restricted access Thailand: Thaksin Survives Yet Disquiet Floods the Kingdom
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Thaksin Survives Yet Disquiet Floods the Kingdom

During 2011 the unresolved legacies of recent political conflict continued to overshadow prospects for reconciliation in Thailand. The pivot for the current troubles is the coup of 19 September 2006 when the army leadership, in concert with palace insiders, deposed the electorally successful government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.1 The coup was designed to dismantle the Thaksin juggernaut and eradicate his supposedly malign, even dictatorial, influence from national life. The worry, both then and now, is that Thaksin can disrupt the careful plans — economic, political, royal, etc. — of other factions among the country's elite. Thaksin, with his telecommunications fortune and unique track record of marshalling electoral support, has been portrayed as the enemy of national unity. Since the coup there have been more than five years of jousting between Thaksin and his allies, on the one hand, and senior members of the military, Privy Council, judiciary, and bureaucracy on the other. In 2011 the ghosts of the 2006 extra-constitutional intervention, and the ineptitude and violence that followed, returned to haunt the coup makers. With the 2011 election there is a final popular verdict on the coup and its aftermath. It is a bleak one for those who had worked towards Thaksin's downfall.

Remarkably, Thaksin has survived. With the Pheua Thai Party's resounding election victory on 3 July 2011, and its leadership of the country's new coalition government, his ignominious exile from Thailand, and from official political activities, may be coming to an end. All efforts to purge him have failed. By a large margin, Thaksin remains the most electorally successful politician in the country's history and the events of 2011 reinforce his singular claim to a popular [End Page 301] mandate.2 With the triumph of his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin is once again in a decisive position. And while Yingluck is commonly described as a "political novice",3 and many doubt her abilities,4 she has proved a very effective proxy for Thaksin and his brand of politics. The conundrum now facing Thaksin's political opponents is that their policies and personalities, as represented by the Democrat Party and the New Politics Party, among other party political movements, do not garner widespread electoral support. In 2011 even the quirky "vote no" campaign of the hard line anti-Thaksin groups failed to make much of an impression.5 The strength of Thaksin's base in the rural provinces of the north and northeast, but also in the predominately working class areas on Bangkok's periphery, is clear. Efforts to stigmatize him have largely failed.6 The evidence from 2011 is that support remains robust for Thaksin personally and more broadly for the brand of populism, and patronage, he represents.7

Nonetheless, the role of anti-Thaksin military, royal, judicial, and bureaucratic networks is a complicating factor. While they may enjoy only modest popular support for their political agendas, these institutions are potentially powerful centres for undermining the Pheua Thai-led government and its electoral success. The army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, and senior palace officials, such as the Privy Council chairman, General Prem Tinsulanonda, among others, are deeply enmeshed in efforts to neuter Thaksin's influence.8 They remain wary of Thaksin, speak out against his corrupt and disruptive history, and likely harbour an appetite to challenge him again in the years ahead. In this context, soon after the 2011 election Singapore-based political analyst Pavin Chachavalpongpun went so far as to argue that "[i]t is time for Madame Prime Minister to act like a true soldier — fire the one [General Prayuth] who has caused great damage to Thai interests."9 Yingluck has yet to take that advice and one explanation for her hesitancy is that the freedom of action of senior military figures is greatly diminished by the electoral support she commands. Furthermore, since the violent crackdown on Thaksin-aligned Red Shirt protestors in April-May 2010 (when ninety-one people were killed), both the palace and the army have been increasingly targeted for their anti-democratic tendencies.10 Any future political interventions outside the electoral and...