Bargaining Chip?

Murder Charge Against Thailand Ex-Premier Designed to Force Compromise

Breaking gridlock, Bangkok style. Could homicide charges force a party to compromise? By Lennox Samuels.

Apichart Weerawong / AP Photo

It is at once bizarre, slightly surreal, and somewhat Kafkaesque: The most recent ex-prime minister of Thailand, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and one of his former deputy premiers, Suthep Thaugsuban, charged with the killing of a taxi driver during the political unrest that rocked the country more than two years ago. The charges were announced the day after the 85th birthday of the nation’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The cab driver, Phan Khampong, 44, was shot to death in May 2010 by soldiers who opened fire as he was walking on the street. Abhisit and Suthep are charged because at the time they were, respectively, prime minister and director of the Center for Resolution of the Emergency Situation, a command formed to resolve the weeks-long protests by so-called Red Shirts, anti-government Thais who had taken over Bangkok’s central business district.

Abhisit’s Democrat party sees the charges as politically driven, and the PM says he was merely discharging his duty to maintain law and order. “Democrat spokesmen think the evidence linked to Abhisit is not substantiated by any court,” former Abhisit spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told The Daily Beast. “It’s unprecedented to charge two top policymakers, including the former prime minister, like this.” He likened the situation to charging President Obama with crimes in connection with his lawful execution of his role as commander-in-chief.

Is this really about the unfortunate death of a cab driver? Well, no. It’s the latest turn—one might say tactic—in the country’s long-running political tug-of-war that has been marked by coups, deadly protests, and the ouster of prime ministers for absurdist reasons like hosting a cooking show on television. And inevitably, a bogeyman lurks in the background—or foreground, depending on who’s telling the story. He is Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist billionaire premier ejected in a 2006 coup who has lived in comfortable exile ever since.

“Thaksin wants to come home and he’s getting desperate as his surrogates in government gain their own power and become more independent,” a person aligned with Abhisit’s Democrat party told The Daily Beast—a reference to Thaksin opponents’ view that the former media tycoon actually runs the government headed by his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, from opulent redoubts in Dubai, London, Montenegro, or Hong Kong.

In the first official move against the previous government in connection with the spring 2010 violence in which some 90 people died, the Department of Special Investigation charged Abhisit and Suthep with authorizing the killing of anti-government protesters, immediately sparking conspiracy theories that the DSI chief, Tarit Pengdith, was acting on orders of the government—which is to say, Thaksin. Democrat party spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut told the Bangkok Post the move was an abuse of power by government officials bent on persecuting political rivals. Tarit says the decision was based on a court ruling and evidence from DSI investigations—not on government pressure.

The Red Shirt occupation marked another shift in Thailand’s pendulum-swinging social unrest, which had seen the opposing Yellow Shirts—activists allied with the Democrat party, military, business elite, and ultra-monarchists—occupy the capital’s two main airports in 2008.

In essence, Thailand is divided between reformist democracy activists who want a more open process, and traditionalists who are content with the centuries-long structure dominated by elites that regard the one-man-one-vote ideal as at best premature. The elites, personified for many by Abhisit and the Democrats, have resisted “reconciliation” efforts, loath to agree to anything that would dilute the status quo.

“The indictment of the former ex-prime minister and former deputy PM is an effort to create an incentive for them, as leaders of the opposition, to compromise,” says one retired Western diplomat in Bangkok.

Compromise over what? In two words, amnesty and Thaksin.

Puea Thai, the ruling coalition, has proposed granting amnesty to protesters and political convicts. That would include Thaksin, convicted in absentia of corruption and sentenced to two years in jail. Amnesty would allow the exiled pol to return to Thailand—possibly, in opponents’ nightmares, to power.

“The fact is, Thaksin has been convicted of a conflict of interest,” the Western diplomat said. “Barely a misdemeanor. There are several prime ministers in the past who have committed far more egregious offenses. Frankly, it is unsustainable in the long run that the de facto prime minister be barred from his country.”

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But the former premier is anathema to establishment Thais, who regard his populist rhetoric and policies as threats to the societal order romanticized in The King and I.

Meanwhile, those on the Red Shirt side believe the decks have been tilted against them, pointing to the serious charges against leaders of the 2010 uprising during the Abhisit administration and the relative wrist-slapping of Yellow Shirt cadres who seized the airports and caused other disruption.

“There’s an idea that people on the opposite side of the Red Shirts have not been prosecuted—proof of a double standard that fosters the kind of resentment that could lead to trouble in society,” Chaturon Chaisang, former leader of the New Aspiration Party and a former deputy prime minister, told The Daily Beast.

The dueling sides have taken turns wrapping themselves in the king’s highly visible yellow standard, with the Yellow Shirts often accusing their opponents of being anti-monarchy, and reformers declaring their fealty to the crown and insisting they merely want a fairer constitutional monarchy.

Which raises the timing of the Abhisit/Suthep charges. Thailand’s next parliamentary session is set to begin Dec. 21, and the agenda includes a third reading of proposed constitutional amendments—when Parliament can vote on changes to the constitution. One proposal calls for a national assembly of Thais to draft a new constitution, as opposed to having members of Parliament doing it. Many traditionalists claim this is populist sleight of hand to have people decide the matter—a process they allege would result in the entire political system being jettisoned, including the monarchy.

In this scenario, the murder charges are simply a stratagem to compel Abhisit and the Democrats to make a deal on the constitution—and on amnesty.

Will it work? The likelihood of a conviction is low. Not only would a murder charge be difficult to prove—“It is hard to argue that they ordered soldiers to go out and kill people,” noted Chaturon—the judiciary has typically been supportive of the nation’s so-called oligarchs.

If the charges amount to a negotiating ploy, that could backfire and motivate Democrat supporters to protest. But it appears, for now, that the pair’s prosecution won’t lead to Tahrir Square-like demonstrations—unless Abhisit and Suthep, who will answer the charges next week, were denied bail and jailed, which is unlikely. “This is not the sort of thing that would send Yellow Shirts to the streets,” said Chaturon.

In the short term, the political gridlock is likely to continue, as neither side has the leverage to effect change—or the will to compromise. “A lot of people are in a prolonged conflict,” said one prominent political figure. “There’s more and more hatred and anger, and things get more complicated. So it is not possible for them to say, all of a sudden, we want to reconcile.” He added that both sides are “about even,” with Red Shirts having the government on their side while the Yellow Shirts can claim the military, judiciary, and “people in the palace.”

“Reconciliation basically has a better chance when one side dominates,” he said. If so, Thailand’s in for a long slog.