For three years now, Thailand has been in disarray, politically. The rise to power of populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was met with hostility by Bangkok?s middle class, and the traditional elite?generals, bureaucrats, aristocrats?all of whom mistrusted his rural-based political machine and his dismissive attitude towards other political factions. At the heart of the confrontation between Thaksin and his opponents were two issues: the mistrust of the ruling elite of popular democracy, as it upset the delicate balance among contending power groups; and the future role of the monarchy as Thailand?s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej ages and weakens,?and against whom, his critics allege, Thaksin had connived.
While the king exercises little formal power, the psychological effect for a country whose monarch has been on the throne for a period that covers the Roxas to Arroyo administrations for Filipinos cannot be underestimated. H.G. Wells, writing of the death of Queen Victoria, described its effect as comparable to the lifting of a great paper weight, with the wind picking up and scattering ideas like so many pieces of paper. The same can be said of Thailand and its politics, long accustomed to the present king serving as the ultimate arbiter of kingdom?s turbulent politics, with its history of public protests, military crackdowns, and repeated constitutional revisions.
Indeed, Thaksin himself was ousted in a 2006 coup that was widely believed to have received the tacit endorsement of the king. To this day, Thaksin has refrained from accusing the king of plotting to oust him, but he has gone as far as to implicate the members of the Privy Council, an advisory body for the king. Bhumibol has been unwilling?or perhaps physically or mentally incapable?of intervening this time around (while punishable in Thailand as lèse majesté, such speculation is current among observers of Thai politics). Without the royal card in hand, the capacity of the administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to keep a handle on events may be fatally compromised.
This, at least, seems to be Thaksin?s calculations, as his supporters, who elected a government (the Party of People Power, PPP) despite a new constitution written essentially by the conservatives who had ousted Thaksin, have taken to the streets in recent months. They are living proof that People Power can be a double-edged sword. Opponents of Thaksin re-coalesced last year as the People?s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to bring down the popularly elected PPP while proposing the replacement of a purely elected government with one composed of representatives nominated by civic and professional groups.
The PAD?s Yellow Shirts (yellow is the royal color in Thailand) famously closed down Bangkok?s international airport; and after the courts ordered the PPP dissolved, the current PAD-supported government gained power. More recently, the Red Shirts, as the Thaksin supporters are called, gave the Yellow Shirts political tit for tat by scuttling the ASEAN summit in the resort city of Pattaya; and the capital, Bangkok, has seen, over the past few days, a military-civilian confrontation similar to Manila?s May 1, 2001 rebellion, and with much of the same elite-versus-poor rhetoric.
The question before the Thais is whether their monarch can still intervene; and if he cannot, whether their society can overcome the ever fiercer division between the urban middle class and the elite on one hand, and disgruntled rural voters on the other. Democracy is claimed as the motivating principle of both sides, but the Yellows, for now, have the army, while the Reds have demonstrated they are not loathe to engage the authorities in a physical confrontation.
For Filipinos, there is the all-too familiar sight of a political class fighting for its life against the impoverished and dispossessed fighting for a leader they believe was unlawfully deprived of power. There, as here, the military, and not democratic institutions, have proven to be the ultimate decider of whether a government survives or falls.