Land of the Lost

  • Agnes Dherbeys—VII Mentor

    Proxy war Thaksin's sister Yingluck on the campaign trail

    Sonthi Boonyaratglin must have armor-plated gonads. How else to explain it? Five years ago, as an army general, he led a military coup that overthrew Thailand's then Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Now retired and running in the country's July 3 parliamentary election, he presents the coup as a brave and selfless act. "I'm glad we did it," says Sonthi, who commands his Matubhum Party from a spartan Bangkok office. "If we hadn't, Thailand might no longer be a democracy."

    Sonthi's presence — a coup general running as democracy's savior — in this critical election shows just how dysfunctional Thailand's politics have become. Thais hope to elect a government with the authority to end years of political unrest, which culminated in May last year with the deaths of at least 90 people during the antigovernment Red Shirt protests in Bangkok. But peace seems unlikely. Once a democratic trailblazer in an authoritarian region, Thailand has become a political basket case.

    The party tipped to win the election is Pheu Thai (For Thais), the latest reincarnation of an electoral juggernaut that first swept Thaksin to power a decade ago. The billionaire runs the party from a mansion in Dubai, where he fled to evade a two-year jail sentence for corruption. Its nominal leader is 43-year-old businesswoman Yingluck Shinawatra — Thaksin's younger sister. If elected, she would be Thailand's first female Prime Minister and, presumably, her brother's loyal proxy. "Yingluck is my clone," he said recently.

    Pheu Thai's main rival is the incumbent Democrat Party, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who presided over last year's bloody military crackdown on the Red Shirts. Abhisit's coalition government was cobbled together with military support two years ago after the ruling pro-Thaksin party was dissolved because of vote fraud. Many Thais feel that the Democrats are elitist, beholden to the military-backed royalist establishment and aloof from the problems of the people.

    The third force is the rich and resurgent Thai military. Since the coup, defense spending has more than doubled to $5.5 billion. The military has staged 18 coups or attempted coups since 1932. A 19th is possible if Pheu Thai wins power and goes after the generals who ousted Thaksin. Generals have recently lined up to deny the constant rumors of an impending coup. Thais have good reason to doubt them. "There definitely won't be a coup," said Sonthi in 2006, even as he was plotting one.

    Coup or no coup, postelection Thailand may prove unstable whoever ends up in power. A Pheu Thai government could reignite street protests by anti-Thaksin groups like the ultraroyalist Yellow Shirts, who occupied the Prime Minister's Office and Bangkok's two international airports in 2008. Another military-backed Democrat government could again spark demos by Pheu Thai's close allies, the Red Shirts, who last year had armed militants in their ranks.

    All this raises an important question: Who cares? The Thai economy seems armor-plated too. Last year, despite Thailand's worst political violence in almost two decades, the economy grew faster than it has for 15 years. The country also welcomed record numbers of tourists. Foreign investors seem unfazed by bloodshed: Ford Motor Co. has invested $1.3 billion in Thailand in the past three years.

    Yet politics still matters. Years of street protests show that Thais from all walks of life have strong political views to express. Reconciling them requires greater openness and debate, but the country seems to be moving in the opposite direction. This is not only the fault of the military, which always has a hard job distinguishing between dissent and disloyalty. Politicians aren't helping either. Thaksin intimidated opponents, cowed the media and dismantled institutions that might check his authoritarianism. No party led by him can be serious about political reconciliation.

    The Democrats don't appear serious either. Their government's record for stifling free expression — it has blocked some 540,000 Web pages in the past 14 months, estimates Freedom Against Censorship Thailand — is worse than Thaksin's. And they still back the military's far-fetched claim that soldiers didn't kill or even injure a single Red Shirt during last year's bloody crackdown.

    Thais want a bigger say, and more transparency, in how their country is run. What they're getting is massive censorship, a dangerously resurgent military and an election that will likely be followed by the usual backroom carve-up of money and political influence. This is not just a failure of leadership. It is a recipe for further violence. The stability Thais crave is as elusive as ever.