor Damien Kingsbury, from Deakin University’s School of International and Political Studies, about the future of Thailand’s democratic process and the role of the monarchy, whose absence in the current political crisis has been notable.

“Normally, the King would have intervened and averted the situation from escalating to the point it did.  The King’s role in the past has indicated that he’s the circuit breaker in the Thai political process — a fundamental weakness in attempts to establish a democratic society. In this situation, with the King old, sick and unable to act in his usual manner, there were insufficient checks to make sure that political competition didn’t descend into violence.

“There are two major issues here: first, the King is likely to die soon, and his son doesn’t have his popularity, authority or legitimacy — he’s known as a corrupt and venal character, whose behaviour is quite out of keeping with the King’s. There have been a large number of lèse majesté cases recently in Thailand, and it’s probable that these have been generated by the Prince to strengthen his role and the role of the monarchy, particularly vis a vis parliament. He wants to strengthen the ties with the Bangkok elite parties who are responsible for this crackdown: a coalition of monarchists, military and significant business interests.

“The second major issue is that Thailand has struggled with sustained democratic process — they have great aspirations, but the process keeps tripping over, and they’ve been vulnerable to a series of coups.  While most Thais support democratic process, the powerholders are reluctant to allow democratic process to disadvantage them, and have a vested interest in undermining the process. Thaksin Shinawatra may have been a pretty terrible Prime Minister, but he did represent the people.”

Thailand’s unstable political landscape has been simmering hot for four years now, since the ousting of elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, and fuelled by concerted efforts to prevent him and his largely working-class sympathisers from returning to power. Two of his allied parties were blocked from taking power, his assets were frozen and his passport revoked.

While Thaksin is believed to be a supporter of the Red Shirt movement from his globetrotting exile, Kingsbury doesn’t believe that he will be able to take another run at the prime ministership.

“Thaksin’s supporters have become increasingly aware of his own corruption and abuse of power, and not all of the coaltion that makes up the Red Shirts are entirely comfortable with him. The group includes some of the members of the banned Communist Party of Thailand — now social democrats, largely working with the poor.

“There is a coherence within the coalition, with peasants and poor people from the north-east and north aligning with poor people in the city — not necessarily a revolutionary environment, but an identification of interests in common, particularly a better distribution of the wealth of the state. Many people thought Thaksin was delivering on that, and to some extent he did, until the coup brought in the new regime.”

Now that the current protest has been quashed, Thailand is likely to return to a holding pattern until a new constitution — Thailand’s 18th since absolute monarchy ended in 1932, and third since the 2006 coup — is established.

“If the King dies, his son will succeed, and we can expect a continuation of the status quo on the part of the Bangkok elite. The Thai economy is suffering as a result of the unrest and will continue to suffer — in future, there will be a call to re-establish some sort of electoral process, and probably a new constitution. The question is what that constitution will look like, particularly regarding the role of the monarchy. The heir apparent will want to see a stronger role for the monarchy, while the pro-democratic movement will want a weaker role — this will be the point of dispute.”

According to Kingsbury, it’s unlikely that any move on a new constitution will be made before the end of this year. Allowing time to elapse gives the Red Shirt coalition, always prone to fragmentation, a chance to lose its cohesiveness.  On the other hand, waiting too long for a return to review of the democratic process could see further unrest.

“Given the profound division in Thai society, and the fact that if there were an election right now, the Red Shirts would win, it seems unlikely that the government will try anything.”

Peter Fray

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