Out of Luck in Thailand

Yingluck Shinawatra's Removal and the End of Democracy

Yingluck Shinawatra gives a traditional greeting as she arrives at the Constitutional Court in Bangkok, May 6, 2014. (Chaiwat Subprasom / Courtesy Reuters)

The removal of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra hardly comes as a surprise. She is the latest in a series of four prime ministers to be ousted from office in recent years -- all from the same side of the political fence. Her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was removed from the premiership in a September 2006 military coup. Two other leaders, Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat, were struck down by Thailand’s constitutional court in 2008.

Far from solving Thailand’s political problems, these earlier ousters ushered in illegitimate regimes that exacerbated tensions in the country and laid the groundwork for future protests. Yingluck’s departure is unlikely to be much different. The formal reason for the court’s decision to dismiss her was her illegal transfer in 2011 of a senior official from the National Security Council to an inactive post. (That reason was at least marginally more plausible than the one it gave for Samak’s removal -- illegally hosting a TV cooking show). Yingluck’s real offence, though, was being a member of the Shinawatra political clan, the target of mass protests that have disrupted life in the Thai capital for the better part of six months. That Yingluck survived in office so long is testimony to the extreme hesitancy of Thailand’s monarchical network -- an alliance of interests that includes the palace, the military, and the judiciary -- to move against her. After all, she still enjoys the support of the majority of voters.  

After three years of unrest, however, this month, Yingluck finally lost the backing of that conservative establishment. It will be difficult to create a replacement administration. Thailand has become a country of partisans, devoid of credible neutral figures who can broker a settlement between warring pro- and anti-Thaksin factions and build a sustainable government. The future of the elections, originally scheduled for July 20, now looks in doubt, and Yingluck supporters are threatening to engage in civil disobedience or worse to show their displeasure at the court’s latest challenge to democratic rule.

And that means that today’s celebratory mood in some corners of Thailand, especially within the anti-government “People’s Democratic Reform Committee,” is likely to prove short-lived. Thailand is now entering new and extremely dangerous political territory.

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