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08BANGKOK3780 THAILAND’S DEMOCRACY FACES CONTINUED CHALLENGES, ONE YEAR AFTER POST-COUP ELECTIONS

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“185141”,”12/30/2008 9:47″,”08BANGKOK3780″,”Embassy Bangkok”,

 

“CONFIDENTIAL”,””,”VZCZCXRO6716

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E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/23/2018

TAGS: PGOV, PREL, KDEM, TH

SUBJECT: THAILAND\’S DEMOCRACY FACES CONTINUED CHALLENGES,

ONE YEAR AFTER POST-COUP ELECTIONS

 

BANGKOK 00003780 001.2 OF 004

 

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

 

SUMMARY AND COMMENT

——————-

 

1. (C) Over the past year since the December 2007 post-coup

elections, Thai politics have been dominated by a dramatic

tug-of-war between the supporters and opponents of former

Prime Minister Thaksin, with a wide range of actors in the

latter camp deploying both traditional and unconventional

tactics to wrest control of the government from Thaksin\’s

surrogates at year\’s end and give the former opposition

Democrat Party a chance to lead a cobbled-together coalition.

The year\’s developments demonstrated both the weaknesses and

fissures in the Thai body politic, as well as systemic

resiliency. Following the 2006 coup, the USG became a strong

advocate for Thailand\’s return to elected government, and we

lifted restrictions on military assistance immediately after

the inauguration of an elected government in February 2008.

We consistently emphasized to key actors our opposition to

another military seizure of power, and we stressed that all

actors should eschew violence and that any political changes

should be in accordance with constitutional procedures and

the rule of law.

 

2. (C) With the emergence of the Democrat-led coalition

majority in parliament in late December, after two PPP-led

administrations came under extreme pressure from the courts,

unruly anti-government protesters, and the Army Commander,

Thaksin\’s opponents can claim that they remained — barely —

within the parameters we advocated. The Army Commander

resisted pressure to launch a coup, though he made public

recommendations to the Prime Minister that would have been

inappropriate in most democracies. The Constitutional

Court\’s decisions appear politicized, but do have a basis in

law. The People\’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD)\’s seizures of

Bangkok\’s airports appear completely indefensible to us,

although the demonstrators claim they engaged in peaceful

political protests permitted by the Constitution.

 

3. (C) Looking forward, the new Democrat-led coalition will

face the same harrassing street tactics from the pro-Thaksin

red-shirts that the PPP-led coalitions faced from the PAD

yellow-shirts. Occupied by economic challenges and saddled

with an ungainly coalition, Abhisit is unlikely to push

aggressively for systemic reforms that might provide a

foundation for more effective and stable governance.

However, he can take some comfort from the fact that the

institutions that countered Thaksin\’s efforts to regain

influence — the monarchy, the courts, and the military —

lean to his side. A year after post-coup elections, Thais

still have much work to do before they can claim to have a

strong, accountable, transparent, and fully functioning

democracy. We will continue to work with Thais of all

political persuasions to help them attain that goal. End

Summary and Comment.

 

DECEMBER \’07 – FEBRUARY \’08: ELECTED GOVERNMENT RETURNS

—————————- ————————–

 

4. (SBU) When leading military figures deposed Prime Minister

Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006, they promised to hold

elections to restore democratically-elected governance within

approximately one year. Few people took that goal for

granted, especially as it became apparent that the interim

administration would be unable to uproot Thaksin\’s network

and erode his supporters\’ allegiance. Nevertheless, thanks

in part to the determination of interim Prime Minister

Surayud Chulanont, legislative elections took place on

December 23, 2007.

 

5. (SBU) Thaksin loyalists formed the People\’s Power Party

(PPP) to represent the former Prime Minister\’s interests; all

other parties, new and old, went into the elections seemingly

prepared to form an anti-Thaksin coalition. On election

night, however, it became clear that the PPP, thanks to its

rural base, had won a resounding plurality of MPs. Of the

initially certified 477 MPs, 232 (49 percent) were PPP

 

BANGKOK 00003780 002.2 OF 004

 

members, with the Democrat Party a distant second, with 164

seats. The overall vote totals were closer: both the PPP and

the Democrats received slightly more than 12 million votes in

the proportional list tally (12.3 million to 12.1 million),

with the PPP enjoying a larger disparity in consituent votes,

18.3 million to 14.6 million. The country split

geographically, with the PPP nearly sweeping the northeast

and north, and the Democrats dominating Bangkok and the South.

 

6. (SBU) Typically pragmatic minor party leaders reassessed

their circumstances and joined the PPP bandwagon, to the

frustration of those behind the coup and other ardent

opponents of Thaksin; the Democrats, the favored party of the

coup makers and Thaksin opponents, were left as the sole

opposition. PPP Leader Samak Sundaravej won election as

Prime Minister by a vote of 310 to 163; Samak and his cabinet

were sworn in on February 6.

 

MARCH – JUNE: PRESSURE BUILDS

—————————–

 

7. (SBU) Once in office, PM Samak\’s government did not

attempt to hide its advocacy of Thaksin\’s interests, making

the amendment of the 2007 Constitution on its terms a top

priority. Although politicians from all quarters had

expressed dissatisfaction with elements of the 2007

Constitution, which was drafted by an assembly created by the

2006 coup leaders, Samak appeared focused primarily on

removing provisions that could lead to PPP\’s dissolution

(based on election law violations by a single party

executive), as well as those that helped to support

prosecutorial cases (built by an ad hoc investigatory body)

against Thaksin.

 

8. (SBU) In retrospect, this approach was a critical

strategic mistake, since the prospect of such a

constitutional amendment brought the PAD back out into the

streets in late May. The PAD had emerged out of a 2005

protest movement against Thaksin, and its large protests,

drawing substantial support from the Bangkok elite and middle

class, played an important role in making the political

environment conducive to 2006\’s coup. In the face of renewed

PAD demonstrations, Samak backed off his plan to amend the

Constitution. The PAD, however, sustained its protests,

seizing on other issues — such as Thai dealings with

Cambodia over the status of the Preah Vihear temple, and

comments about the monarchy made months previously by cabinet

member Jakrapob Penkair. The disposition of the Preah Vihear

temple became the main issue in the June Democrat

Party-initiated no-confidence debate in the House.

 

JULY – SEPTEMBER: STREET MOBS AND THE COURTS ACT

——————————————— —

 

9. (SBU) In July, the Constitutional Court ruled that the

Samak administration had acted unconstitutionally in signing

a May joint communique with the Cambodian government that

supported the Preah Vihear temple\’s inscription on UNESCO\’s

World Heritage List. Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama

resigned from office the following day. The Court also

removed from office Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsab, finding

he had violated strict financial disclosure rules, though

Chaiya reemerged in the next Cabinet reshuffle. Separately,

the Supreme Court upheld the Election Commission\’s

disqualification of former PPP executive Yongyuth Tiyapairath

for election violations, leaving the party vulnerable to

dissolution under strict provisions of the Constitution and

election law.

 

10. (SBU) In late August, PAD initiated what it termed \”the

final battle\” against the Samak-led government. Earlier, in

June, PAD protestors temporarily occupied Government House;

conventional wisdom held that a clash between demonstrators

and security forces might have prompted a coup. Samak

appeared to act prudently in allowing PAD extraordinary

leeway, and PAD soon vacated the Government House compound.

After further strategizing, however, PAD reoccupied

Government House on August 26 and pledged to remain there

 

BANGKOK 00003780 003.2 OF 004

 

until Samak\’s resignation; for his part, Samak avoided the

use of force.

 

11. (SBU) Yellow and red street mobs took matters into their

own hands September 2, clashing in the middle of the night,

leading to one death and Samak\’s declaration of a state of

emergency. The security forces again chose not to use force

against the street protesters, however; the Constitutional

Court ruled on September 9 that Samak\’s role in a televised

cooking show violated strict constitutional provisions on

financial conflicts of interest, and he was forced out of

office. Despite worsening factionalism within PPP, the party

coalesced behind Thaksin\’s brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat,

as its chosen successor to Samak, and PPP\’s coalition

partners fell in line.

 

OCTOBER – DECEMBER: TIDE TURNS

——————————

 

12. (SBU) Mild-mannered Somchai was expected to provide a

marked contrast to Samak\’s abrasive public persona, but PAD

viewed him as simply another proxy of Thaksin. Shifting the

goalposts, PAD leaders announced that they would continue to

occupy Government House so long as Somchai remained in office

and sought to block Somchai from delivering his

constitutionally-mandated October 7 policy statement to the

National Assembly. Somchai then did what Samak had avoided:

he ordered the police to take action against the PAD to clear

the way to parliament. After police used tear gas early in

the morning, chaotic street clashes lasted into the night;

two protesters died (one from a defective Chinese tear gas

cannister fired by police; the other apparently blew himself

up trying to rig an IED), and hundreds were injured, with PAD

protesters using a variety of weapons in the melees.

 

13. (C) PAD had long benefited from a perception that

important \”high ranking\” figures supported the street

movement. Any fudge factor disappeared when Queen Sirikit

clearly signaled her backing by attending the funeral

ceremony for a young woman killed in the October 7 clash.

The move led to an immediate and lasting backlash against the

politicization of the monarchy, with even many in royalist

circles bemoaning this move. The upsurge of criticism of the

monarchy prompted new efforts by the authorities to use lese

majeste provisions of the criminal code to crack down on

persons who spoke critically about the monarchy.

 

14. (SBU) The October 7 clash at the parliament also prompted

Army Commander Anupong, flanked by other military and police

commanders, to state on live TV that he believed Somchai

should resign from office and call new elections. The call

was echoed by others, including the opposition and a number

of senators. Somchai called for patience, as an

investigative body began looking into the incident at the

parliament.

 

15. (SBU) Two weeks later, the Supreme Court convicted

Thaksin to two years\’ imprisonment for violating Article 100

of the National Counter Corruption Act, which prohibits

government officials from doing business with a state agency.

Anticipating the guilty verdict, Thaksin had failed to return

to Thailand after attending the Olympics, traveling to the UK

instead. Thaksin continued to exert influence through

Somchai and other loyal lieutenants, and made a series of

phone-in and video appearances at \”red\” rallies, but the

conviction made it much more difficult for him to attempt to

return to Thailand in the short term and resume a direct

political role.

 

16. (SBU) In November, after unknown assailants launched a

series of explosive devices into the Government House

compound at night, killing an anti-government sympathizer and

causing dozens of injuries, the PAD once again went on the

march. Launching a renewed \”final battle\” three months after

the first, shutting Bangkok airports on the night of November

25, they demanding that Somchai dissolve the House of

Representatives, enabling new elections. Somchai refused to

give in to PAD\’s demand, even when Army Commander Anupong,

 

BANGKOK 00003780 004.2 OF 004

 

surrounded by other soldiers and leading civil servants,

again publicly called for him to do so. Like Samak before

him, Somchai declared a State of Emergency but proved either

unwilling or unable to force the demonstrators\’ eviction from

the airports. The stalemate had a devastating impact on

Thailand\’s economy and international image.

 

17. (SBU) With the protesters and Army having clearly

signaled their views, and Bangkok\’s traditionally apolitical

business elite joining the chorus for a change in direction,

the Constitutional Court, in a seemingly accelerated process,

issued a December 2 ruling that dissolved the PPP because of

Yongyuth\’s transgressions in the 2007 elections. PAD cleared

out from the airports, and a breakaway faction of PPP joined

with other political parties in defecting to the Democrats.

On December 15, the House elected Democrat Party Leader

Abhisit Vejjajiva as the next Prime Minister. Abhisit and

his cabinet were sworn in on December 22, one day short of

the anniversary of 2007\’s elections, delivering a coalition

government minus the core pro-Thaksin political force that a

year earlier many had expected would emerge.

 

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2009: POLITICAL DRAMA SET TO CONTINUE

——————————————— ———

 

18. (SBU) Thaksin and his allies, meanwhile, show no signs of

backing off their activities. Formally, most of the MPs from

the banned PPP have joined the Puea Thai party, which is the

largest party in parliament despite disqualifications and

defects; they show every sign that they will be an active,

aggressive opposition in the parliament. Puea Thai is backed

up by a network of street protestors commonly called

\”redshirts,\” formally known as the United Front for Democracy

against Dictatorship (UDD), which on December 29 adopted

yellowshirt tactics to blockade parliament and prevent PM

Abhisit from delivering his policy statement. While the

tension is currently less than during the height of PAD

protests, and coup talk has receded, there is no end in sight

for the polarization characterizing Thai politics.

JOH

Written by thaicables

June 23, 2011 at 2:27 am

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