Giles Ji Ungpakorn
For months now Sutep’s violent and anti-democratic mobs have tried their best to frustrate the functioning of the democratically elected government and prevent a general election from taking place. They surrounded offices where election candidates were trying to register, occupied government ministries, attacked police with guns and tried to “shut down Bangkok”. Recently they tried to occupy the government printing press which was printing ballot papers. But so far they have failed in their aims. The military has not obliged the protesters by staging a coup, Yingluk is still the care-taker Prime Minister and the election seems set to take place on 2nd February, at least in most provinces, including Bangkok. The hands-off approach of the government seems to be paying off in this war of attrition.
Sutep and his gang are not without powerful supporters. Many big business owners, including those from S&P and Sing Beer, have been seen supporting the protesters and one of the princesses has even worn the red white and blue colours associated with them. Rectors of all the universities, top civil servants and some sections of the electoral commission have given them support too. But the military is still sitting on its hands, refusing to stage a coup or to help the government by making sure that the election takes place.
What makes it different from the situation in 2006, when Yellow Shirts helped pave the way for a military coup, is that some military leaders know that a coup will achieve nothing to their benefit. It would only work if a long-lasting and brutal dictatorship was installed. More importantly, unlike 2006, there is a Red Shirt mass movement which is determined to defend democracy and even the academics and NGO activists who welcomed the 2006 coup are now wary of appearing to support the destruction of democracy. This is because the 2006 coup and the shooting of nearly 90 pro-democracy demonstrators in 2010 did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the electorate for Taksin’s Pua Thai Party and it was obvious to anyone who cared to look at the facts that people were voting for pro-poor policies.
Pro-democracy candle-light protests have now been taking place throughout the country. On these protests people are demanding that their vote be respected. They are also calling for an end to the violence. The significance is that large gatherings of these people, equalling those of Sutep’s mob, have taken place in Bangkok in recent days. Most residents of the capital city are sick and tired of what is going on.
Sutep’s mob have been suffering sporadic and isolated gun and grenade attacks by unknown assailants. The only thing we can say for certain is that this will act as a disincentive to middle class people to attend his protests. Many of the hard-core protesters are southerners, part of the Democrat Party’s patron-client network. Sutep seems to be redirecting his efforts to his southern home base, calling for people to occupy government offices in his fiefdom provinces while his “Shut Down Bangkok” strategy falls apart.
It should be noted that in the deep-south Muslim Malay provinces, the locals are not supporting Sutep.
It would be mere rumour-mongering to try to indicate who is behind the attacks on Sutep’s mob. There are many possibilities. It might be frustrated Red Shirts. It might be elements in the military who want to trigger a coup. Or it might be rogue Sutep supporters who want to rejuvenate the anger of their movement and also trigger a coup. But as yet there is not a shred of evidence to back any one of these possibilities.
It would be wrong to believe that we are seeing the beginning of the end to the crisis. If the election takes place in all provinces, except in the Democrat’s southern back yard, there will not be enough MPs, according to election law, to be able to open parliament and elect a government. The stale-mate will continue and any political accident can occur.
Much is being said about the need for political reform. Those who want reform to take place before an election are merely calling for the rules to be changed so that a conservative minority can dominate politics instead of Pua Thai. Their so-called reforms would shrink the democratic space.
But it is worrying that the government and many people who support democratic elections are just happy to have elite-driven “reforms” which merely scratch the surface.
For political reform to mean anything other than the partial destruction of democracy, it must be a process involving the majority of the population, not just elite experts and those in high places. It must aim to increase elections, not just for all senators, but also for those in charge of public enterprises, security forces, the judiciary, local schools and local hospitals. It must include the abolition of the lèse majesté law, the contempt of court law and the computer crimes law. These are all laws which censor dissenting voices. Reform should also tackle the problems of so-called “independent bodies”, such as the electoral commission, the human rights commission and the anti-corruption commission, which are stacked with right-wing conservatives. The whole concept of needing “independent bodies” to restrict the democratic wishes of the majority needs to be challenged.
Political reform should also aim to reduce inequality by building a welfare state and it should encourage the development of efficient infrastructure which does not harm the environment. High-speed trains and electricity generation from sunlight and wind would be important components of this. Such projects would also create jobs. We need education reform to move away from authoritarian teaching and learning by rote. We need to humanise the prison system and reduce the prison population.
Political reform will be meaningless without reducing the power and influence of the military, both in politics, the media and in state enterprises. Soldiers who stage coups and kill protesters should be brought to justice. A jury system should be introduced to democratise the courts. The military constitution of 2007 needs to be abolished and we need to make sure that a future constitution does not enforce free-market neo-liberal economic policies or the Sufficiency Economy, as the 2007 constitution does.
But you would be hard-pressed to hear any of these proposals among the present chatter about political reform in Thailand.
This article should be read along-side 2 other articles:
There is no “crisis of succession” in Thailand
The Democrat Party is a party of Old Political Patronage