The judicial ouster of Thailand’s first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has thrown the country into yet another bout of turmoil. The court on Wednesday ruled that Yingluck can no longer remain in office because she had misused her powers to transfer Thawil Pliensri, the national security chief who was appointed by the opposition Democrat Party in 2011. The court ruled that she acted illegally in appointing her favoured candidate, a relative of the divorced wife of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s elder brother.
Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006 and later forced into exile to avoid being imprisoned, after being convicted in a corruption case. Yingluck has rejected the court’s contention that her appointee was partial to her Pheu Thai Party (PTP).
Thailand’s democracy has had a chequered history ever since the monarchy was forced to relinquish its powers in 1932. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world’s longest-serving monarch since 1946. The institution of a constitutional monarchy has not prevented an amalgam of royals, the military, businesspersons, bureaucrats and segments of the Bangkok elite to interfere in politics.
There have been 19 coups in Thailand since 1932, the last one in 2006, when the army ousted Thaksin, whose entry into politics threatened the royalist coalition. Thailand’s institutions, including the Constitutional Court, are packed with royalist sympathisers and Yingluck’s ouster has to be seen in the context of a broader struggle between the royalist elite and its supporters in southern and north-eastern Thailand.
This struggle for political and economic power is now peaking, as the king, now 86, is no longer active. Queen Sikrit is also no longer capable of back-room manipulations. The crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, is a maverick and loose cannon and allegedly under the influence of Thaksin, who helped him pay off debts. His sister, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, is popular and many Thais prefer her, rather than her brother, as the next monarch and some sections of the royalist coalition are also rooting for her. The succession rules on the issue of a female monarch are unclear.
The decision to unseat Yingluck could lead to violent demonstrations by the Red Shirts, supporters of the PTP. The Opposition, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a warlord-like southern politician with thuggish tendencies, has made bizarre demands for an interim government, chosen by the Peoples Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which he has constituted, and a reform of the political system.
The Opposition wants to rig the system in a manner that eliminates the PTP and vestiges of influence of the Shinawatras. The problem is that in any election the PTP will win hands down because of its loyal rural supporters who have benefited from Thaksin’s social security, public health and rice subsidy initiatives. Earlier attempts against Thaksin led to a military-appointed court banning the Thai Rak Thai Party, the precursor to the PTP, in 2007. The frustration of the royalist coalition has now boiled over and the court’s decision against Yingluck is another attempt in this power struggle. The Election Commission has set July 20 as the date for polling.
Thailand’s political future is up for grabs. An increasingly dysfunctional political structure and mob rule are likely to lead to another military coup. This time the army may be a reluctant coup-maker but will intervene if a civil war-like situation arises.
For India, Thailand has been the fulcrum for its ‘Look East Policy’. With over a million Indian tourists visiting Thailand annually and a growing trade and investment relationship, India can only wish that Thailand can sort out its politics. For Thailand, the July elections seem to be the way out of the political malaise.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty is a former ambassador of India to Thailand. The views expressed by the author are personal.