Ordinary Thais may be resigned to the army’s habit of running elected prime ministers out of Bangkok. But that doesn’t mean they approve. There is palpable fear of the explosive effect that yet another coup d’état could have on the tinderbox of Thai politics. But some fear that could happen any moment now. The reason: army chief General Anupong Paojinda is out of the country visiting the US.
Bangkok feels relatively relaxed, in spite of the pressing danger: though popular protests are roiling the country, there are currently none taking place in the capital. Yet the next debilitating protest is never too far away; and even if the country’s would-be coup-makers have not moved by the time General Anupong returns on 14 February, many think a coup could come at the end of the month when Thailand’s courts look set to confiscate $2.3bn (€1.6bn) of assets belonging to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The divisive Thaksin – exiled in a 2006 coup – is at the eye of the political maelstrom. In a country once typified by good-natured pragmatism, two implacable camps have formed and hardened over the last few years. The “yellow shirts”, urban middle-class enemies of Thaksin who backed his ouster; and the “red shirts”, the mostly rural supporters of Thaksin who demand the reinstatement of the prime minister they voted for. It is this seemingly unbridgeable divide that now has Thailand flirting with political meltdown.
“In the current situation, a coup is unlikely because the conditions are not there,” insists Sanit Nakajitti, the director of Bangkok-based security consultancy PSA Thailand. “The red shirts don’t have the power [to bring down the government]: all they’re doing is causing a nuisance to keep Thaksin’s name alive.” However, a coup could well be on the near horizon, Sanit warns. “The coup will come when the military sees that the government cannot keep control of the country.”
Patrick Winn, Thailand correspondent for the Global Post news service, says that the red shirts – though far more popular than the conservative, but well-connected, yellows – are reluctant to dislodge the government by force, as the movement’s more radical elements are advocating. “The red shirt leaders see an election as their path to legitimacy,” says Winn, “and recent polls show their favoured party, Puea Thai, would likely win.”
But the government has stalled on setting out an election timetable; and, even if it did, the return of a pro-Thaksin government would be unacceptable to the army. If there is a coup, it will “come from the military’s top brass in the name of stabilising Thailand,” Winn says, though the real agenda would be to block the Thaksin red shirts from winning the fight for the country’s political soul.
The current prime minister is Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat Party leader who has fronted a rickety government for the last 14 months (far longer than most people expected). A Thai source who knows Abhisit personally tells Monocle that he “is a really good guy – but being good maybe isn’t enough right now”.
Sanit also sympathises with the embattled Abhisit. “Abhisit is doing a good job – he may not have come at the right time, but he is the kind of prime minister we need. I don’t see anyone else in Thailand who could be prime minister.”
And so it is that the weary Thais wake up to another groundhog day of political gridlock. “I do not see any solution,” admits Sanit. “It’s gone beyond compromise.” The broken system may have to be smashed still further for a solution to emerge.