Thailand's Post-Election Security Outlook Remains Uncertain
IHS Global Insight Perspective
The question now facing Thais and foreign investors is what the victorious Puea Thai party, led by deposed former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's sister Yingluck, proposes to do with its mandate and whether and how the "establishment", shorthand for the aristocracy, the professional class and the armed forces, will respond to what they are certain to view as an existential threat to their influence and privileges.
While the largely peaceful and seemingly fair elections in which Puea Thai party candidates took 53% of the vote, or 265 of the 500 parliamentary seats, has been greeted with relief from the markets, jubilation by the opposition and the military's "acceptance", this period of contemplation and reassessment cannot last long. The reality for Thailand remains that the country cannot support two radically opposed groups occupying the same space for anything other than the briefest moment.
From the security perspective this is certain to mean that the forces that have confronted each other on the streets of Bangkok, the pro-Thaksin and/or anti-establishment United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) Red Shirts, the pro-establishment People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) Yellow Shirts, the military and the police, will once again square off in pursuit of their various agenda eventually. The battle between the military and the new government may also have implications for Thailand's bilateral relations with neighbouring Cambodia.
The fact that, once again, the majority of the Thai electorate have voted in support of what they view as the own best material interests is likely to be no more relevant to those supporting the traditional status quo than it has in the past. Despite winning the previous three elections in 2001, 2005, and 2007, Thaksin-backed parties have never lasted long at the top of Thailand's elite-dominated political system. Their downfall has been accelerated by continuous anti-government protests by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and court decisions. What has changed is the past six or so years of almost permanent protest has hardened attitudes on all sides while also honing political mobilisation techniques by the "red" and "yellow" factions and widening the use of "black" operations by elements within the security forces.
Official 2011 Election Results
Total Number of Seats
Democrat Party (DP)
Bhum Jai Thai
Chart Thai Pattana
Chart Pattana Puea Pandin
Rak Prathet Thai
New Democrat Party
In addition the often rapid shift in advantage between the new populists and the traditional elites, combined with differing ideological or social attitudes, have also strained the army’s inherently fragmented internal loyalties. Although the Thai army is notionally controlled by the government of the day, its strongest allegiances are to its own vertical command and horizontal "class" structures. The turmoil of the past six years has seen numerous military careers blighted, increasing stresses within the army’s cohesion and raising concerns that latent divisions could become more overt as previously ignored or sidestepped officers seek advantage from the prevailing source of patronage created by a change in government.
So, while the Puea Thai’s ("For Thais") strong victory has boosted the short-term stability, this period of calm is unlikely to last long, and many in Thailand fear that the next flashpoint will come as the country, including the military and the pro-establishment PAD Yellow Shirts, comes to terms with the fact that deposed Thaksin, in the form of his sister Yingluck, is once again a key player in the country's political system. The election results published by Bangkok Post today (6 July) showed that 50.2% of the 6,112 respondents believed political violence will occur after the election, while 31.1% respondents disagreed and 18.7% saw the occurrence of violence being dependent on the new government.
Outlook and Implications
The triggers for reigniting the cycle of protests are likely to involve a combination of impatience by the pro-Thaksin populist activists and provocation by their establishment opponents. The most potent is the fear that the new order will seek redress from those it holds responsible for using force against its principal players and their supporters. Although the Puea Thai party, Yingluck Shinawatra and Thaksin have all publically pledged not to seek revenge on the senior military commanders who ousted the former premier in the September 2006 coup, it would take a great deal of faith by those most likely to be targeted to accept such a promise at face value.
This faith was tested within hours of the election results being released on 5 July as United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) activists demanded that the military’s conduct in the April and May 2010 protests in Bangkok that led to the deaths of at least 90 people and injuries to hundreds more be questioned. Calls for Thaksin to be granted an amnesty on 2008 corruption charges and permitted to return to Thailand is another red line for the army and the establishment, as are demands that the 2006 coup that ousted the former prime minister be fully investigated and its main participants called to account. The Thai Army’s commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha was closely involved in the 2006 coup and the 2010 crackdown in Bangkok, and has almost a year in his present post to prepare for the return of a pro-Thaksin government to ensure key combat units are led by trusted subordinates.
While the outgoing Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said the military would not stage a coup in the event of a Puea Thai victory, General Prayuth simply reiterated the military’s mantra that it is the army's duty to protect the nation, the religion and the monarchy. This statement contains the implicit warning that any perceived threat to any of these institutions would result in an unstated response, with the army likely to define what constitutes such a threat and the appropriate action. Finding such a casus belli is unlikely to prove difficult. The most probable event will emerge from renewed street protests, ignited as UDD Red Shirts seek redress over the 2010 violence, PAD’s Yellow Shirts once again mobilise against Thaksin or "mysterious" bomb and grenade attacks and perhaps even selected assassinations ratchet up tensions, requiring heightened security. Such de facto military involvement could, as it has done on numerous past occasions, prepare the ground for more direct intervention if the army’s senior leadership sees no other means to protect its own interests and those of its wards.
The military also has the option of elevating its own status while undermining the new government’s by ramping up tension along the Cambodian border. The use of an external threat to promote domestic interests is a universal and widely practised tactic. The dispute between Bangkok and Phnom Penh over ownership of a number of ancient Hindu temple sites scattered along their joint border has tended to wax and wane in accordance with the internal political dynamics of both countries. Following the seemingly unilateral decision by a Thai delegation to walk out of discussions of UNESCO's World Heritage Convention in late June in protest over the agency’s refusal to reverse its decision to award much of the Preah Vihear temple complex to Cambodia, General Prayuth was reported as saying the chances of clashes were high and that more troops had been deployed near the temple sites. Other military and naval units are also reported to have been placed on a heightened state of alert at Chanthaburi and Trat on the southern and maritime borders. While the resumption of sporadic—if at times intense—exchanges of fire across the common border is unlikely to flare into a wider conflict they would serve to highlight Thaksin's past close links with the Cambodian leadership at a time when his sister was trying to consolidate her new power.Meanwhile, the outcome of the election is unlikely to have any immediate impact on the southern insurgency or the force levels currently deployed there. There is no indication that this conflict will spread beyond the Muslim-majority southern provinces, although any major military reshuffle—itself set to be a potential source of instability—by the new government could result in a loss of continuity as experienced regimental levels and other field commanders are replaced by regime loyalists.
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