[Analytics] Thailand needs normal politics

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Photo: World Travel & Tourism Council / CC BY. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Thailand is Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy and a human development success story. At the geographic heart of the region, its security interests are myriad, from maritime security to environmental governance and peace along its long land borders, EAF Editorial Board wroted.

It has been intertwined culturally and economically with China for centuries, yet was a core member of Southeast Asia’s anti-communist bloc during the Cold War and maintains strong defence and diplomatic ties with the United States. Japan has a large economic footprint in the country, including in the form of Southeast Asia’s biggest car industry.

The missing ingredient is a functioning democracy. If it could get its politics right, Thailand would be an example for the rest of the region: as a democratic and tolerant nation, integrated into the global economy, supportive of the multilateral path to free trade and the free trade path to industrialisation. It is also invested in the ASEAN leadership with a solidarity that is the best hope of Southeast Asia’s maintaining its strategic autonomy in the face of an assertive China and an unreliable United States.

After a period of hope that followed political transition to democracy in the 1990s, Thailand’s politics went wrong. The populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra dominated at the ballot box in the 2000s and royalist oligarchs, fearing he would supplant them as the key arbiters of the political order, engineered a coup that received support from middle-class liberals appalled by Thaksin’s strongman tendencies. The military, the monarchy and conservative civil society undermined democratic rule to try ‘de-Thaksinise’ the polity for years.

The relevance of Thaksin and his politics has since abated, but the frustrated popular demands for social and political reform are again rocking the political status quo. In this week’s lead article, Kevin Hewison looks back at how, in 2020, young Thais and their values came to the fore in a mass movement that has ‘challenged Thailand’s 20th century royalism and authoritarianism, targeting former army chief Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government and the military–monarchy political regime’.

During and after the 2019 general election, the reformist billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit emerged as a magnet for the support of younger, educated voters looking for a leader who would fight for real democracy, but who didn’t carry the baggage of the Thaksinist parties. When Thanathorn’s Future Forward Party was banned by a politicised judiciary in 2019, it triggered a student-led protest movement that gained momentum even as Thailand fell into occasional pandemic-related lockdowns throughout 2020.

It’s difficult for conservatives to credibly dismiss the young Thais on the streets as rabble manipulated by a populist demagogue, as was their line through the Thaksin years. The calls for change today are led by Thailand’s future urban professional classes who see militarism and royalism as hopelessly anachronistic.

What is more remarkable is the breadth of the issues that the protest movement — effectively leaderless and rooted in online spaces — is embracing. ‘The barriers to discussing the monarchy in the media are beginning to fall, with royal wealth, power, and republicanism’ now all up for discussion, says Hewison.

The internet has been key to giving this political movement organisational and intellectual sustenance in the face of a backlash from authorities, writes James Ockey in our second article lead this week. ‘The longer unrest continues’, he says, ‘the more government leaders will face increasing pressure to resolve the crisis through either concession or suppression’.

Having tried repression throughout 2020 — to little effect — one would hope the Thai government is forced towards concession in 2021. It can have peace on the streets, and the corresponding economic benefits, if it wants it. But that will mean taking steps towards building the 21st century political system Thailand needs: a proper constitutional monarchy, in which the military stays out of politics, and in which the press, civil society and an independent judiciary — not kings or generals — discipline politicians.

As always, stability and progress will only come with reform. Thailand needs normal politics, not least because Southeast Asia needs a strong Thailand.

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