USA’s Kurt Campbell, says Bangkok power elite have been unable to acknowledge that wheel of history has turned

The Fascist Suthep is running wild, empowered by Abhisit’s Democrat Party hoard of voter based, threatening Democracy in Thailand.

Respect for democracy in Thailand needs support

By Kurt Campbell

The writer is chairman and chief executive of The Asia Group and on the board of the Center for a New American Security. From 2009-13 he served as the assistant US secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs

Much is made in the west of the supposed enigmatic qualities of the east and generally that sentiment really tells us more about a lack of knowledge among westerners than about the complexities of things Asian. However, Thailand may be an exception. Even the most astute observers are regularly caught off guard by political developments inside the kingdom.

I remember speaking to one of America’s most respected Thai specialists seven years ago just before the coup against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and he sagely advised that all was stable in Bangkok and there were no threats to his popularly elected government. Two weeks later, on September 19 2006, the army was in the streets and the military took power, repeating a tragic pattern that has bedevilled Thailand’s politics for decades.

Jump forward to 2013 and Thailand is again entering an exceedingly complex and potentially dangerous political period. On Sunday Thailand’s main opposition party stormed out of parliament, claiming the illegitimacy of the democratically elected government currently led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Mr Thaksin. These minority legislators are intimately aligned with the protesters who have staged the massive rallies in Bangkok. The opposition has claimed “popular support” even though Ms Yingluck’s Puea Thai party came to power in a landslide 2011 vote that virtually all observers agree was free and fair. This latest intrigue simply disguises a larger truth: for almost 20 years the Bangkok power elite – business tycoons, royalist followers and some senior military – have been unable to acknowledge that the wheel of history has turned.

The opposition Democrats have essentially lost every national election since 1992, and their strategy increasingly appears to rely on undemocratic practices. Rather than building a competitive political opposition that would promote popular political and economic reforms, the anti-Thaksin forces in the courts, military and whisperers around the royal court have driven three democratically elected governments out of office since 2006. These reactionary forces – despite the changing labels and political configurations – are essentially the “yellow shirts”, and it is their allies and foot soldiers who are storming the government ministries.

Ms Yingluck has comported herself admirably both at home and abroad since her election. She is widely respected in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and has managed her country’s diplomacy with a typical Thai subtlety. At home she has tried to build bridges to the opposition. It is true that the government triggered the most recent crisis by introducing an amnesty bill in parliament that among other things would excuse the criminal charges against Mr Thaksin and would allow for her brother’s subsequent return from exile. However, in the face of strong parliamentary opposition, Ms Yingluck withdrew the bill and won a subsequent vote of confidence. This is exactly how parliament is meant to work.

However, the opposition has seized on this as an example of perfidy that cannot be excused and has stoked the crisis by putting its supporters out into the streets. Fundamentally, Thailand’s politics have changed irrevocably. The Thaksins were the first to build a political movement on a rising rural class with aspirations for a more egalitarian Thailand in the future. The old powers – that be in the uniformed elite, in cozy Thai boardrooms, in the privy council and in the courts – must adapt to this new set of political realities, and the opposition that represents them needs to compete in this political arena and not resort to coup plotting.

Amid this domestic turmoil, the international community has been curiously silent. Much has been said about the US and others seeking to advance the ramparts of democracy and rule of law into countries that are as yet undemocratic. Less, regrettably, on the imperative of strengthening already democratic but struggling states. For the US and others, a more public message of support for the democratic processes in Thailand would be welcome and could indeed be decisive in the uncertain days ahead. There are many reasons why even some in the current Thai government might be ambivalent about western public statements of support, from concern that it might somehow complicate the close relationship with China to suggesting undue American interference. The international community should, nevertheless, underscore that both sides in the domestic struggle should commit to electoral and legal means for resolving disputes and not to rely upon unelected “people’s councils” – the preferred venue for governance by key leaders on the Democratic side.

As Asia struggles with difficult issues in North Korea, worries over heightened tensions between Japan and China and evaluates the historic outcomes of Chinese Communist party’s third plenum last month, it is still important to remember Thailand and its churning, struggling and still at risk democratic trajectory.

The writer is chairman and chief executive of The Asia Group and on the board of the Center for a New American Security. From 2009-13 he served as the assistant US secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs

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