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A Week in Review: July 2-8, 2011

There was a big swing in Thailand last week

It was a pivotal week in Thailand as Phuea Thai swept to a comprehensive victory in the elections. So what does it mean for Thailand? Is it good, bad or just plain ugly? Find out here…

As Thais headed to the polls last Sunday, it soon became clear that change was in the air. The early exit polls had Phuea Thai heading for a landslide victory, and even though the final results were less dramatic, Phuea Thai still managed a comfortable win.

Yet despite an overall majority of 265 out of the 500 seats, Phuea Thai decided to invite a number of smaller parties to form a coalition and take its collective numbers up to 300.

With victory secured, Phuea Thai proxy leader Yingluck Shinawatra announced the party’s 7 “urgent missions”. Top of the list was the party’s euphemism for amnesty – reconciliation – which Phuea Thai aims to achieve by giving added powers and support to the Independent Truth Reconciliation Commission of Thailand.

There can be no denying that the lack of tangible progress made by the commission since it was appointed by the Democrat-led coalition government after last year’s deadly protests smacks of a cover up. However, just how much “truth” the commission will unearth with its added powers, and how this will aid reconciliation is questionable.

Following Phuea Thai’s victory, the red shirts have been most vociferous in their quest for the truth behind last year’s deaths. But whether they can handle or even accept the truth is another matter entirely.

An independent report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch clearly indicates that the first casualties of this war were soldiers, including commanding officer Colonel Romklao, who were armed at that time with nothing more than riot shields and batons. Technically speaking, the hired guns may not have been run-of-the-mill red shirt cannon fodder, but the fact remains that they were able to operate from under the cover of the red shirt ranks.

Nevertheless, Red shirt chairperson, Tida Tawornseth, has demanded a thorough investigation into the role of the military during last year’s clashes.

While this is undoubtedly a worthy request and one that has proven beyond the ability of the toothless commission to date, Tida slips unceremoniously from the moral high ground with her next statements.

In response to suggestions that a behind-the-scenes deal was being negotiated to allow both fugitive Phuea Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra and military officers to benefit from an amnesty, Tida retorted that the red shirts see no need for an amnesty since they do not believe they committed any offences and were the victims of last year’s clashes.

Regardless of whether Tida is genuinely so naïve or just playing hardball, there is little chance of reconciliation unless she accepts and publicly admits that the red shirts were at least as guilty as the military for last year’s tragedies.

Meanwhile, another prominent red shirt figure continues to live in denial. Arisman Pongruangrong has been on the run since the end of last year’s troubles. Following reports that his lawyer had contacted the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) to negotiate the terms of his surrender, Arisman issued a strong denial via the Nation Channel.

Thailand’s second most famous fugitive even went on to say he didn’t know what he had done wrong. However, it may have something to do with the widely circulated videos of his speeches at red shirt rallies, during which he encouraged red shirts to bring petrol to Bangkok and turn it into a sea of fire, including Siriraj Hospital where His Majesty the King is housed.

On the plus side, having Phuea Thai in government should keep the red shirts off the streets so we can hope for some stability and an end to the violent protests that have plagued Thailand for the last two years.

Another plus of Phuea Thai winning the election is that they will now deliver on the mega projects they promised us as part of their campaign manifesto (won’t they?). In addition to seeing an end to the drug problem in 12 months and poverty in 4 years, we can look forward to a huge increase in the minimum wage, a nationwide high speed rail system, an ambitious flood prevention and land reclamation project, a sea bridge across the Gulf of Thailand, and one tablet computer for every student.

And in case you were wondering where the financing for these projects would come from, it seems it will be the poor and gullible who will be footing the bill. There is talk that the online lottery will be revived and revenue from the Government Lottery Office (GLO) used to finance the government’s populist policies as it was during the Thaksin administration when the two- and three-digit lottery generated between 6 and 10 billion baht a month.

And what of the losers? Whether fairly or not, the Democrats were soundly beaten at the polls, prompting both outgoing PM Abhisit Vejjajiva and Democrat secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban to resign. It is patently clear that the party desperately needs a major overhaul having become so hopelessly out of touch with the common Thai people.

While Abhisit took defeat graciously, the same could not be said for his party. The Democrats finished the week by filing a complaint with the Election Commission over Thaksin’s active role in Phuea Thai. As Thaksin is currently banned from politics, his involvement is in direct contradiction of Article 97 of the Thai constitution and could result in dissolution for Phuea Thai.

Although there can be little denying Thaksin’s involvement as de facto leader of Phuea Thai, it smacks of desperation by the soundly beaten Democrats who were themselves only too happy to involve another banned politician, Newin Chidchob, when they formed their own coalition with the Bhum Jai Thai party after Newin acrimoniously split from his former “boss” Thaksin.

Having switched sides in return for lucrative ministerial portfolios when the last government was formed, it’s somewhat ironic that Bhum Jai Thai not only failed so miserably at the latest election, but now also finds itself facing dissolution amid complaints of election fraud. Outside the party, there will be few that lament this particular greedy little piggy’s nose being pushed out of the trough.

Thailand has experienced both the good and bad side of politics over the last seven days. Just how ugly it gets in the coming weeks remains to be seen.

Paul Snowdon – July 9, 2011

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