As tradition dictates, we’re here to yet again look back at the year gone by in Thailand. It looks quite different compared to the previous ones – at least on the surface. While we did not have to deal with week-long political protests, ‘biblical’ natural disasters, and even the self-proclaimed “Thainess” heralds went easy on us in 2012 (well, almost). Nevertheless, there was still enough going on to report on, as you will see here.
If you read this article, we have apparently survived the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy (and Christmas as well). Luckily, Thais did not really believe it and academics from Chulalongkorn University reassured us that nothing was going to happen – but then again, who knows if this finding was actually theirs and not stolen? Now, since we are still here, let’s look back at Thailand 2012.
In part 1 today, we look how 2012 was for the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, for the opposition in and outside parliament and also the ongoing injustice despite the change of government.
Yingluck’s first full year in power: challenging the odds
As hinted in the introduction, this year in politics was relatively calm compared to the tumultuous and eventful previous years. It was the first full year for the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai Party – and arguably no other in recent history has been under much fiercer and thorough scrutiny by the political opponents both in and outside parliament. Many of them are legitimately aiming against the government’s policies, like the subsidy rice-scheme that puts a big dent in the country’s agriculture economy, or giving away tablets at schools instead of tackling our decaying education system head-on and now the tax refunds for first-car-buyers. On the other hand, many target this government with very irrational and erratic behavior – more on that later in this article.
Nevertheless, her government has more or less sailed through this year unharmed despite everything that was thrown at them: it has comfortably survived a no-confidence debate in November and the Constitutional Court has spared them from doom in the summer. Even the hawkish military feels comfortable to side with Yingluck at the moment (and despite a few hulk-outs, army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha was pleasantly less erratic this year), since it has a government that is willingly buying new toys for them.
But the main challenge for the government will remain not to step on anybody’s toes, while trying to push ahead their policies and political goals as far as they can. In doing so, it will and already is running danger to alienate and disappoint the red shirt supporters, who are still seeking for justice for the victims of the 2010 crackdown and of the still archaic lèse majesté law – both issues that the government has been very hesitant to tackle. Add to that the ongoing omni-presence of Thaksin, who’s constantly testing the water (as he did recently on state TV) for a potential return with possible amendments to the military-installed constitution of 2007 or an amnesty bill, and the Pheu Thai Party could be in for a busy 2013 if they’re not careful enough.
Extremely loud and incredibly desperate: Thailand’s opposition wrestling with relevancy, reality
Ever since elections in July 2011, Thailand’s opposition both in and outside the democratic playing field are trying to grasp with the new reality of yet another Thaksin-influenced government – and have done so quite badly. While the Democrat Party is taking on their usual role as the parliamentary opposition and have been eager to criticize every single thing the government is doing, there have been some incidents however during the debates over the ‘amnesty bills’ earlier this summer, where the tantrum thrown by them are just erratic and desperate.
Meanwhile outside the House, the reemergence of Thailand’s royalist, right-wing and anti-democracy movements show how little progress has been made to overcome the political intolerance: the yellow-shirted, ill-named “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD) have staged street protests at the parliament in summer with just a couple of thousand supporters and the ultra-royalist multi-color shirts have attempted to re-brand themselves under the “Pitak Siam” (“Protect Siam”) banner and Gen. Boonlert Kaewprasit as their (most of the time lackluster) leader, who right out of the gate calls for yet another military coup as the only way to topple the government.
Emboldened by their first rally in October, Pitak Siam upped the ante a month later with a rally at the Royal Plaza, in which the group was deliberately trying to provoke the police forces and to incite violence. Fortunately for all involved, the rally ended in a non-violent disaster with Gen. Boonlert calling it off and also throwing in the towel as leader, as they have failed to rally enough supporters in order to reclaim ‘their’ Thailand that either doesn’t exist anymore or has never existed in the first place. However, this year has also shown that a compromise is not what is on their minds and their irrational hatred makes real reconciliation harder to realize.
Impunity prevails: when ‘reconciliation’ is more important than ‘truth’
One of the key problems of this political conflict is the fight between competing ‘truths’ about past events in recent history, especially when it comes to the violent clashes and the crackdown of the red shirt protests in 2010. In September, the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) presented its final report on its investigations into the violent clashes between the authorities and the red shirts, in which at least 90 people have lost their lives and thousands were injured. The overall conclusion of the inquiry was that the commission finds faults with both sides.
But the report will not change much or bring any justice, because both sides are already subscribed to their version of the ‘truth’ (and to some extend in total denial) and the TRCT never had any real powers and access to conduct a proper investigation in the first place. It must have been more insulting for the red shirts on May 19, on the anniversary of the 2010 crackdown, when Thaksin phoned-in yet again to urge to push for national reconciliation and set aside their feelings of anger and injustice. Of course, Thaksin had to back paddle after some considerable outrage by his supporters.
Even though now more and more death cases are determined to have been caused by the army an, then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his then-deputy Suthep Thuagsuban have now been formally charged by the very flexible Department of Special Investigation, it is doubtful that these two or any other will ever be convicted – since this country has always upheld a culture of impunity – especially towards the army – in a numbers of events (1973, 1976, 1992, 2006 etc.) and it needs a lot more to end this.
In the second part of our year-in-review tomorrow: Lèse majesté claimed its first victim, Thailand’s upcoming regional challenges, the dismal state of our education and all the other small stories that made 2012.
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, Thailand. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and is also reports for international news media such as Channel NewsAsia. You can follow him on Twitter @Saksith.