The Thai Revolution
On Friday the Thai parliament elected Yingluck Shinawatra as Prime Minister by a strong majority, shortly followed by her royal endorsement this weekend. The first day of the Yingluck Administration marks the culmination of not just one campaign, but rather a five-year life-or-death struggle to restore representative democracy in Thailand and challenge the predominant political paradigm of military-elite consensus.
Without reservation I extend my warmest congratulations to Prime Minister Yingluck along with the 15 million members of the Red Shirt movement and millions of other Thai citizens, who, disgusted with the unfairness and ineptitude of unelected leadership, have bravely stood up for their rights and prevailed.
What has happened in Thailand over the past few years can be considered as nothing short of a democratic revolution, not dissimilar from the upheavals spreading like wildfire across the Arab world but luckily more successful. The red shirts took to the streets to voice their rejection of not just one coup-backed government, but to challenge a predominant mentality that has characterized the political discourse of the country for many years. Both Red Shirts and independent Thai citizens demonstrated a commitment during this election to empower themselves and right many of the historical wrongs that have been foisted upon the country by a narcissistic elite who appear constitutionally unable to think beyond the needs of the upper middle class of Bangkok. The generation that has come forward to pursue these transformative changes shares a direct historical line with those before them, from 1992, to 1976, to 1973 – who, facing the same struggle for representation and rights against the brutal repression of the military, gave their lives for a better future for Thailand.
But Yingluck’s first day as PM marks the beginning, not the end, of the Thai revolution. The challenges are profound. The new government inherits a country left in very rough shape by the abuses of Abhisit and the Democrats. Today Thailand still houses within its jails hundreds of political prisoners, unrecognized by the United States and Amnesty International, who are serving serving lengthy jail sentences based on scandalously minimal evidence relating to their attempt to exercise freedom of expression. The specter of lese majeste abuses still hangs ominously over society, requiring careful and thoughtful reform. And then, of course, there will have to be actions taken to redress the Bangkok massacres of 2010 by the Thai Army.
Prime Minister Yingluck has already given indications that she intends to pursue national reconciliation by backing the work of the Kanit Commission, which is a very positive signal that she wants all parties involved. Perhaps if the panel is given more leeway and a sincere commitment from the state (which they lacked under Abhisit), more answers and facts will become available on what happened during these terrible days of violence, and the Commission will have the opportunity to successfully fulfill its mandate. At first the new government will be highly concerned with managing risks and stability, but will soon they will have to get to work on solving the cases of political prisoners, and securing the release of all those people who were imprisoned for ideas instead of crimes. And then will come the politically fraught process of accountability for massacres, which will also have to be done according to the law while meeting international standards.
We cannot at this point speculate what forces of counter-revolution are at work, but comparatively, in many countries that undergo a change like this you usually see the first counter-revolution develop in about 24 months. How will this occur, and how will Thai citizens defend their access to democracy? I cannot say. But it seems clear from the events of 2010 and 2011, that the old way of doing things – from military coups to judicial interventions to forced dissolution of popular political parties – is not a viable nor legitimate way to win over the hearts of the people. The traditional elites will have to learn to start playing by the rules, working hard to win votes at the ballot box instead of sending in the troops or cooking up false legal cases to pin on opponents. The people will not put up with the old tricks, and, judging by a number of independent reports, articles, and documentaries, the international community is finally catching on to what is really happening.
At a minimum, we all owe the Thai people the courtesy of supporting their struggle for freedom and supporting the efforts of the new government, while ignoring the petty defamation coming from the defeated parties and their apparatus in the media. The one safety net that we should accord Yingluck Shinawatra and the Puea Thai Party against the counter-revolution is an honest consideration of the country’s political reality, which bears little similarity to the narratives spun by those who seek to drag Thailand back to the days of military repression and elite rule.