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08BANGKOK3289 THAILAND IN TRANSITION: POLITICAL AND SOCIAL POLARIZATION LIKELY TO PERSIST

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“176606″,”11/4/2008 7:57″,”08BANGKOK3289″,”Embassy Bangkok”,”CONFIDENTIAL”,

 

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RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI PRIORITY”,”C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 BANGKOK 003289

 

SIPDIS

 

NSC FOR DENNIS WILDER AND LIZ PHU

 

E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/04/2018

TAGS: PGOV, PREL, KDEM, KJUS, TH

SUBJECT: THAILAND IN TRANSITION: POLITICAL AND SOCIAL

POLARIZATION LIKELY TO PERSIST

 

REF: A. BANGKOK 3255 (GRENADE ATTACKS)

B. BANGKOK 3251 (ARMY ON SIDELINES)

C. BANGKOK 3226 (HOPE FOR MEDIATION)

D. BANGKOK 3209 (SUPREME COMMANDER)

E. BANGKOK 3192 (PRIVY COUNCILORS: NO COUP)

F. BANGKOK 3080 (QUEEN SUPPORTS PROTESTS)

G. BANGKOK 3059 (SEARCHING FOR A SOLUTION)

 

BANGKOK 00003289 001.2 OF 004

 

Classified By: Ambassador Eric G. John, reason: 1.4 (b and d).

 

SUMMARY AND COMMENT

——————-

 

1. (C) Immediate concerns of a threat of a coup d\’etat in

Thailand have ebbed for now, but we see no viable course of

action that appears likely in the near term to heal the deep

political divisions in contemporary Thai society and the body

politic. There are street fighters on both sides willing to

engage in violence which could prove an unpredictable trigger

for military intervention, despite Army Commander Anupong\’s

avowed refusal to bring the army back into politics after the

2006 coup. The interests of the royalist elite and urban

middle class seem diametrically opposed to those of former

Prime Minister Thaksin and his allies, including upcountry

rural dwellers. Queen Sirikit, departing from the example

set by King Bhumibol over decades, has dragged an ostensibly

apolitical monarchy into the political fray, to the

institution\’s probable future detriment.

 

2. (C) At the same time that executive power has been

weakened in a reversion to pre-Thaksin patterns, the

judiciary seems increasingly politicized. The status quo

appears unstable, in part because of the likelihood that the

People\’s Power Party will soon be dissolved. But any

follow-on pro-Thaksin party would almost certainly command a

plurality, if not majority, were new elections to be held,

preserving the current political equilibrium. Steps the two

sides might take to improve their lot — including forming a

new administration, dissolving the House of

Representatives/new elections, or launching a coup — all

seem unlikely to resolve the current tension. The political

turmoil may well persist for years, until the passing of the

King and the subsequent redefinition of the place of the

monarchy in 21st century Thailand. The Ambassador continues

to stress to all key players the negative ramifications of a

coup and the need for all parties to avoid violence and

respect democratic norms. End Summary and Comment.

 

THAILAND POLARIZED, LOOKING FORWARD

———————————–

 

3. (C) The battle lines in Thailand\’s political environment

are clearly drawn, even if there are multiple actors in play.

However, reductionist arguments that the crisis is about

\”the King vs. Thaksin\” are overly simplified; neither camp

controls all who claim allegiance to each, and key secondary

figures in both camps have differing agendas. While all

countries have their unique dynamics–Thailand\’s revolves

around the institution of monarchy–Thailand nevertheless is

experiencing a version of a scenario that has played out in

other East Asian countries: economic growth outstripping the

pace of democratic institutional maturation, and new groups

challenging the prerogatives of old elites.

 

4. (C) Although both sides in this polarized society have

independent-minded and middle-class participants, former

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra provides direction and, we

assume with confidence, financing for his allies, relying on

a loyal electorate in the northeast and north of Thailand

which benefited from his populist policies from 2001-06. The

Thaksin machine faces off against a mix of royalists, Bangkok

middle class, and southerners, with Queen Sirikit having

emerged as their champion, as King Bhumibol largely fades

from an active role. The two sides are competing for

influence and appear to believe, or fear, that the other will

use the political power it has to marginalize (if not

eliminate) the opposing side. They are positioning

 

BANGKOK 00003289 002.2 OF 004

 

themselves for what key actors on both sides freely admit to

us in private will be Thailand\’s moment of truth–royal

succession after the King passes away.

 

BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT IN FLUX: WEAK EXECUTIVE, ACTIVIST COURT

——————————- ——————————

 

5. (SBU) This conflict comes at a time when the dynamics

between the three branches of government are in flux. The

terms of the 2007 Constitution and the banning of the most

talented 111 executives of Thai Rak Thai had the effect of

weakening the strong executive enshrined in the 1997

Constitution and realized in practice by Thaksin. Thai

politics have thus returned to the status quo ante: a weak

executive branch, based on fractious coalition politics often

focused more on feeding at the public trough than in

governing the country effectively. At the same time, the

Senate has become much more activist, with appointed Senators

in particular acting as a check against coalition attempts to

ram its agenda through the legislative branch.

 

6. (C) We have also seen in the last few years the

politicization of the judiciary. The 2007 Constitution,

drafted by selectees of the 2006 coup leaders, provided an

enhanced political role for the judiciary. (For example, top

judges, along with others, sit on a committee that selects

Senators for nearly half the Senate\’s seats.) Judges have

driven some major political developments of the past few

years, such as the annulment of the 2006 election, the

dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai party, and the expulsion

from office of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. Thaksin and

his wife have both recently been convicted (for tax evasion

and improperly doing business with a state agency); Thaksin

allies have complained to us repeatedly that the judiciary is

biased against them. Perhaps in response to this perception,

or other political activism, two leading judges who appear to

be members of the royalist clique (ref C and E) were recently

targeted in bombings that appear not to have been intended to

kill, but to send threatening signals (ref A).

 

ENTER STREET POLITICS

———————

 

7. (C) Another important relatively new trend is the rise of

politically-aligned informal groups with components seemingly

tailor-made for street fighting. The People\’s Alliance for

Democracy (PAD), which began as a peaceful protest movement

in 2006 to oust Thaksin, has for more than two months

illegally occupied Government House, the formal seat of

government, with far sharper tactics. It now deploys armed

guards and used firearms and other weapons in its October 7

clash with police at the parliament. On the other side, the

pro-Thaksin United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship

(UDD) has initiated clashes with PAD supporters, such as on

September 2, and is loosely coordinating with other informal

actors in planning (at least conceptually) how to fight Army

troops in the event of a coup. At the moment, these

quasi-militias seem under the control of the political

leaders, but their presence heightens the stakes for both

sides, and we do not rule out spontaneous actions by one

group or another leading to a spiral of violence.

 

SHORT-TERM OUTLOOK – FOUR SCENARIOS

———————————–

 

8. (C) While Thailand\’s political environment is highly

dynamic, we can envision four main scenarios for near-term

developments, although none of them appears certain:

 

- STATUS QUO: The status quo, with Prime Minister Somchai

Wongsawat at the helm, appears untenable beyond the short

term of Princess Galyani\’s funeral (mid-November), the King\’s

Birthday (early December), and ASEAN Summits (mid-December).

Dissolution proceedings targeting the People\’s Power Party

(PPP) are moving forward, following the disqualification of a

PPP executive for election improprieties. Conventional

wisdom holds that the Constitutional Court will dissolve PPP

 

BANGKOK 00003289 003.2 OF 004

 

within a few months; such a step would strip all PPP

executives, including Somchai, of their political rights.

Since coming into office, Somchai\’s administration has been

focused on its own survival, and current circumstances appear

not to allow the RTG to undertake bold or long-term

initiatives. Most experts predict the status quo will only

hold until mid-December, after which something significant

will occur.

 

- NEW ADMINISTRATION: Whether because of PPP dissolution or

as a response to other developments, Somchai could leave

office and pave the way for the election of a new Prime

Minister by the House, without need for a new legislative

election; opposition Democrat Party deputy leader Kraisak

Choonhaven suggested to us October 30 that this option was

now more likely than house dissolution/new elections.

Because the constitution mandates that the Prime Minister be

a member of the House of Representatives, however, there is a

dwindling pool of talent from which Thaksin\’s allies can draw

in selecting a new leader, assuming (as we do) that the PPP

legislators would move largely en masse to a new political

party and maintain a cohesive governing coalition. We

believe the odds are low that a new administration would take

the form of a \”government of national unity\” or, by virtue of

its composition or policies, heal the divisions in society.

 

- HOUSE DISSOLUTION: The Prime Minister could dissolve the

House, presumably to renew a mandate for pro-Thaksin

legislators and to allow new figures to enter the parliament

and replenish the pro-Thaksin ranks, if PPP\’s current

leadership is barred from office. It is unclear whether a

pro-Thaksin party competing in a new election would fare

better or worse than PPP did in 2007, but the two sides in

the current environment both have large constituencies, and

neither appears ready to defer to the other based on election

results. We also have heard members of the pro-Thaksin camp

worry that they might not be able to arrange a new election

in a smooth fashion, as their opponents might see House

dissolution as providing an opportunity to upend the

political system. (The Constitution requires that elections

take place between 45 and 60 days after House dissolution.)

 

- COUP: We do not preclude the possibility of a military

coup, but recent events have indicated that Army Commander

Anupong Paojinda appears deeply reluctant to seize power.

The October 7 clash between police and PAD protesters

provided the Army with a pretext to launch a coup, and the

Army did not do so — an encouraging sign. High-ranking

military contacts and Palace figures (refs B, D, and E) have

told the Ambassador repeatedly that the Army will not launch

a coup, but many others tell us another bout of significant

violence and bloodshed might force Anupong\’s hand. We

continue to stress the negative ramifications of a coup for

Thailand\’s domestic and international interests. The 2006

coup leaders proved unable to eradicate Thaksin\’s influence

in the year-plus that they held power, and we believe a coup

would severely exacerbate, rather than resolve, Thailand\’s

current problems. And, unlike in 2006, pro-Thaksin forces

are now vowing they would fight back against a coup, with

violence and sustained opposition.

 

MONARCHY POLITICIZED, FACING UNCERTAIN FUTURE

———————————————

 

9. (C) In our last review of scenarios looking forward (ref

G), we included another: an extraordinary intervention by

King Bhumibol, as he did in 1973 and 1992, to stop bloodshed

and allow a deeply divided Thai society a time out to

recalibrate. Thais consistently claim publicly that the King

is and should be above politics, and he personally appears to

appreciate the boundaries of his limited role. However,

throughout his reign, others have sought to use the

institution of the monarchy for their own political purposes,

starting with Field Marshal/PM Sarit (1957-63). That is

again the case now, particularly with the PAD, but at a time

the King himself has withdrawn from public life for all but

the most important ceremonial functions. Therefore, we

 

BANGKOK 00003289 004.2 OF 004

 

believe this intervention scenario remains unlikely.

 

10. (C) Faced with a future without the revered monarch of

the past six decades, many royalists view Thaksin as posing

an existential threat to the monarchy, and some of them –

such as Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda — became

vocal critics of his administration and targets of Thaksin\’s

allies. The anti-government PAD has consistently portrayed

itself as a defender of the monarchy, and a reasonable belief

by many Thais that important royalists support the PAD has

likely been critical in saving the group from harsher

treatment by the authorities–and the mainstream media–than

it has received to date. That may change in the wake of

several recent signals sent by two figures seen as close to

the King: Princess Sirindhorn in Connecticut October 9 stated

that the PAD was acting on its own behalf, not the

monarchy\’s; and Chairman of the King\’s Rajanukhrao Foundation

Disathorn Watcharothai told an October 29 seminar: \”If you

love the King, go back home.\”

 

11. (C) In contrast, Queen Sirikit herself made a bold

political statement practically without precedent in

presiding over the funeral of a PAD supporter from humble

roots who died during the October 7 clash between PAD and the

police (ref F). Even some figures close to the Queen have

expressed their private unease at the overtly political act,

since it seems to erode the concept, which the King has long

sought to promote, of an apolitical monarchy. After the

Queen\’s funeral appearance, there was a notable increase in

public complaints about acts of lese majeste, with many

seemingly targeting the Queen; PPP-affiliated politicians

have expressed a combination of fear and loathing for the

Queen in private conversations with us in recent months.

Such politicization of the monarchy at this time appears to

create extra uncertainty around the eventual royal

succession, and it could well boomerang on royalists when the

time comes to redefine the role of the monarchy after the

King\’s passing. In the meantime, the Thai body politic will

continue to bubble.

JOHN

Written by thaicables

June 23, 2011 at 2:53 am

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