Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thailand: Indicators of a Parallel Government Emerging is Not A Good Sign, See Travel Advice in Comment Below

According to The Associated Press, protesters waging a surreal political battle to oust Thailand's elected prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, 46, are attempting to establish what amounts to a parallel government, one complete with "volunteer peacekeepers" to replace the police, a foreign policy of their own and a central committee that has already begun issuing audacious orders.

Among the most brazen came Tuesday (December 10), a demand that "interim" Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra be prosecuted for "insurrection," and another calling on the public to "monitor" her family's movements.

Leading academics have slammed the scheme as undemocratic and unconstitutional. Critics have called the protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, 64, delusional. Yet, the former member of Parliament bid to seize power could become reality if the military or the judiciary intervenes, as they have in the past. Either way, analysts say this Southeast Asian nation is at a dangerous new crossroads that could drag on, and end with even more bloodshed.

COMMENT: Yingluck, ever the ineffective negotiator, is desperate to end weeks of political unrest that has killed five people and wounded nearly 300 more. 

On Monday (December 9) she dissolved the lower house of Parliament and called for elections, now set for February 2. Yet, neither move defused the political crisis as a 150,000-strong crowd pressed on with a massive march against her in Bangkok.

Yingluck said Tuesday she would not resign despite a nighttime deadline issued by Suthep. Nevertheless, there was no hiding the nation's precarious state. Asked how she was holding up, tears welled in her eyes. "I have retreated as far as I can," she said, just before turning and walking away quickly.

The protesters accuse Yingluck of serving as a proxy for her billionaire brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, 64, who lives in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong and Dubai to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction, yet one who still wields immense political clout in Thailand.

Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 army coup that laid bare a deeper societal conflict. On one side are Thailand's elite, its largely urban middle class and staunch royalists who say he abused his power. On the other, Thaksin's power base in the countryside, particularly in the northeast, and others who benefited from his populist policies designed to win over the rural, often illiterate poor.

Judicial rulings removed two pro-Thaksin prime ministers in 2008. The same year, army-backed parliamentary maneuvering allowed the opposition Democrat Party, a minority that has not won an election for more than two decades, to take power for several years. 

Yingluck led the ruling Pheu Thai Party to victory in 2011 elections. Yet, ferocious anger against her government swelled after the lower house passed an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return without going to jail. The measure was rejected in the Senate, and Yingluck has said it will not be revived.

Protesters say Pheu Thai lost its right to rule because of its support of the amnesty bill and other legislation they oppose. Yingluck and other members of her party say the constitution does not allow her to resign before elections are held, a ballot both sides know Pheu Thai would win.

Suthep, the protest leader, said late Tuesday that as of now, "there is no government." He said his People's Democratic Reform Committee would nominate a new prime minister to fill the vacuum, although it has no constitutional authority to do so.

Suthep also ordered the head of the national police to order all his forces to withdraw from their posts within twelve hours and said soldiers should take responsibility for protecting government offices.

The bespectacled 64-year-old career politician laid out other details of his plan, citing a clause in the constitution stating that "the highest power is the sovereign power of the people," he claimed his movement was assuming some government functions and called on civil servants to report to it.

Suthep emphasized that a new constitution would be written that would ban populist policies, bar corruption convictions from being pardoned and ensure that "a single party cannot control things." He also urged supporters to establish neighborhood "peacekeeping forces" to replace the nation's police, who are seen as being loyal to Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin.

Still, the momentum remains on the side of Suthep, whose uprising has already triggered the legislature's dissolution and reduced Yingluck's power.

The long and the short if it is the military has vowed neutrality, yet when push comes to shove, they will in all likelihood side with the protesters.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, the respected monarch, has suffered ill health for years, and anxiety over his health remains. If he were to pass away, Thaksin, the ousted PM who was accused of disrespecting the King, in part by trying to solicit favoritism with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 61, the current heir to the throne.

Although few Thais speak openly about their dislike of the Crown Prince, the prospect of his ascension to the throne looms in the background of the current political unrest.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who unlike his son is widely revered, has ruled Thailand for more than six decades. During previous government crises, including several of the 18 coups that have wracked Thailand since it became, nominally, a constitutional monarchy in 1932, Bhumibol has intervened to stabilize the country. 

Respect aside, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whether incapable or unwilling, has failed to step into the current conflict between his subjects and his loyal armed forces, which has scarred the capital and left scores of people dead. Since last September 2013, the King has been confined to Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital.  At 82, he is the world’s longest-serving monarch.

While Bhumibol has devoted his adult life to a well-choreographed campaign of winning the hearts and minds of his people, the Crown Prince has offended Thais with his seeming apparent arrogance and vulgar ways. Many were scandalized last November when a video appeared on the Internet, showing the prince frolicking by a swimming pool with his wife. While the Crown Prince appears fully clothed, his wife is naked, but for a fringed G-string.

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, a military pilot by training, has long stood out in the otherwise restrained royal family. His relationships with women have been numerous, complex, and particularly offensive to the public. While married to his first wife, a cousin with whom he had a daughter in 1978, he had five other children with a live-in girlfriend, a would-be actress. After divorcing his wife, he married his mistress in 1984. That marriage ended 12 years later, after the actress fled to Britain with the couple’s daughter. Undaunted, the prince abducted the child and brought her back to Thailand. In 2001, he married again, although it took years before the marriage was made public. His present wife, known as Princess Srirasmi, is another scandalous liaison. A commoner, she worked on his staff, “waiting on him,” before they married. The couple has a five-year-old son, now second in line to the throne, but there are rumors of other children by other women, although the Royal Family has not acknowledged them.

To make matters worse, there are rumors of nefarious business dealings between the Crown Prince and Thaksin, the controversial multibillionaire and deposed PM political unrest in the current government. Sadly, Yingluck has naively been loyal to her brother, but a relationship that is hardly reciprocal.

Bhumibol himself came to the throne under questionable circumstances. Born in Boston and educated in Switzerland, the King ascended to the throne in 1946 at 19, after his elder brother was found dead in bed with a gunshot wound to the head. The death remains a mystery, unsolved and—like most royal matters—never discussed in public.

In private, many Thais express concern about the succession issue. Some fear the Crown Prince would prove to be a feeble ruler, allowing the country to fall victim to military dictatorship once again. Others have intimated that the crown prince’s unmarried sister, Princess Sirindhorn, could take her father’s place instead. 

Like the old king, the princess is perceived as a tireless worker for the people’s well-being. Adoring Thais have nicknamed her “Princess Angel.” Although modern Thai law permits a female monarch, the law has never been tested, and no one knows how various interest groups, particularly the armed forces and those behind the Crown Prince, might react.

Although the US is one of Thailand's oldest allies in Southeast Asia and today works closely with Washington in critical areas such as counterterrorism, drug interdiction, and nuclear nonproliferation, the Obama Administration has a major stake in the outcome current political strife.

If Yingluck can hold on until the early elections in February, she may well be able to "hang on" until then. Yet, if she is forced out of office before then, the impact could be irreversible.

Suthep is another "wild card," as he faces arrest for insurrection. If he prevails in seizing power in this House of Cards, he could avoid legal problems and potentially could emerge as the heir apparent. If he doesn't, it could become perilous for him.

In the short term, I discourage foreign travelers from visiting the capital until after February 15, 2014, as increased violence could easily occur at many Bangkok tourist attractions.

Travel outside of Bangkok proper should be fine for the moment, although I will update tourists and travelers both as new information becomes available.

Generally speaking, travel 25 miles outside of Bangkok should be fine until mid-February.

I do DISCOURAGE new foreign investment in Thailand until such time as the current spate of political turbulence is resolved.