THAILAND is now under the strong grip of tightening martial law dictates. This has happened after nearly seven months of protests that have left twenty eight people dead and hundreds wounded. There were calls for fresh polls but anti-government protesters countered by saying that they will not stomach new polls without widespread reforms and vowed to remain on the streets. The warring political factions have not been able to arrive at an acceptable solution and consequently, the army chief has assumed effective executive powers, reportedly with the blessings of the much revered Thai king.
To recollect, the dismissal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra earlier this month in a controversial constitutional court ruling has stoked tensions in the kingdom, which has endured years of political turmoil. “Red Shirt” supporters of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed as premier in a 2006 coup, have warned of the threat of civil war if power is handed over to an unelected leader, as opposition protesters demanded. To the relief of many, that has not happened and the Thai army has assumed political powers and looks set to rule for some length of time at least.
The underlying tensions marking the Thai political crisis remains because the backdrop is a nearly decade-long struggle. In that struggle is pitted a royalist establishment backed by parts of the military, judiciary and Bangkok-based elite-against Thaksin's billionaire family, which has traditionally enjoyed strong support among poor and rural voters in northern Thailand. However, it is not yet clear as to how the intervention of army generals—traditionally seen as staunch defenders of the monarchy—would affect the balance in the long-running power struggle.
It is interesting to note that Thailand had been without a fully functioning government since December 2014, disrupting government spending, spooking investors and deterring foreign tourists. Thais, it would appear, have become accustomed to political upheaval although there are, clearly, confusion and nervousness over how the crisis will unfold in the coming months.
From a historical perspective, Thailand has lacked a stable system of constitutional rule since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. In fact, the nation experienced a total of 16 new constitutions prior to the 1997 constitution, as periods of civilian government alternated with phases of military rule. In 1995, influenced by the ideas of Thai liberal intellectuals, a constitutional drafting assembly representing all regions of Thailand took up the task of reaching agreement on the essentials of a new constitution. The proposals which emerged were strongly resisted by entrenched elements such as generals, senators, judges, and village heads.
A number of diverse groupings ranging from monk intellectuals to the Democrat Party in parliament, recognised that Thailand needed to strengthen its internal institutions if it was going to survive and prosper. A radically improved constitution offered a new way forward. There was a comprehensive attempt to change social facts by law. The constitutional proposals contained measures designed to guarantee democracy and human rights, exclude military influence in the political process, and eliminate corruption in public life. The 1997 constitution represented a revolution in Thai politics. It was a bold attempt at conferring greater power to the Thai people than had ever been granted before. So, how come, after 14 years, martial law has been imposed?
It may be worth recollecting that the overwhelming win by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the January 2005 election, in which he took 370 of the 500 seats in Parliament, was very unsatisfactory. It led to concerns over the accelerated erosion of democracy. It was alleged that the collapse of the opposition Democratic Party was greatly assisted by Thaksin's control over a substantial section of the media and by blatant vote buying in which, reportedly, $260million was spent in bribes to voters during the campaign. The performance of the Election Commission to counter the gross irregularities fell a long way short of the high expectations reposed in a constitutional body.
The 1997 Thai constitution resulted from a process of popular consultation and contained many positive features. However, the fundamental problem has been that the key players have not accepted the rules of constitutionalism. In particular, the credibility of the entire structure has been questioned because the most influential figures that operate the levers of power have blatantly breached the rules. The accountability mechanisms were engaged but the authority of the constitution was dissipated when one defaulting prime minister was allowed by the constitutional court to escape with impunity while another was perhaps disproportionately punished for a lesser infraction.
Thailand's political institutions have been expected to function in the absence of a tradition of parliamentary and local politics based on distinct or opposing ideological viewpoints. Party groupings have tended to coalesce around powerful individuals. Since such individuals have apparently no genuine commitment to structural reform or wealth redistribution in what remains a very unequal society, the democratic process has little to offer the vast majority of Thai citizens.
The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.