by Marque A Rome
Tomorrow begins what may be the final push to drive Thailand’s caretaker government from power. People with an interest in the country need to take a good look at what that might mean, who the figures involved are, and how it shall be accomplished.
When Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra established a ‘Political Reform Council’ in August of last year, the Democrat Party refused to join in, calling for a ‘People’s Reform Committee’ instead. Reform has been an issue in Thai politics — smouldering ominously, occasionally bursting into violence — since the 1932 military revolt that officially established ‘democracy’ in Thailand.
Yingluck’s government had been trying to push an ‘Amnesty Amendment’ on the nation since coming to power in 2011. The latter would have pardoned a host of politicians, including Yingluck’s brother, former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, for any act committed since 2004, and bring the country back to the status quo ante. Many thought it would also bring back Thaksin and restore him 46 billion baht seized by court order after he lost an abuse of power case.
Passage of the Amnesty Amendment caused Bangkok to erupt in protest, and such a committee as the Democrats suggested was indeed formed by ‘former’ Democrat MPs, former members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy and their allies. In Thai it is called the ‘People’s Committee to Create Perfect Democracy in Thailand with the King as Leader’; in English the less revealing ‘People’s Democratic Reform Committee’.
It is led by former deputy prime minister and Democrat Party secretary Suthep Thaugsuban (pronounced ‘Sootehp Tu-eksuban’) — who sprang into prominence overnight and surely ranks among the most remarkable figures in the history of politics.
The anti-amnesty protests, which drew millions into the streets in opposition, so rattled the government that Yingluck, despite her overwhelming majority, dissolved parliament and called new elections for 2nd February.
The rest is history.
Suthep and the PDRC sufficiently blocked polling in Bangkok and the south that results did not survive a court challenge: the Constitutional Court nullified the election last week and ordered new polling. A senior member of the PDRC has said that the group’s strategy is to “shake the tree till the ripened mango falls of its own accord,” and indeed, the caretaker government looks increasingly as though it cannot continue in office.
Should the mango fall, a “neutral” caretaker will be appointed — and the PDRC will have achieved one of the principal planks in its programme, for its adherents are united in insisting no discussion shall be entertained, the government must go, and no elections held till reform is complete under the neutral caretaker.
Suthep, meanwhile, is reaching a kind of apotheosis, even appearing on a fashion magazine cover (see it here). He is the Elvis Beatle of Thai politics. People hand him wads of money as he walks down the street. As I write this, it is being reported that he yesterday (Wednesday, 27 March, ’14) collected more than 5 million baht during one of his processions.
He is an unlikely candidate for such adulation; his aster took more than thirty years to appear.
After receiving his MA in political science at Middle Tennessee State University, Suthep, now 64 years-old, entered Parliament in 1979 as Democrat MP from Suratthani. His talents were wasted, however, in that chamber of bluster and mendacity, where votes accord strictly with party-line. The best oratory in the world will sway not a one.
Yet Suthep IS an orator, the very man to galvanize a crowd — to action, to death if need be. It is his natural oeuvre, as Thailand discovered when he began daily harangues leading the PDRC. His constant theme has been “reform before elections”. On it has he harped unceasingly, with minimal detail, till it now is the dominant point of view: results from a nationwide NIDA survey of 1255 persons “from all walks of life” announced this week indicate nearly 53 percent of Thais want ‘reform before elections’.
38 percent, however, want the opposite.
Many doubt Suthep and his allies’ sincerity. An anonymous blogger on the popular Panthip vernacular site wrote yesterday, “Elections before reform vs. reform before elections, that is the question; and we really have rather small knowledge of such things (in fact, none at all) so it will be greatly appreciated if someone can supply information.” The inference, of course, is that the PDRC has not.
Some blunt exchanges on Facebook show how divisive the issue is. A poetical doctor wrote in support of the PDRC, observing that, unless Thaksin and his crew are driven out, “Sovereignty in the state will fall wholly to wealthy businessmen, and the rest will find themselves the poorer in surrendering to money power.” To which one writer responded: “The Shinawatras ‘reformed’ the police stations: now only the pilings remain. But if that pirate Suthep does the reforming, will even that much be left?”
Another observer responded simply by posting a montage comparing Suthep to Mussolini.
Thus the great questions are, “What will reform look like?” and “How can it be legally carried through in the absence of a legislature?” The latter is an especially ticklish matter because, as one blogger has noted: “It’s against the law and in violation of democratic fundamentals.”
A number of persons and organisations have proposed reforms, but, though greatly-to-wished-for, most have little relevance simply because they are not Suthep’s plan. His — the PDRC’s plan — is the one that needs to be studied. In a speech made 16th December, he allowed that complete reform might take 20 years, but thinks it can be accomplished in five categories “within a year or a year-and-a-half,” namely:
1) Overhauling the entire electoral system
2) Eliminating corruption eliminated and enacting a system to protect against it
3) Making democracy “more accepting of the people’s power”
4) Overcoming social inequality
5) Completely overhauling the national police
To carry out the reform process, Suthep and the PDRC insist a People’s Assembly be formed, with members therein appointed from various sectors and organisations: e.g. businessmen; state enterprise workers; academics; civil servants.
Suthep’s programme of reform is similar to that advanced by former Democrat Party foreign minister (1997 – 2001) and Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretary (2008 – 2013) Surin Pitsuwan, though less detailed. Surin, a Muslim academic with broad credentials once considered for secretary of the United Nations (to replace Kofi Anan — Ban Kee Moon was chosen instead), has been long associated with United States policy objectives, having worked with the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, become a fellow of the Rockefeller Fellowship, a Congressional Fellow, and taught at Harvard, the American University in Cairo, and the American University in Washington, D.C.
Surin steered ASEAN into the neo-Liberal ASEAN Economic Community, beginning 2016, which will dismantle tariffs and open ASEAN countries to greater foreign control — via investment — than any has had since World War II, and open the area to economic dislocations similar to those experienced by the European Union (EU) since the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Not surprisingly, Surin is against the so-called ‘populist’ programmes initiated by Thaksin and his associated governments — including the national healthcare programme, the 300-baht per day minimum wage, the Rice Pledging Programme — indeed any programme that might run a deficit, irrespective of how useful the general public finds it.
In this, Suthep concurs, and a principal task of the People’s Assembly will be to nullify such programmes and make Thailand the neo-Liberal Paradise it once was.
Suthep, until November well-known as a ruthlessly political animal, now finds fault with the electoral system that gave him his start. He finds it utterly corrupt and seeks to reform not only the election laws, but those governing politicians, political parties and the Election Commission. Politicos found buying votes, he says, should go to jail for “five to ten years.”
He harps continually on the issue of corruption, laying nearly all the country’s problems to corruption sponsored by Thaksin’s governments.
Yet Suthep is hardly clean as a hound’s tooth. As it happens, he resigned his Parliamentary seat in 2009 — while retaining position as deputy prime minister in charge of security — when the Election Commission discovered he held shares in a media company. The constitution forbids Members of Parliament from having such holdings. Before formal charges were brought, however, he resigned his seat, thereby avoiding a court case which, had he lost, might have resulted in a five-year ban from politics.
The move caused a sensation. Another scandal involving Suthep was the notorious 1995 Sor Por Khor Land Reform Act, which resulted in land intended for farmers at Kamala and in the Nakkerd hills of Phuket being awarded to millionaire cronies of prominent Phuket Democrats. Suthep’s share in the controversy — he personally signed the documents on a day when he was Acting Prime Minister — was censured in Parliament by Banharn Silpa-archa, with the result that Democrat Party PM Chuan Leekpai dissolved the chamber.
Voters slammed the Democrats in elections thereafter and Banharn’s Chart Thai Party took over.
15 years later, Suthep was object of corruption allegations when irregularities were adduced in closed contract bidding on construction of 396 police stations. The National Police Office recommended contracts be put to open bid, with one contract for each locale where construction would take place — meaning 396 contracts. Suthep, however, as he later explained, felt that was time-consuming and inefficient, so he handed the contract for all construction to a single company under a single contract.
When news of the change became public, outrage ensued, and Suthep quickly reverted to the National Police Office’s bidding procedure. He was publicly castigated by the head of the Department of Special Investigations, Tarit Pengdist, whom he sued for slander.
Tarit and Suthep, it should not be surprising, are on opposite sides in the current controversy, Tarit being a principal supporter of the Shinawatra government, member of Yingluck’s inner council and director of the emergency Peace-Keeping Council set up after Suthep’s ‘Shutdown Bangkok’ movement began in earnest.
When Wikileaks released secret State Department cables purloined by army Private Bradley Manning, among them were transmissions from US Embassy staff in Bangkok detailing rifts in the Democrat Party caused by what they called Suthep’s outrageously corrupt behaviour.
So Suthep’s political record is somewhat at odds with his new image, which paints him as a disinterested saint fighting against the money power. Made public on 4th February by the National Anti-Corruption Commission were records of his assets and outstanding debts: the latter amounted to 323 million baht; he had assets totaling 210 million baht. The debts resulted from 267 million baht in loans taken out since the 2011 election, when he lost his Cabinet post, including 248 million baht from the Islamic Bank of Thailand. Since his filing in October of 2012, he retired about 25 million baht in debt — rather a lot of money.
So heavy a debt load as Suthep’s must concentrate the mind wonderfully — but on what is the question.
Suthep says Thaksin and his associates stand law on its head and run the country only for private gain. Yet, if Thaksin treats law and parliamentary procedure with cavalier disrespect, he nonetheless participates in the democratic process. Some would say his chief fault has been in being too successful thereat: Thaksin’s were the first — and still the only — political parties in Thailand to receive parliamentary majorities through election. He has no need to invite the Democrats or other parties into coalition, thus cutting off political plums they long enjoyed, and doubtless wish once more to enjoy. For it is proverbial in Thai politics that nothing is worse than being left to rot uselessly in Parliament, out of power, with no access to the pork-barrel.
Thaksin has been simply invincible at the polls: the 2006 constitution was written with an eye to keeping him from further victories, yet his party won handily in 2011 — and that with him in exile, a convicted criminal, on the lam, and his nominee for prime minister’s sole credential merely that she is his baby sister.
It is from this, perhaps, from Thakin’s over-whelming appeal to voters, and not altruism, that sprang Suthep and the Democrats’ refusal to allow elections till ‘reform’ is carried through. They know they won’t beat him otherwise.
So, ‘reform’ is magic now in Thailand, thanks to Suthep’s compelling oratory and lack of scrutiny among his auditors. Many PDRC supporters believe Yingluck, for example, is Thaksin’s love-child by a woman other than his wife, Pojaman. A photo showing her, fully clothed, smiling while her picture is snapped by a man seen naked in the mirror behind her, is distributed via the Internet.
She is no better than a streetwalker, they say, without considering how easy it is for images to be manipulated by her enemies. So many are scandalized by such PDRC agit-prop, they don’t worry how Suthep’s mooted reforms shall be implemented.
Reform will come about, according to the PDRC, via Article 7 of the constitution, which they think allows set-up of an appointed People’s Assembly and the wholesale legal changes covered in the word ‘reform’. The article in question reads: “When no section of the constitution applies in a given circumstance, the question must be considered in a way that accords with norms of democratic government having H.M the King as leader.”
Apparently the PDRC wants people to believe the constitution does not cover what they want to do. But what they want to do is overturn laws they don’t like, amend others, and create new ones to insure against re-emergence of what they call ‘Thaksinism’ — and the constitution is quite specific about what body makes law in Thailand and how that body is constituted:
Article 90 states: “Laws shall be enacted only with the advice and consent of Parliament.” Article 93 states that members of Parliament (the actual Thai phrase, ‘ratasapa poo taen radsadorn’, translates thus: ‘The People’s Representative Assembly’) shall come in the lower house via district and party-list elections. When Parliament is dissolved, the constitution mandates elections shall be held, overseen by the Election Commission.
In a nutshell: Parliament is elected and it makes the laws.
Making laws, then, is not a circumstance to which no section of the constitution is applicable. Thus appointing a People’s Assembly to make laws instead of Parliament is legally doubtful — unless the constitution is suspended. As a matter of fact, the constitution rules out that, as well, making it illegal to contravene the document in any way.
So the magic word ‘reform’, as explicated by the PDRC, inevitably has perhaps a more sinister meaning: trashing the constitution.
Is that what should be done? Many are so anxious to expunge Thaksin’s footprint from the place that they will go to any length: consider the blackshirt tactics used to shutdown government and interrupt the February elections. They openly work to create a “political vacuum” so that legally established government can be put aside.
His opponents obviously consider Thaksin the very devil; and so he may be, his ‘seua dang’ supporters used similarly fascist tactics to disrupt Bangkok in 2010. But in replacing the devil they know, will the opposition one day wake up to find themselves prostrate before a divinity (‘Suthep’ means ‘good god’) who doesn’t even pay lip-service to ‘democratic norms’ — and so further than ever from the ‘democracy’ they so cherish?