The real issue is not the political balance-sheet of a fugitive leader like Thaksin Shinawatra. At stake is the substance of Thailand's democracy itself.
The anti-government rally in Bangkok on Sunday (February 14) can be seen in some ways as a celebration of democracy. In fact, this is how Thailand's Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva tends to portray the protest against his ascent to power. His critics at home and abroad do not share such an assessment which, in their view, reflects his self-serving plea for staying on in office at any cost.
Objectively, it was Thailand's exposure to the current globalisation that forced the military leaders to hold a general election about a year after their 2006-coup. A charismatic but controversial leader Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled in that coup, despite his then-status as a twice-elected Prime Minister of Thailand. Ironically, Mr. Thaksin is now seen by the Thai establishment as an ambitious fugitive “plotting” his return to power from bases in self-imposed exile. The Thai establishment is a general conglomeration of Bangkok-based professionals in the armed forces and civilian avocations. They also vow intense loyalty to the long-reigning constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in a way that Mr. Thaksin is accused of not doing.
In this scene, it is Thailand's continuing exposure to globalisation that prevents Mr. Abhisit, a military-friendly leader, from ignoring the pro-Thaksin protesters. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Abhisit has said “the government respects the people's constitutional right to demonstrate peacefully”. The Internal Security Act of 2008, invoked on March 11, will be in force in Bangkok and some neighbouring provinces until March 23. The Act, which allows the use of military and police forces to quell “violent protest”, was enacted in an atmosphere of enormous political controversies.
Late in 2007, the anti-Thaksin coup-masters bowed to the globalisation-induced democratic urges of the Thai people and confidently held a poll. This was done after the poll process was believed to have been sufficiently insulated from Mr. Thaksin's “political influence”. However, the first government that emerged from such a “democracy-restoring” poll owed firm allegiance to Mr. Thaksin. Appalled at this, the power-brokers in the Bangkok-based Thai establishment created a situation conducive to the removal of such a government. This became possible when the Thaksin-loyalist Prime Minister was judicially unseated under a law on conflict of interests concerning those in high places. This brief saga was followed by the rise and fall of another Thaksin-loyalist as Thai Prime Minister. He, too, was judicially unseated. That set the stage for the advent of Mr. Abhisit, a suave anti-Thaksin leader, as the Prime Minister “in sync” with Thailand's exposure to globalisation.
Nonetheless, the democratic denouement of this kind has not exactly fulfilled the discernible calculations of the Thai establishment. Far from being able to press a reset button and bring order to a long-and-much-divided Thai political system, Mr. Abhisit remains under a continual siege. The latest anti-Abhisit protest follows a court ruling that $1.4-billion worth of Mr. Thaksin's frozen assets would now “become the property of the state”. These assets were frozen in the wake of the 2006-coup.
In purely political terms, the momentum of the ongoing anti-Abhisit protest is not exactly derived from any particular event such as a court ruling. The diverse groups of pro-Thaksin activists are banded under a banner called the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). Masses of rural poor, for whom Mr. Thaksin's prime ministerial policies had opened a window of amelioration, are not alone as the UDD activists. There are also others in the UDD camp with dreams of democracy as a form of civilian governance with no politically-significant links to the military bloc.
Thailand is no stranger to the shadows of military power of varying proportions over civilian-led-and-manned governance itself. So, the real issue now is not the political balance sheet of a fugitive leader like Mr. Thaksin. At stake is the substance of Thailand's democracy itself. In this perspective, Mr. Abhisit, surely aware of this evident reality, does have the credentials to make a positive difference to Thailand's political future.
A simple but politically-profound strategy to take Thailand out of its present crisis is to hold a free and fair general election. For this, the democracy-distorting provisions of the current Constitution, crafted under the military's watchful eyes after the 2006-coup, should go. Mr. Abhisit now tends to portray this inevitable task as an agenda feasible only in a climate of near-zero confrontation across the political aisle, as it were. Also figuring prominently in his political calculus is the lingering global economic crisis which has had an impact on Thailand as well. The country's economic health is no less important to him as he monitors the pro-Thaksin political temperature.
In all, therefore, Mr. Abhisit's current calculation is not difficult to discern, although he does not articulate it openly. In a real or tactical show of democratic spirit, he wants to allow the Thaksin-loyalists to make their case through demonstrations or political discourse. At the same time, he hopes to contain the possible political risk by using, if deemed necessary, or threatening to use military force against the protesters. Obviously, he is thinking of taking the wind out of the sails of Thaksin-loyalists by allowing them to sail across the political domain.
The Thaksin-loyalists are also being allowed to make full use of the globalised scene in which the Thai crisis is occurring. Mr. Thaksin has been allowed to encourage his supporters in Thailand through frequent “live” and video-graphic addresses from his bases in self-exile.
A battle of political attrition of this kind is, however, no substitute for a visionary approach. At an Asia-Pacific summit in Singapore last November, Mr. Abhisit was among the leaders asked about their reading habits for practising statecraft. He cited Nobel Economics laureate Amartya Sen as a worthy thought-leader on matters of anti-poverty policy. However, it stands to reason that Mr. Abhisit is no less aware of Prof. Sen's intellectual discourse on democracy and development. Maybe, there is a political lesson here for the articulate Thai leader.