A semblance of calm has returned to Bangkok as the royalist anti-democratic protesters were allowed to symbolically occupy Government House. They took pictures and then left. A temporary truce has occurred around the king’s birthday, December 5, since the royalists did not want to appear disrespectful to their “dear leader”.
The government also wants to show its loyalty by staging the usual ceremonies in a calm atmosphere. Thaksin Shinawatra, after all, is a royalist too.
But don’t be fooled. The aged king has no real power and he has never been brave enough to stick his neck out and do anything under his own initiative. He is the tool of the military and the elites. The real power is with the army.
So what is the score so far in the battle between the royalist conservatives and the elected government?
On the government’s side, the fact that it refrained from using violence against the unruly mob of royalists is very much to its credit and it has strengthened its position on the moral high ground. Its legitimacy already far outweighed the royalist thugs' because the government was clearly democratically elected, while the royalists called for a dictatorship. So far the government has refused to resign or dissolve parliament.
But we do not know what will happen in the days and months ahead. There was much pressure on the government from reactionary academics and NGOs, who called for parliament to be dissolved. The Thai university rectors’ conference even added the view that a future prime minister need not be elected. These people's political position is not a surprise. They all supported the 2006 coup, accused the majority of the population of lacking intelligence and cheered the military crack-down on pro-democracy protests in 2010.
What was more surprising was that a few naïve academics, with good democratic credentials, also called for the dissolution of parliament. This was a mistake. Back in 2006 Thaksin dissolved parliament and called fresh elections. But the opposition then refused to stand because it knew that it would lose. Sutep’s royalist mobs have said they would reject an election anyway.
One way out would be a referendum, perhaps on the need to abolish the military constitution. If the government won, it would be a vote of confidence. If it lost, it would have to resign. But it is unlikely that Pheu Thai party is progressive enough to want such a referendum in the first place.
On Democrat Party strongman Sutep Tueksuban’s side, his proposals for an unelected assembly, appointed by himself and his friends, and a "Peoples’ Government" of “good” dictators did not win him any extra friends. He hoped to spur the military into staging a coup, but so far the military don’t want such a coup. The military did a deal with Thaksin and Pheu Thai back in 2011. Even if the military stepped in once again, it would hardly put Sutep’s agenda into practice. Why give power to a monkey when the organ grinder makes the key moves?
The Thai ruling class know from bitter experience that they need some kind of democratic processes and that they cannot just brush aside the pro-democracy Red Shirts and government supporters. Sutep has led his troops up to the top of the hill and down again and that has not increased his credibility. His mate, former unelected Abhisit Vejjajiva had to come out with a string of pathetic lies in a CNN interview in order to justify their position. That hardly bolstered their legitimacy.
Of course there is still a real danger that over the next few days influential members of the elite and military will pressurise the government to make way for a “government of national unity”. This would almost be the same as a coup and it should be opposed. It may not happen. Most Red Shirts and probably the majority of the electorate would be against this. But the government and the Red Shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) leadership might try to sell it to the Red Shirts by saying that there was “no alternative”.
There is an alternative. The democratic space can be expanded through the actions of pro-democracy movements including pro-democracy trade unionists. The various reform proposals by the Thammasat University's Enlightened Jurists Group, or Nitirat group should be placed at the top of the agenda and the lèse majesté law should be abolished. These would just be first steps in the right direction.
[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a political commentator and dissident. In February 2009 he had to leave Thailand for exile in Britain because he was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book criticising the 2006 military coup. He is a member of Left Turn Thailand, a socialist organisation. His book, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, will be of interest to activists, academics and journalists who watch Thai politics, democratisation and NGOs. His website is at http://redthaisocialist.com/.]