BECAUSE of the importance of Thailand to the Philippines as a fellow founding member of Asean and a close friend of our country, we use in this editorial STRATFOR’s latest analysis of the political troubles there. The Manila Times’ republishing of this article is with express permission of STRATFOR.
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THE Thai government’s imposition of a 60-day state of emergency indicates that it is determined to proceed with controversial general elections, currently scheduled for Feb. 2. The emergency decree covers all of Bangkok and parts of the surrounding provinces of Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani and Samut Prakan. The decision came after the political opposition stepped up its protests, hoping to force the government to resign and postpone the election, which is expected to reaffirm the leadership of the ruling Pheu Thai party. Ultimately, the move could further restrict both sides’ ability to compromise and could invite greater turbulence into the situation.
The emergency decree expands the government’s authority to deal with protests. It could outlaw gatherings of more than five people, censor the media and impose curfews should the situation deteriorate. The decree will be effective for two months, which means it will cover the electoral period since the government is holding its ground on the election date.
Since early January protesters have stepped up their “Bangkok Shutdown” campaign, raising questions about whether conditions are peaceful enough for elections. The anti-government protesters hoped to delay the election and enable an unelected council to take power. Meanwhile, the entire spectrum of royalist and establishment political forces appears to have hardened its position against the Pheu Thai party, seeking to impeach officials accused of misconduct in connection with a draft charter amendment and calling for an investigation into the government’s infamous rice subsidy scheme.
Thailand’s political rifts deepen
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra had signaled that the government might be flexible on the election date and put forward a few electoral reforms that it hopes will appease the opposition. However, Pheu Thai may have gained confidence in its position as protests dwindled over the past few days. The result could be a larger gulf between the government and the opposition that will encourage the use of alternative forms of protest, including applying pressure through the judiciary and through post-election demonstrations.
The military’s response to the emergency rule will be important to watch because in some ways the decree will require the military to stand in support of the government. The military chief has said previously that the army will not be drawn into conflicts between the government and the opposition. Indeed, after the 2006 military coup and bloody crackdown on street protesters in 2010, the military has tried to play a subtler role in influencing politics and has refrained from direct intervention. But while the military has repeatedly stressed that it has no intention of staging a coup, it has left open the possibility of an intervention should the situation escalate. It remains unclear how the military will respond to the government’s emergency decree, but the Pheu Thai party is putting it in a situation where it can either allow the elections to proceed or directly intervene to stop them.
Although there have been fewer protesters in the streets in the past few days, concerns about violence are growing following a spate of attacks with explosives and firearms targeting protesters in central Bangkok. The anti-government protesters have accused the government of using its supporters to carry out the attacks, while the government insists that the bomb attacks are part of a conspiracy to trigger another military coup. The Thai army has indicated that someone has been moving weapons and explosives into Bangkok. It also said the Red Shirts, who are allied with the Pheu Thai government, were considering insurgency tactics if the military or other agencies forced a delay of the elections. The growing trend toward violence is putting another strain on the government’s ability to control the situation.
Even if the election is held and the Pheu Thai party is victorious, it still faces serious procedural and legal challenges to continue its grip on power. At the same time, the government is facing a number of difficulties, including disgruntled rice farmers — once Pheu Thai’s primary support base — and economic volatility. More important, whether the election is held or not, Thailand will continue to struggle in a political system that is already at the limits of what it can tolerate in terms of political polarization.
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Despite the massive poverty in our country, the failure of the Aquino administration to address this serious problem and that of corruption in the government, we should consider it a blessing that the instability Thailand has been experiencing is not happening here.
But the falling popularity of the President and the growing doubts about the sincerity of his “Tuwid na Daan” policy could eventually result in instability here before the elections in 2016.
The President and his men must stop fomenting disunity and polarization before it is too late.