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November 27, 2012

The Idiot’s Guide to Thai Elite Coups, Part II

Predicting that the number one priority in Pitak Siam’s November 24 demonstration was to spark violence did not require sophisticated forecasting skills. Given the strength of the government’s majority in parliament, an incident of some kind was needed, whether to provide the military with an excuse to stage a coup or to generate additional support to escalate Pitak Siam’s activities. What could not be so easily predicted is that the demonstration would fail so miserably. The day started off badly for Pitak Siam, which despite the great fanfare was only able to get 20,000 people at most to show up at its rally. The pathetic turnout forced desperate leaders to play the violence card early, in fact so early and so blatantly as to completely discredit themselves. Less predictable of all was that the often maligned Royal Thai Police would act with such professionalism and restraint, resisting to provocations while refusing to cede ground to the demonstrators.

Once it was clear that Pitak Siam was not getting its version of the October 7, 2008 incident, in which the police was drawn into violent clashes with the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), retired General Boonlert Kaewprasit still made a last-ditch effort to get the military to intervene. But if the generals in the Royal Thai Army have not yet reconciled themselves to the principle of civilian control, they are savvy enough to know that too much order and too little violence are not good public rationales for staging a coup. Boonlert was turned down, some reports say quite abruptly, and told pack it up. In a hurried statement, he informed the few people still listening that the rally was being called off. Apparently, Boonlert was as anxious to get off the stage as his supporters were to get out of the pouring rain.

Pitak Siam’s failure was no doubt a victory for pro-democracy forces in Thailand. The government stood firm, the police did its job, and the Red Shirts sent a powerful message that they would not tolerate any attempt to overthrow democracy. In fact it is possible that the combined number of Red Shirts demonstrating in various parts of the country on Saturday exceeded Pitak Siam’s turnout, confirming that for the time being the Red Shirts’ organization remains the most powerful deterrent against another coup.

While General Boonlert is gone, however, those who put him up to this charade and then dumped him so unceremoniously certainly are not. Most desperate to remove the government are the leaders of the Democrat Party, who are anxious to put an end to the domestic and foreign efforts to bring them to justice for murdering protesters in 2010. The Democrats were counting on the success of Pitak Siam, but in the end were reduced to complaining about the police’s use of teargas. Miffed at the sight of a clean crowd-control operation, Democrats have taken to accusing the government of behaving like Nazis, re-defining “Nazism” to include anything that makes the Democrat Party look bad.

If Pitak Siam failed, however, the Democrat Party is not faring much better. The no-confidence debate in the House of Representatives has turned into a meaningless sideshow in which the Democrats have struggled to come up with any rationale for why the elected government should be removed. Instead, the public was treated to the usual grasping at straws by Democrat Party MPs and the stream of verbal diarrhea it has come to expect from failed party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. On Sunday, the Democrats even had the audacity of choosing Sirichoke Sopha to question the government about its supposed corruption.  His main claim to fame is an episode in which he tried (and failed) to get “merchant of death” Viktor Bout to fabricate accusations of arms trafficking against Thaksin Shinawatra.

For the moment, the Democrat Party’s hopes are pinned on the impeachment motions they have filed with the Senate, or future rulings by the Constitutional Court that might remove the Prime Minister on one pretext or another. The resumption of the constitutional amendment process will likely coincide with new attempts to get the courts involved. The main problem for the Democrats—and for those portions of the Thai establishment still determined to overturn democracy—is that the removal of the government, whether by military, judicial, or administrative/senatorial means, requires that it first be somehow weakened or discredited in the eyes of the public. On this front, the Democrats are failing just as miserably as Pitak Siam has.

While the efforts made in the past week to unseat the government will not be the last, there are valuable lessons to be drawn from recent events about the way in which pro-democracy forces can win the long battle of attrition that still lies ahead. Rather than shy away from implementing its own agenda, the elected government would be well advised to pursue it with renewed vigor and without letting excessive deliberation work against the required degree of speed, to rephrase an infamous expression from one of the greatest emancipation struggles of the last century.

Aside from continuing in its competent stewardship of the country’s domestic and foreign policy, which have earned Yingluck’s administration support at home and recognition abroad, the government should not shirk from its promise to write a constitution worthy of the Thai people’s pride and implement other democratic reforms. This is a case where good policy also makes for good politics. Insofar as the only thing separating Thailand from a return to military rule are the Red Shirts, it is only by fighting for the goals for which many Red Shirts have been willing to risk their lives that the government can earn their continuing commitment, preparedness, and vigilance.

Signing the declaration granting the International Criminal Court jurisdiction to investigate the 2010 massacres would be a good start. If nothing else, it should be made clear to anyone still willing to kill to stop democracy that the immunity once bestowed upon them has long since expired.

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