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Editorial

Military alternative

/ 12:11 AM May 22, 2014

We view the turn of events in Thailand with great concern. Thais are longtime allies and friends of the Philippines, and the declaration of martial law on Tuesday creates a new complication for a country already in the seventh month of an increasingly debilitating political crisis. It is possible that the declaration might force the issue in Thailand and lead to a positive resolution; the Thai military’s repeated assertion that the declaration of martial law would not lead to yet another military coup is a truly welcome sign. Nevertheless, we worry about the implications.

The last time the powerful Thai military intervened in a political crisis was in 2006, under very similar circumstances. The duly elected government at that time was run by the telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, then serving as prime minister; the protesters thronging the streets and filling even the corridors of government halls saw the populist regime as a long-term threat to the Thai elite, the traditionally royalist ruling class.

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It’s the same situation today. The elected government is identified with Thaksin’s family, even though his sister Yingluck has just been removed from office on a baffling legal technicality and a caretaker prime minister has taken her place. The increasingly violent protests and the progressively brazen calls to oust the government and replace it with an unelected reformist council have been led by the same anti-Thaksin forces.

In 2006, the Thai military intervened by taking over the government. This week, it intervened by declaring martial law—and calling on the parties to reason together.

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We hope that the Thai military’s intervention will serve to calm the political waters, and that the exchange of threats between the two sides will be replaced by a candid but civil dialogue. But the roots of the Thai crisis suggest that a meeting of minds is unlikely. For the forces allied with Thaksin, the central issue is democracy: Shouldn’t the party that wins the elections enjoy the privilege of running the government? On the other hand, the anti-Thaksin forces, which have lost the ability to win national elections in the last decade, believe that the crucial question is corruption—corruption in government, and corruption of the traditional Thai way of life. Shouldn’t the party most committed to the nation’s highest interests have the privilege of reforming that nation’s dysfunctional political system?

There is, to be sure, some oversimplification here, but not by much. The crisis has festered precisely because the two sides have diametrically opposed views, and each can count on millions of active supporters. The result has been a weakening, not only of Thailand’s institutions, but also of Thailand’s standing in the regional community.

It is absolutely the wrong time for a weakened Thailand. Tensions over competing claims in the South China Sea have ratcheted to a new level of contentiousness. Even Indonesia, the largest economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is now contesting China’s maritime ambitions. Thailand, however, has no immediate stake in the competing claims; as Asean’s second largest economy and the regional hub for certain major industries, its voice carries a long way. It would be in the best position, perhaps together with Singapore, to facilitate China’s full cooperation in the drafting of the much-needed Code of Conduct.

Unfortunately, its political crisis prevents its voice from being heard in the South China Sea disputes.

A weakened Thailand also undermines the appeal of democracy in our part of the world. Burma (Myanmar) is still in the middle of a difficult transition; the integrity of the electoral systems in a few other Asean countries remains under pressure. The failure of Thai politicians to resolve a grave crisis thus sends the wrong message: that the military remains a viable alternative to elected politicians.

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TAGS: Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Burma, myanmar, South China Sea, Thai military, Thailand, Thais, Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck Shinawatra
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