Thai politics

A nation on hold

Thirteen years ago today, Thaksin Shinawatra’s overthrow by the Thai military sparked a political crisis that has set the nation’s progress back more than a decade

WHY WE WROTE THIS: Because Thailand’s political crisis didn’t end with this year’s national election.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn
September 19, 2019
A nation on hold
Thailand has been bitterly divided between a pro-democracy Redshirt movement and the royalist Yellowshirts for more than a decade

Editor’s note: Thirteen years ago this week, Thailand’s democratically elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was thrown out of office in a military coup. More than a decade – and another coup – on, a new King is presiding over a civilian government led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Southeast Asia Globe spoke to exiled Thai academic Giles Ji Ungpakorn about how Thaksin’s fall and the ensuing power struggle has kept Thailand trapped in stasis.

This is the second part of our interview series marking the anniversary of Thaksin’s fall. You can read the first part here.

If you could look back I suppose 13 years now, what was your immediate response when you realised that the army was taking that step to kick Thaksin out of power? 
My immediate response was that the clock was being turned back to the era of coup d’etats and military rule, which a number of us thought was over. So there was a sense of depression, but also outrage – and outrage because the people that staged the coup claimed they were protecting the monarchy, which of course meant that they were hoping that nobody would dare criticise the coup d’etat – which didn’t quite happen the way they wanted it to.

By 2006, Thaksin was a divisive figure – not just within the pro-monarchy urban elite, but also perhaps with some of the people who did have high expectations for what his democratically elected government would be able to do. Did you see this coming? Did you think that the pushback against Thaksin would take this form?
Well, you talk about a divisive figure, but actually all politicians are divisive in the sense that you can’t have someone who everyone agrees with – politics is about debate and differences of opinion. Yes, I was caught off guard, because I didn’t think it would come to a coup d’etat – I knew that there were mass demonstrations by the middle-class royalists and people who didn’t like pro-poor policies, but I never thought it would come to a coup d’etat. I underestimated them.

Looking ahead to the repeat of this in 2014, and the steps the military would take not just to ensure that the Shinawatras had no part to play in politics but also to cement their own role within the foundation of Thai politics moving forwards – did you anticipate that this step in 2006 would mean that the military would remain so ingrained in Thai politics?
Well, I suppose I learned my lesson from the 2006, but what we saw was the fact that despite the 2006 coup and the various crackdowns against pro-democracy demonstrators, in the end when it came to elections, Pheu Thai won the hearts and minds of the people – and won a majority. So when the crisis erupted against the Yingluck government, it became obvious that they were not going to tolerate further elections without fiddling with the democratic process. And as Prayuth’s dictatorship progressed, it was obvious that they wanted a form of guided democracy – and we’re in that now.

This political crisis has meant that developing Thai society into a modern democratic society have been put on hold since 2006

This is maybe a slightly pointless question looking back now, but do you think that there was anything that Thaksin and his government could have done to have avoided this outcome, or did his popularity always make this inevitable in some shape or form?
Thaksin could have tried to build a mass movement to defend the government. But it wasn’t really in his nature, because he was an elite politician – he was always hoping to come to a deal with the other elites who were against him rather than actually mobilising popular support on the streets. The thing that brought the crisis to a head under Yingluck was actually that Thaksin had tried to do a deal with the Yellowshirts, the army and the royalists – and people were very angry about that.

So all the time, Thaksin as an elite business politician failed to take the steps to defend democracy – he never really defended democracy. And whenever he’s made speeches, it’s all about himself – in the days running up to Prayuth’s coup d’etat, he and his allies demobilised the Redshirt movement. So you don’t have a pro-democracy social movement today in Thailand that can actually expand the democratic space.

Do you think that there are the seeds of that mass popular movement within Thailand today? Again, this is something that we’ve talked about a little bit before – the idea that if you can find a politician or party who can get people out on the streets and force the issue, that that will be the way forward. Looking at how Thai politics has progressed over the past ten years, do you think that that’s still an option?
Well for a start, if it isn’t an option then there’s no hope for expanding the democratic space and freedom and democracy within Thailand, so it has to be an option. How realistic it is in the short term depends on the situation. Yes, we have the seeds of such a movement, there are numerous groups of people who are very opposed to Prayuth’s extension of his parliamentary dictatorship if you like, but because of the experience of the Redshirts, they’re not convinced that you can build a mass popular movement. So that’s the main obstacle to building this social movement.

If people are just going to place all their hopes in Thaksin, then there is no future for freedom and democracy

But it’s difficult to tell what will happen in the future – mass movements have been built in Thailand. And the best mass movement would not be built by established elite politicians, because they would seek to control the movement and restrict it. The best kind of movement would be a grassroots movement – which we have seen in a number of other countries: Hong Kong and Sudan, for example.

What continuing role do you see for Thaksin Shinawatra in Thai politics in this post-return to ostensible politics stage?
The Pheu Thai Party won a significant number of seats – they’re now sharing the role of opposition with Future Forward. So they’re still a significant political force within Thailand, and Thaksin clearly influences Pheu Thai. In that sense, that would be his role. 

But really, if people are just going to place all their hopes in Thaksin, then there is no future for freedom and democracy. 

Any other comments?
Well the comment I’d make would be that the 2006 coup d’etat and the events before and after it really turned the clock back – and created such a political crisis which has not yet ended. And this political crisis has meant that the issues of progressive politics, the issues of moving forward and developing Thai society into a modern democratic society have been put on hold since 2006.

We could have been discussing the implementation of a welfare state, we could have been discussing all sorts of issues which would have developed the living standards of ordinary Thai people and pushed forward towards a more modern society. But none of that has happened, because of the intervention of the army and the middle class and the royalists.

Read more articles