• Thu
  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 10:00pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

More violence or economic crisis looms in Thailand

Simon Tay says it is hard to see what compromise can satisfy all parties

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 6:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 2:49am

Anti-government protests in Bangkok have lasted more than three months, and yet they continue to confuse people. Much of the international media assert the sanctity of the vote above all else. Most rely on the distinction that the "red shirts" represent the poor, and the "yellow shirts" are the elite - as if simple colour-coding could explain complexities.

Rather than trying to understand, many have prejudged events. Developments over the past week will further confound them, as a new stage in the situation seems to be emerging.

Much relates to the vote that went ahead on February 2 despite disruptions at some polling stations. Although the full results are yet to be confirmed, what is emerging may not vindicate Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's gamble on a snap poll.

Voting was not completed in the south - where the Democrats are strongest - and, without these provinces, a new parliament cannot convene. In other provinces where voting went ahead, unofficial reports say that fewer than half the eligible voters turned out.

Further, early sampling by the well-respected Thailand Development Research Institute suggests support for the ruling Puea Thai party may have been eroded. Questions are being asked about the caretaker government's effectiveness.

New pressure is emerging in the streets. Rice farmers are now protesting alongside the long-encamped yellow shirts rallied by former Democrat deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban. While not large in number, their presence in Bangkok is a setback for pro-Shinawatra supporters.

The Puea Thai plan to subsidise rice farmers was always a controversial economic policy. The subsidies have cost billions in taxpayers' money and made rice exports uncompetitive. The farmers' complaints cast further doubt on the social benefits of the scheme. On top of this, investigations about corruption have started, causing China to back away from an earlier pledge to buy rice.

Contrary to Yingluck's hopes, her government looks shakier after the elections than it did before. However, this does not mean that the protesters led by Suthep will have their way.

These elements have called for a military coup, a non-elected committee to run the country, and that the Shinawatra family be banned from politics. Such measures would be unacceptable not only to the international community but to many moderate Thais. While it has not ruled out a coup, the military is clearly reluctant to seize power, as it did in 2006. Instead, calls are emerging for a new caretaker government that is neutral - featuring neither Suthep nor the opposition Democrat Party. This would only be an interim arrangement to review constitutional and other rules so that a fair election can be held.

If this or some other compromise cannot be reached, two prospects arise. Neither are good.

The first is for violence, beyond what has been seen so far, given the increasing impatience on both sides.

The second is an economic crisis. At present, stronger companies and the industrial sector remain confident even as smaller businesses and the tourism sector are feeling the impact. But a protracted stalemate will worsen matters.

In the wake of the US Federal Reserve tapering, emerging economies with deteriorating macroeconomic figures or visible political instability are being punished by skittish markets. Thailand is drifting towards both these tendencies.

As anti-government protests gear up and pro-Shinawatra supporters dig in their heels, it is hard to discern what compromise might be acceptable. The majority of Thais realise that, despite elections, no one is winning.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, an independent think tank

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