BANGKOK - How sustainable is Thailand's political peace? Popular populist policies, frequent bows to royal authority and a hands-off approach to military affairs have until now allowed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to preside over a period of detente in the country's quiescent but still unresolved political conflict.
Whether that detente holds will depend on the future interplay of Yingluck's threatened legal standing, self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's strategic mindset and the royal household's state of health. While Yingluck has appeared increasingly self-assured in her leadership, her elder brother, Thaksin, is still widely viewed as the real power behind her Peua Thai party-led government.
An accommodation reached between Thaksin's camp and the royalist establishment has mainly held since Yingluck's and Peua Thai's resounding mid-2011 electoral win. Years of debilitating street protests beginning in 2005 have resulted in deaths, destruction and reputational damage on both sides of the political divide, and at violent junctures even raised the specter of civil war.
While both sides have appeared committed to avoid new rounds of confrontation in the autumn of King Bhumibol's palace-proclaimed unifying reign and in light of Yingluck's conciliatory tack, the criminally convicted Thaksin's persistent push for a political amnesty is still viewed by many royalists as non-negotiable, including within the top ranks of the military led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Now, new political pressures are building, with Peua Thai efforts to table assorted amnesty bills in parliament and a parallel investigation by the quasi-independent National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) into alleged irregularities in Yingluck's personal asset declaration made upon taking office that threatens to topple her from power.
Some have interpreted the NCCC's probe as a royalist counter to Peua Thai's amnesty and constitutional amendment initiatives, in line with past court rulings that toppled two previous Thaksin-aligned governments in 2008. After a period of relative silence speaking on political affairs, Prayuth was quoted in local media on March 13 criticizing Thaksin's behind-the-scenes role.
A government drive to amend the constitution last year was strongly resisted by the opposition Democrat Party and anti-Thaksin protest groups, and threatened momentarily to tilt the country back towards instability. Then as now, critics of the initiatives claim they aim ultimately to allow Thaksin to return triumphantly to Thailand without serving a two year prison sentence for a corruption-related conviction handed down in 2008.
Royalists have also alleged that last year's drive to amend the charter aimed to undermine the monarchy's position and power ahead of a delicate and increasingly uncertain royal succession.
Yingluck has denied anti-royal charges directed at her government and claimed to be working towards national reconciliation. Since the flooding disaster of 2011, her government has prioritized economic stimulus measures, including a costly but popular rice price support scheme that has ramped the rural economy. The populist policies have stoked growth rates at a time of global economic distress but have also raised concerns about their medium-term sustainability.
The pump-priming is viewed by some as part of a broader political strategy articulated by certain Thaksin advisers in meetings with foreign investors and diplomats to co-opt royal elites with cash and contracts and in the process build grass roots insulation against any future military intervention in politics. The strategy will be tested at the time of the royal succession, when many analysts believe the military could move to suspend or at least curtail democracy during an imposed prolonged period of national mourning.
Despite a resounding electoral mandate, strong parliamentary majority and resilient grass roots popularity, Yingluck's administration remains hemmed in by royalist forces, including loyal power centers in the bureaucracy, judiciary and military. Despite campaign trail promises to bring Thaksin home as a national hero, Yingluck's inability to do so has underscored her government's underlying weakness and emphasis on stability over confrontation.
In that latter direction, Yingluck has worked to temper royalist fears that her Thaksin-influenced government represents an existential threat to the monarchy and associated institutions. Known anti-monarchists have taken refuge under Thaksin's political umbrella, though the ex-premier purports to be a staunch royalist. Officials under Yingluck's command have censored tens of thousands of Web pages deemed to be critical of royal family members, mirroring former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government's freedom-curbing policies.
In January, Yingluck stood by passively amid a global outcry against pro-Thaksin activist and editor Somyot Preuksakasemsuk's sentencing to 10 years in prison for two articles deemed as critical of Bhumibol his magazine published but he did not write. Thaksin had provided the initial financing for the now defunct publication, aptly entitled Voice of Taksin, which often took critical aim at the royal establishment and its often hidden influence in politics.
Yingluck's obeisance to royal authority and impotence in releasing political prisoners has opened deep rifts inside the Thaksin-aligned United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group, known as the Red Shirts. The UDD's protest encampment paralyzed parts of Bangkok in March-May 2010 and ended in lethal violence that eventually pushed Abhisit into calling early polls. Once unified against Abhisit and the military top brass, UDD co-leaders now openly hurl insults and air personal grudges against one another in the local media.
The infighting has been motivated in part by the fact that certain UDD leaders have been rewarded for their previous activism with prominent and lucrative government positions, including richly budgeted ministerial posts, while others have been frozen out of the corridors of power. Without a coherent rally cry to justify maintaining their grass roots mobilization, many once prominent and politically ambitious activists have faded into obscurity under Yingluck's rule.
Yingluck has also frozen out many of Thaksin's old guard politicians, including once prominent aides and ministers who were banned from politics by a military-appointed tribunal in 2007 and expected to regain top posts when their bans expired in 2012. While many Thaksin-aligned politicians have been given symbolic advisory posts, it's not clear their counsel is much heeded as Yingluck consults mainly with Thaksin and a small inner circle of her own trusted aides.
That dynamic has led to speculation that some in Yingluck's camp have paid lip service to the desirability of a Thaksin-restoring amnesty, but in reality see the former premier's rehabilitation and the resurgence of his political associates as a threat to their positions and influence.
Yingluck hinted at such internal party divisions by saying she felt ''slighted'' that ''some people'' wanted to ''change the prime minister'' in March 23 comments to the press while in New Zealand. Media speculation has been rife that another of Thaksin's sisters, Yaowapa Wongsawat, is being prepared to take over should Yingluck fall from power.
Thaksin and Yingluck have worked in clear unison to politically empower the police, a gambit some analysts view as an attempt to build a bulwark against the royalist military and assert influence over the judiciary through lower level court appointments. Police officials associated with Thaksin's family, such as justice minister Pracha Promnok, and those who played roles in the UDD's protest, namely deputy interior minister Chat Kudiloke, have been given top government posts.
Although frequently ranked as Thailand's most corrupt institution, the police represent a natural ally to Thaksin through family and past professional ties. During his tenure as prime minister, Thaksin shifted command over the police from the Ministry of Interior to the Prime Minister's Office. He also relied on the police to execute his infamous 2003 ''war on drugs'' campaign that resulted in the extrajudicial killings of over 2,200 drug suspects without legal repercussions for Thaksin or the gunmen.
Appointments of police officials to top spots in the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), including notably at the Corrections Department, have been viewed by some as an attempt to dilute the royal establishment's influence over lower level criminal courts and legal positions like the attorney general, a post that could be pivotal in ruling on the legality of any amnesty passed in parliament and the state's pursuit of murder charges against Abhisit and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban for their command roles in the killing of UDD protestors. Some have viewed the charges as an attempt to bring the opposition Democrats on-board with Thaksin's push for a broad amnesty for past political crimes.
Significantly, the MoJ lacks power over top level courts, including appointments to the Administrative, Appeals, Constitutional, and Supreme Courts. All four courts are widely viewed as royalist power centers, due in part to a series of rulings that have gone against Thaksin since the 2006 military coup that toppled his elected government. Since, Bhumibol has at royal audiences repeatedly called on freshly appointed top judges to rule with independence and righteousness.
The Constitutional Court intervened in last year's charter amendment controversy through a vague, non-binding opinion that sparked criticism among Thaksin's political allies but temporarily defused the situation. The same court would rule on any appeal made against a potential NACC ruling that Yingluck's personal asset declaration was fraudulent. Thaksin and the UDD have campaigned on the notion that courts have applied ''double standards'' in rulings that have gone against him and his political allies.
The police, of course, would represent a weak counter to the better-armed and better-trained military in any future coup or political confrontation. Perceptions that Yingluck's government has favored the police over the military has accentuated long simmering institutional rivalries that date back to the 1950's-60's. While the military's ''defense'' budget was cut by 0.5% year-on-year from 2011 to 2012, coinciding with Yingluck's official rise to power, the police's ''public order and safety'' allotment was raised by 5.5%, according to government statistics.
In December, deputy prime minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, a police captain and viewed as the second most powerful official in Yingluck's Cabinet, said without providing details that ''high-ranking'' police officials served as ''men in black'' - shadowy figures who blended in with the UDD's protests and fired on and killed soldiers - during the 2010 protests and clampdown. Thaksin and UDD co-leaders have disavowed any association with the black-garbed militants.
With Abhisit's and Suthep's roles in the killings under investigation, opposition critics have complained that parallel probes have not been initiated into possible rogue police official involvement in the violence. They argue such a probe could aim to ascertain whether Thaksin or his top aides exercised command authority over police-linked ''men in black'' or were responsible for the unexplained bombing campaign that rocked Bangkok in the aftermath of the clampdown.
Khaki kid gloves
Despite those past clashes and current suspicions, army commander Prayuth and his top lieutenants have until now fallen in step under Yingluck's civilian authority. That's at least partially because Yingluck has handled military affairs with kid gloves, including muted influence over two major and one minor military reshuffles. A reform drive to bring the military under stronger civilian control launched early in Yingluck's tenure has since inexplicably been shelved.
Moreover, the government's investigations into the 2010 crackdown have not aimed to hold street-level foot soldiers or their military commanders culpable on the legal grounds they were under Abhisit's and Suthep's command authority. Last year, Yingluck publicly echoed Prayuth's call on Department of Special Investigation officials to stop threatening to prosecute soldiers for their roles in the deaths. Soldiers have since cooperated with DSI investigations into Abhisit's and Suthep's roles, according to sources familiar with the situation.
In another Yingluck bow to royal authority, Prayuth, a known palace favorite and member of the elite Queen's Guard regiment, has maintained his top spot despite having served under Abhisit. He has also been given a free hand to orchestrate the promotion of many of the colonel-level soldiers involved in the lethal suppression of the UDD. Those promotions, military analysts say, have solidified rank-and-file loyalty to Prayuth and relieved earlier concerns among the top brass of a possible counter-coup among lower-ranking, pro-Thaksin officers.
Some diplomats venture that Thaksin would not feel safe to return to Thailand, even under an amnesty scenario, without a wholesale purge of the royalist Prayuth and his top lieutenants from the army's leadership. Thaksin has not yet moved in that direction but some believe he could in light of changed power dynamics in the palace in the wake of Queen Sirikit's recent illness and the former premier's enduring failure to secure a royal pardon from Bhumibol.
In December, Thaksin expressed doubts that he would receive a royal pardon any time soon due to the royal household's preoccupation with the health of Bhumibol and Sirikit, according to a foreign mediator who often speaks to the ex-premier. While many observers anticipated a possible conciliatory royal signal towards Thaksin during Bhumibol's 85th birthday celebrations that month, the monarch's public address spoke more broadly to the need for national unity.
While Yingluck's softly-softly approach has helped to stabilize civil-military relations, Thaksin's recent interventions in security affairs threaten to upset that delicate balance. Prayuth was reportedly ''furious'' about the peace process agreement signed between Yingluck and a symbolic leader of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) militant group during an official trip earlier this month to Malaysia, according to a foreign mediator familiar with the situation.
Although Prayuth was part of Yingluck's traveling delegation, the army commander was not informed in advance that a formal agreement to hold future talks would be signed on the occasion. Prayuth has since expressed skepticism about whether the BRN representative has command control over rebels on the ground, a counterpoint that has been underscored by sustained violence in the region since the agreement was signed.
Thaksin played a significant behind-the-scenes role in brokering the agreement with the rebels, which one foreign mediator with knowledge of the situation reckoned could have been accomplished a year earlier if Thaksin had not pushed for political ally Police Colonel Tawee Sodsong, current director of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC), to play a lead role in the process.
Some political analysts believe that Thaksin now aims to leverage the southern peace talk initiative into his wider amnesty agenda, seen in his allied Peua Thai party's push to table various amnesty bills related to the country's central conflict in parliament. Another perspective, however, sees Thaksin as resigned to bide his time outside of the country and appeal for a royal pardon after rather than before the royal succession.
Diplomats monitoring the situation suggest that Thaksin may receive more sympathetic royal treatment under heir apparent Crown Prince Vaijralongkorn, due in part to their known past personal ties. While many analysts and diplomats believe that the royal succession plan from Bhumibol to Vajiralongkorn is immutable, others have interpreted differently recent royal household signals and events.
Bhumibol has recently resumed a more public profile after a period of relative seclusion due to health complications. The Royal Household Bureau now issues regular updates reported in the local press on the royal family's state of health. Queen Sirikit suffered from an ischemic stroke last July, according to one of the Royal Household Bureau's updates, after which she has fallen from public view, including during Bhumibol's 85th gala birthday celebrations last December.
Some diplomats and political analysts now wonder if the long-held succession plan could be altered if the highly influential 80-year-old Sirikit, known to be her son's top backer for the throne, were to pass ahead of Bhumibol. In line with the royal tradition known as wang na, Vajiralongkorn is renovating his Bangkok-based Amporn palace, as well as for less clear reasons facilities maintained at Don Muang airport, in advance of the anticipated transition.
Palace insiders who spoke to Asia Times Online suggest that Vajiralongkorn's first daughter, Princess Bajraktiyabha, could instead play a bridging role in a potential compromise scenario between royal camps vying alternately between Vajiralongkorn and Princess Sirindhorn to assume the throne. That face-saving scenario would see Bajraktiyabha take on a regency role while Vajiralongkorn's youngest son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, is groomed for the throne.
The 34-year-old princess was recently appointed Thailand's ambassador to Austria after a one-year posting at the United Nations in Vienna, where she chaired a committee on international crime. At home, image-boosting signboards have been posted across the Thai countryside portraying Bajraktiyabha, known informally as ''Princess Patty'', as a champion of women's rights, including through a program known as ''Inspire'' for women prison inmates.
The emerging princess is well-versed in legal affairs, with a doctorate law degree from the US's prestigious Cornell University and a posting at Thailand's Attorney General's Office, groomed in the traditions of the Thai royal court by the widely revered Sirindhorn, and, perhaps most significantly, has no known personal ties to the self-exiled and fugitive from justice Thaksin. While the popular Yingluck has acted to perpetuate Thaksin's family rule, Bajraktiyabha's grassroots touch could play a similar role in sustaining a post-Bhumibol Chakri dynasty.
Shawn W Crispin
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