Ballistic: Civilians vs. Soldiers

A soldier detains two Redshirt protesters at gunpoint following civil unrest in 2010 in Pathum Thani province.

Voranai VanijakaIn a recent conversation with eminent political scientist Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak about the general election set for late 2018, he summed up the future of Thai politics as such: “civilians vs. soldiers.”

Given the history of Thai political violence, military crackdowns and cycles of coup d’etats, this indeed is an unfortunate matchup – especially for the civilians. Here’s the concern: The new constitution is designed in such a way that would likely create a deadlock between the 500 elected members of parliament, preventing them from having a clear majority to form a government. In such an event, the 250-strong senate, all handpicked by the current military government, would swoop in.

Therefore we shall have 250 united voices against 500 fragmented, constantly bitching and bickering, voices – many of whom would surely be persuaded to swing to the side of the senators. This persuasion may come in many forms, most likely it would involve the same old offer that no politician can ever refuse: join the government and share the cake.

From the 750 voices, the majority then would pick the next prime minister and form the cabinet. The catch is, he or she needs not be an elected representative of the people. Which means, they can pick me if they want, but that’s not going to happen.

As such, following a series of unfortunate events in the more-than-a-decade-long Thai political conflicts, by the end of 2018 we may likely have a handpicked prime minister and cabinet. Since the senate represents the word and will of those who appoint them, the hands that will actually do the picking would all be reaching from green shirtsleeves, with at least one likely wearing a Richard Mille watch on his wrist and large diamond bling on his finger.

To sum it up, civilians get to pick the MPs, and that’s democracy; generals get to pick the government, and that’s Thai-style democracy. The key terms here are “elected” vs. “handpicked.” So while it’s a step forward to have a general election, it might turn out to be an unsure step, down a typical poorly-lit soi full of stray dogs, on a typical hot and humid Bangkok night. Meaning, we might step on something squishy.

An obvious way to prevent a handpicked government is to have a strong coalition formed by political parties. That would mean the two largest parties, Pheu Thai and Democrats, have to join hands. It might be easier to get Donald Trump to admit he’s wearing a wig but – here we are – this perhaps is the best option to preserve whatever form of democracy we have left in Thailand. In the battle between civilians and soldiers, enemies have to become friends.

Even the Lannisters and the Starks are joining forces to combat the Night King in the Game of Thrones saga, and his army of wights from beyond the wall, although Queen Cersei is having none of it. Shifting alliances is common in politics, here in Thailand or in any other country, including the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. But getting Pheu Thai and the Democrats together might be harder than giving Harvey Weinstein the Gruber Prize for Women’s Rights award.

Perhaps sacrifices have to be made in order to forge this partnership. The Pheu Thai may have to rid itself of Redshirt elements, while the Democrats might have to rid themselves of whistle elements, namely Suthep Thaugsuban, allegedly the most powerful politician in the Democrats’ camp. We may even take it one step further, Pheu Thai may have to sever ties with the Shinawatra clan, and the Democrats might need a new leader to replace Abhisit Vejjajiva. As you can see, these are things easily written, but highly unlikely to be executed in actuality, as many powerful cliques and individuals would be left out.

Alternatively, perhaps in spite of the new constitution, the Pheu Thai somehow manages to win a clear majority in parliament, then we would have an elected government in charge. But would that mean more protests in the streets by anti-Thaksin whistlers? It’s a game of chance.

There is yet another possibility, an idea that has been floated by political insiders. Political parties might agree to nominate the leader of the third largest party, Anuthin Chanveerakul of Bhumjaithai, as prime minister. Someone who’s “acceptable” by all factions. But this is a long shot, and to have, in effect, the third-place election winner forming a government is unprecedented on many levels.

Regardless of how things may play out, the future of Thai politics is as Dr. Thitinan stated, civilians vs. soldiers. The right for each individual adult citizen to play a role in determining the future of the country vs. the power of the military to determine the future for everyone else.

Yet, there’s another way to look at it. At the top, it’s politicians vs. generals, both sides would remain wealthy and powerful no matter who win. At the bottom, it’s ordinary civilians vs. common soldiers, both sides toil and struggle no matter who wins.

Democracy is flawed and Thai politicians would make Harvey Weinstein’s casting couch seem absolutely innocent and sanitized, but it is still the better option for advancement of the country.

The new constitution should be reexamined, while in the near future Thailand has two roads ahead, both are flawed, and both have supporters and naysayers: One road is paved by civilian-rule, the other by military-rule.

Previous article1 Body Recovered, 36 Feared Dead in Philippine Mall Fire
Next article1 Million Thai Teens Suffer From Depression: Official
Voranai Vanijaka is the former editor-in-chief of GQ Magazine Thailand. He teaches Global Media Studies at Thammasat University. From 2008 to May 2014, he wrote the Sunday Column on politics and society for the Bangkok Post.