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Riding the whirlwind

/ 11:53 PM February 07, 2014

Who remembers that Thailand was once marketed as the “Land of a Thousand Smiles”?

Instead of uniting the country, Sunday’s election—where voters cast ballots in 333 of Thailand’s 375 constituencies—failed to defuse an increasingly violent stalemate.

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On one side is Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. She’s being clobbered as fronting for her brother, Thaksin, ousted in 2006. In the other corner is the former deputy prime minister, Suthep Thaugsuban. His People’s Democratic Reform Committee demands an unelected council to effect “reforms.”

Thaksin is corrupt. And from abroad, he foments unrest. His desire to supplant the monarchy, through manipulation, “feeds a visceral hate for Thaksin among well-educated, worldly Thais.”

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This impasse should interest Filipinos, the Inquirer’s Randy David wrote. Twice, we were in the same fix. Edsa 1 and 2 challenged the right of incumbents—Ferdinand Marcos, then Joseph Estrada—to continue wielding the powers of government. That recast “the meaning of legitimacy … that it does not rest solely, or primarily, on winning an election.”

David foresees the “dysfunctional return” of the Thai military. This postpones the problem of political legitimacy. What Thai politicians seek is a way of justifying political power “appropriate to … a modern and more complex society.”

Set David’s analysis in economic and historical context. We worked in Thailand, as a political exile turned United Nations officer, for 17 years. Thailand and the Philippines had, in the 1970s, almost identical demographic and economic profiles. They were dubbed the “Asean Twins.” Thailand adopted a population policy. We waffled.

Today, there are 69.5 million Thais and 98.7 million Filipinos. The difference makes about seven Singapores. A bogged-down demographic transition carries a stiff human cost. Consider the “under age 5 death rates.” Here, 29 out of every 1,000 kids die. It’s 11 for Thailand.

On Sunday “there were no winners, only losers,” wrote Elliot Brennan of Sweden’s Institute for Security and Development Policy. GDP growth in 2014 may dwindle from over 5 percent to less than 2 percent in Southeast Asia’s second biggest economy.

In the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thaksin supporters chant about setting up a temporary capital. Along the porous borders are Thai-Burma (Myanmar) trafficking routes through which opium and methamphetamine have been funneled for decades. Next-door Burma’s still-fragile transition to democracy could be savaged. Yangon has conveyed concerns.

A coup would be Thailand’s 19th since 1932. Some fret about a threat of civil war. That’d ignite unrest among Muslim separatists in southern Thailand—and rock Asean to its roots. Dismounting from the whirlwind will only become harder later on.

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King Bhumibol belongs to the Chakri dynasty which started to rule Siam in 1782. And what jars about today’s clashes is the almost complete absence of a king who, for 67 years, wielded a moral influence greater than constitutions.

The king marked his 86th birthday last Dec. 5. As always, a respectful truce marked the occasion. But there was no masking his frailty as he struggled through a short speech. With Queen Sirikit, 81, he lives in a seaside palace in the south. Both suffer debilitating ailments.

But the brawl between the Red and Yellow Shirts brings up a rarely discussed issue where lèse majesté laws are stiff. Did he fail to prepare a future for Thailand as a mature democracy after he passes? asks Paul Handley in “The Royal Meddler.”

The absolute throne was overthrown when Bhumibol was five. “He built a traditional, deified Buddhist kingship, at first guided by diehard princes of the ancien régime, and later, when he found his own stride, in concert with the military.”

Now, his team is crumbling. Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, 93, is ailing. His grip on the military has slackened. The Buddhist supreme patriarch has just died at 100. Both were Bhumibol’s key supporters.

Few Thais know another king. “Bhumibol has been the one constant in their lives… So this looming end portends a frightening shift in their cosmos.” The sole male in the Chakri line is Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, 61.

He has a track record of trouble, domestically and internationally, a record hushed up by the palace. His three successive wives and many girlfriends raise queries over whether he is suitable for the throne.

In an unprecedented interview in the early 1980s, Queen Sirikit said: “My son likes his weekends.” The top people around Bhumibol dislike and distrust the crown prince, a WikiLeaks US embassy cable says, adding: “But they have no solution to the danger he poses.”

Thailand lacks what constitutional monarchies like Denmark or Britain have: rules for succession that ensure against the “tragic capriciousness of royal succession.”

When Bhumibol passes, as all mortals must, what will likely fall into Vajiralongkorn’s lap is the structure of a throne closely tied to the military, with institutionalized disdain for the parliamentary democracy mapped out in Thai constitutions since 1932.

Drastic change will be “forced on the next generation,” Handley wrote in “The King Never Smiles.” Published in 2006 by Yale University, the book is banned in Bangkok. Handley wrote: “Ultimately, members of the royal family will have to make use of one of the monarchy’s greatest unspoken prerogatives: the alchemic ability and right to remake itself before others do it. That is the key to its survival.”

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TAGS: civil unrest, corruption, Juan L. Mercado, King Bhumibol, opinion, Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, Viewpoint, Yingluck Shinawatra
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