Asia Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Media and Society in Asia and the Pacific

An Interview with Dr. Andrew Walker on the Forthcoming Thai General Election

Asia Rights talks to Dr. Andrew Walker on the human rights issues facing Thailand in the forthcoming general election. Andrew has been working in mainland Southeast Asia since 1993 when he conducted PhD research on cross-border trading links between northern Thailand, northern Laos and southern China. For the past 10 years he has been working on issues of rural development, resource management and modernisation in northern Thailand. He is currently undertaking ongoing ethnographic fieldwork in Baan Tiam, a northern Thai village in Chiang Mai province. Andrew is the co-founder of the New Mandala blog which provides anecdote, analysis and new perspectives on mainland southeast Asia. It is required reading for all serious scholars of the region. Andrew’s research interests include environmental management, rural development, agricultural modernisation, borders and borderlands, politics, ritual, spirits and coyote dancing. There are numerous posts on New Mandala about his research interests.

Thank you for agreeing to talk to Asia Rights about the forthcoming Thai general election and some of the rights issues that will face Thai society. For those who do not know much about Thailand, can you tell us a little about the election, the key divisions in Thai Politics and the choices facing the Thai electorate?

For people who don’t know much about Thailand, the key division in Thai politics is about Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, and whether or not his political allies are going to regain office. Thaksin and his allies have won every election that have been held in the last ten years. However, Thaksin was overthrown in a coup in 2006. The key issue for this election, where Thaksin’s younger sister is now running for Prime Minister, is whether or not he will be politically rehabilitated. It is very likely if his allies do win, if his sister becomes prime minister, we will see some moves to bring Thaksin back to Thailand.

So is the choice just between two parties?

There are minor parties in Thailand that may play in a role in forming a coalition government with one of the two major parties, but there are only really two large parties – the Democrat Party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Pheu Thai party, ‘For Thailand Party’ which is composed of Thaksin’s political allies.

Do those two parties present a useful and genuine choice for the Thai electorate?

It’s a hard question. In a policy sense, there is not a lot between them. What we have seen since Thaksin is a convergence of politics in Thailand around relatively populist policies. Both parties are now promoting a whole lot of economic and social development polices aimed at winning voters especially in rural areas. So in that sense, in a crude policy sense, there are certainly some differences there, but not a huge difference. I think the issue is more that, for many people in the electorate, this populist approach to government is Thaksin’s approach so his political allies have a more legitimate claim to the populist approach. I think there is some feeling that the democrats are adopting these policies just for political expediency, there’s not the depth of commitment to them. The Democrat Party is much more associated with the urban middle and upper class and with the Royalists in Thailand and the military, so in that sense, in broad social and political terms there is a real choice. And there is the feeling that Thaksin’s allies in a sense represent people’s political desires and aspirations because they have won the last few elections. And so I think some people will be voting for them merely because they feel that they have a legitimate claim to govern rather than for any particular policy reason.

Reflecting on the issue of human and political rights, is there freedom to campaign across the spectrum particularly in areas where the opposite party might be stronger or where smaller parties might want to find a voice?

Relatively speaking Thailand has a pretty free and fair political system. There are vigorously contested political campaigns and I think what we are currently seeing is consistent with that pattern. There is some electoral violence and electoral intimidation. It’s always been a problem in Thailand. But it’s not rampant, and I don’t think that it really prevents vibrant debate and political discussion. There are reports that in the current very polarised political situation in Thailand, for example Prime Minister Abiset and his Democrat Party would find it very difficult campaigning in some real pro-Thaksin or red shirt heartlands, I think that is probably true, but to me it’s a bit unremarkable. I think there are some reports of electoral posters being vandalised, but I don’t think that this detracts from the fact that we have a real contest here.

I think the bigger issue is in Thailand at the moment we’ve got more than one hundred of Thaksin’s political allies who are leading figures in his party banned from politics. And so in a sense we are not dealing with a real level playing field. A lot of key opposition figures can’t participate in the election. Another issue is the very strict enforcement of the lese majeste laws with people being arrested and threatened with imprisonment for commenting on the Royal Family. And obviously the Royal Family is a player in the political system so that is a real constraint on political speech.

Within the individual political camps is there free debate and discussion?

I think so. Talking about the ‘Yellow Shirt’ grouping, we’ve seen them fragment over the last few months and there has been very strong debate in the Yellow Shirt movement around the issue whether to encourage a boycott of the election. Some of them are very publicly promoting a boycott, some are arguing that the ‘Yellow Shirts’ should be getting out there and contesting the election.

Similarly amongst the ‘Red Shirts’, there are a range of opinions being expressed. I think one of the key lines within the red shirt movement, is between what you may call a more radical fringe that is calling for a more thorough discussion about the role of the monarchy for example, and the more mainstream members that are cautious and shying away from a discussion that includes the Royal Family.

But political parties in Thailand don’t have very strong internal party discipline. People shift parties regularly, it’s common for people standing for parliament to have been a member of three or four different parties including their current opponents, so I don’t think that parties clamp down on internal political discussion.

What about election monitoring in Thailand?

There are a number of national and regional non-government organisations that are involved in observing the elections. There have been calls for international monitors to go and watch the elections which the government has rejected. My feeling is that the government in Thailand rejects the call for international monitors not because the government worries that the monitors will find electoral abuse but that the monitors will find that the election is quite free and fair and then that makes it hard for people who might want to discredit the election to do so.

I have observed a couple of elections in Thailand just at the local level, and my feeling is that the strongest monitoring is provided by people themselves. There are committees at the village level that run the polling stations, there is very open and public accounting of every single vote, there is very public tallying of every single vote, and I think that this provides some protection against the wholesale manipulation of voting that you see in other places.

Are there any minority groups that might be excluded from participating in the election?

There are certainly very significant ethnic divisions within Thailand. To look at some of the big picture divisions you’ve got the Muslim South where there has been a very violent insurgency going on for quite a few years, but I don’t think that this is excluding people from the political process. I expect we’ll see very active political process in this part of Thailand. In the Northeast of Thailand you have a very large ethnic Lao population which to some extent has a distinct ethnic identity that maps onto very strong support for Thaksin and the opposition. Probably some of the most vulnerable people in electoral terms are the very small ethnic minorities in the mountains of the North. But even there, my experience is that increasingly these, sometimes quite remote, ethnic minority villages are seen as important sources of votes in local campaigns. They are able to play the electoral game like anyone else and negotiate benefits with aspiring politicians.

I am sure there are a lot of workers, refugees from Burma, Shan labourers who don’t have citizenship and don’t have voting rights and can’t really shape social and economic decision that will affect them. This is one of the main exclusions from the political process.

How vocal are human rights activists and civil society in Thailand? How much freedom do they have to operate and how important are they in political debate?

There is a very strong what you might call civil society voice in Thailand and I think there has been very strong representation of human rights issues and issues of political abuse. In particular, some of the violence in the South has met with a very strong response from civil society.

I think it is fair to say under the former Thaksin government and to some degree under the recent government there has been some harassment and intimidation of these groups. And what has really weakened their voice in recent years has been pretty significant political division within civil society groups over their response to the coup. I think a lot of them felt, partly in response to Thaksin’s harassment of civil society, that the coup wasn’t such a bad thing and they were in a sense willing to go along with a period of military government to erase the influence of Thaksin. Whereas others perhaps have taken a more purist position that a coup under any circumstances is wrong and they have to speak out in support of democracy. And one of the ways this has played out has been quite significant splits between civil society organisations that have allied with the ‘Yellow Shirts’, sometimes playing a very key role, and a smaller number that have allied with the ‘Red Shirts’. So in a sense the biggest threat to civil society’s human rights voice in society hasn’t come directly from outside, from the state, but from these internal political divisions.

What are you hopes for the election?

It sounds very idealistic, but I suppose my hope for the election is that people accept the result. I think the basic failing of Thai politics over the last five years is that people simply haven’t accepted the results of the election. In order to justify their position they have generated a very strong anti-electoral ideology that is based on notions that all politicians are corrupt that people just vote for the person who gives them the most money, that rural voters are easily manipulated and are only thinking in terms of their own self-interests. So I think there has been a really strong anti-democratic discourse developed simply because people don’t want to accept election results. So if we can have a Thai general election, where some people might not be very happy about the outcome, but accept the result believing that in four years time they can come and fight again, to me that would be the best outcome.

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