By Rahul Mishra
On September 15, 2011, Thailand’s newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra paid a one-day visit to Cambodia in order to soothe bilateral relations, which had reached their lowest ebb during former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s term. The visit, living up to the expectations of Shinawatra supporters and ASEAN member countries, helped break the ice between Thailand and Cambodia – two key countries of the Southeast Asian region.
Shinawatra has been equally active on the domestic front too. Drug trafficking and its abuse, particularly by youngsters, is one of the biggest menace faced by Thai society. Showing her resolve to fight the menace, Shinawatra ordered the incineration of drugs worth US $80 million, which had been recovered from over 130,000 seizures across the country. She even presided over the drugs-burning ceremony on September 17, 2011 in Ayutthaya, an industrial suburb near Bangkok.
However, the road ahead for Shinawatra is not likely to be easy. Within a week of government raids and confiscation of drugs from a number of illegal drug hubs, the drug lords begun to retaliate. On September 16, three serial bomb blasts in Sungai Kolok city killed at least four people and injured more than a 100. Insurgency and drug trafficking heavily affect Sungai Kolok, a part of Southern Thailand. In addition, there are a number of other issues facing the government that need immediate attention.
The youngest sister of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra, Yingluck Shinawatra led her party to a clear victory in the national general elections held on July 3 2011. Her Pheu Thai Party (PTP) commands a majority in the house with the support of its coalition partners. The PTP holds 265 seats in the 500 member lower house, and its five coalition partners (Chartthaipattana, Chart Pattana Puea Pandin, Mahachon, Palang Chon, and the New Democratic Party) contribute 35 seats to the ruling coalition led by Shinawatra. It is believed that a strong majority in the lower house would help the government take decisions smoothly and that the weak opposition led by the Democratic Party would not be in a position to obstruct. However, one cannot deny the possibility of opposition protests outside parliament.
One of the major domestic challenges for the Shinawatra government is to last for the next five years. This seems a daunting task as the military and the traditional elite are backing the opposition. This is evident from the fact that after election results were announced, the military and the opposition parties moved the court to disband the PTP. The appeal was, however, turned down. It is important to note that the trio of the monarchy, military and traditional elite had not been favourable to the PTP’s predecessor party and its leader the former Prime Minister Thaksin. Thaksin’s government was toppled in a 2006 military coup precisely because of rifts between Thaksin and the trio. Thaksin is in exile to avoid a two-year imprisonment on corruption charges.
Yingluck Shinawatra’s problems might aggravate if her government grants amnesty to political prisoners including Thaksin. The opposition may like to use it as a tool to defame the government and accuse it of nepotism. As it is, the opposition had accused the PTP in the run-up to the elections of being directed by Thaksin. Thaksin’s influence loomed large in the elections and Yingluck had to clarify the non-involvement (advisory role at best) of Thaksin several times before and during the elections. To be sure, Yingluck has to prove to the people that she is a strong leader in her own right, and not a ‘proxy’ of Thaksin who is being projected by the opposition as the Yingluck Shinwatra government’s impresario.
Another equally uphill task for Shinawatra is to bring harmony and stability to the kingdom after five years of political turmoil. Thailand has been torn apart by internal divisions since 2006. Apart from the traditional divisions amongst the ruling elite and the political parties, the Red Shirts vs. Yellow Shirts divide involving the masses has only grown stronger in recent years. In 2010 alone, several clashes between the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts as well as between the Red Shirts and the military occurred in which around a hundred people were killed. Red Shirts have been supporting the Shinawatras against the Yellow Shirts and played a crucial role in the PTP’s win. Trying to steer clear of the issue and drive the country towards what she calls ‘reconciliation’, Shinawatra indicated that for the sake of the country and its people Thailand has to move away from divisive politics. In fact, her move to form a coalition is seen as an attempt to bring consensus on the matter, apart from bringing a sense of stability and push through the promised socio-economic reforms. However, her idea of reconciliation might cost her dearly if she is not able to generate nationwide support for it. On the flip side, this may annoy the PTP’s traditional supporters.
Elected as Prime Minister twice in 2001 and 2006, Thaksin was known for his populist policies and attempts to address the concerns of the rural and urban poor. The same is expected of his sister Yingluck too, who made a number of promises to the marginalized poor and the middle class during the election campaign. Revamping the healthcare system, improving the economy, providing school students with free computers and greater spending on infrastructure are some of the electoral promises that Shinawatra will have to keep.1
A major obstacle in bringing about a peaceful Thailand has been the ongoing insurgency in the Malay Pattani region of Southern Thailand, which shares a border with Malaysia. The Malay Pattani region, made up of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces, has a majority of Malay-Muslims. Perceived deprivation, insensitivities and injustice are considered the reasons for the insurgency. Thaksin’s firm stand on the insurgency could not yield much result since he was ousted in a coup only a year after he started addressing the issue in July 2005. One may argue that Shinawatra’s tough stand on the drugs issue has to do with the ongoing insurgency in the Malay Pattani region, as it is alleged that insurgent groups sustain themselves from money generated by the drugs trade.
Foreign Policy Challenges
Insurgency in Southern Thailand is however not just a domestic issue for Thailand. If Shinawatra is firm on countering the illegal drugs trade or insurgency, she has to cut-off the funding sources of the insurgents. A check on the drug trade and drug money will not be effective without cutting off the cross border links. Malaysia’s support is vital for Thailand in this regard. It is worth mentioning that Thai-Malaysia relations soured in the past due to Thai accusations of a Malaysian role in helping the insurgent groups.2
One of the most recurring foreign policy challenges for Thailand has been its relationship with Cambodia. In the past few years, the protracted conflict over the surrounding areas of Preah Vihar temple has resulted in more than 100 causalities. ASEAN too has been concerned about the Thai-Cambodia issue. Thailand’s alleged use of cluster munitions along the border has been criticised. Thailand is also not agreeable to any kind of mediation. Though Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, is keen to mediate, there has not been much headway, exposing ASEAN’s weakness as an organisation.3 However, Shinawatra seems to have put the restoration of normal ties with Cambodia at the top of her agenda, which certainly, is a good omen.
Thailand is doing well in terms of projecting its economic performance on the international stage. In early August, the World Bank put Thailand in the category of upper-middle income economy. According to the World Bank, ‘The upgrade is in recognition of Thailand’s economic achievements in the past decade in which Gross National Income (GNI) per capita has almost doubled, while poverty has been significantly reduced.’4 This has happened despite repeated incidents of violence, disruption of business and political instability. The World Bank rating is certainly a good sign for the Thai economy, though the real challenge lies in converting the potential into actual capabilities to ensure sustained growth. In such a scenario, the government has no option but to take measures to ensure that its credibility in the international market remains intact.
The month old Shinawatra government’s functioning has been promising. This is relevant considering that she is less than 200 days old in politics. It is also reassuring that Shinawatra seems to possess the required grit to face challenges head on, as evident from her recent policy decisions. Nevertheless, there are numerous challenges facing the fifth Prime Minister of Thailand in the past five years. Treading a cautious approach to ensure her full term in office is perhaps the biggest of them all. In a 78 year old democracy that has survived 18 attempted or actual military coups, it is important for a leader to keep most, if not all, the stakeholders in good humour. Additionally, piecing together Thailand’s fractured polity and society will not be an easy task especially given that the Shinawatra government has to live up to the expectations of the PTP’s traditional supporters while allaying the opposition’s apprehensions.
1. Overstretched urban infrastructure has been a matter of concern among the urban dwellers for the past several years. For details, see John Laird, Money Politics, Globalisation, and Crisis: The Case of Thailand (Singapore: Graham Brash, 2000), pp. 399-418. Shinawatra has expressed her willingness to address the issue particularly the transport system.
2. For further details, see http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=1043,
accessed on September 1, 2011.
3. For details, see http://www.indianexpress.com/news/the-bali-challenge/820686/, accessed on September 1, 2011.
4. For details please see, http://www.worldbank.or.th/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/EASTASIAPACIFICEXT/… accessed on 4 September 2011.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/ChallengesbeforetheYingluckShinawatraGovernment_rmishra_200911