Abhisit Shutout of Rivals on Thai Political Revamp May Doom Reconciliation
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s efforts to reconcile the country are drawing criticism from opponents who say the process leaves them out and won’t lead to concrete changes.
A month after an army assault ended 69 days of anti- government protests, Abhisit has appointed at least four committees that will study constitutional changes and investigate violence that left 89 people dead.
No one on the 19-member panel to study the constitution represents the protesters’ views and the man charged with leading the reconciliation effort is Anand Panyarachun, a 77- year-old two-time appointed premier who first took power after a 1991 coup.
“Abhisit’s plan excludes the opposition totally,” Chaturon Chaiseng, a Cabinet member under ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra who spoke at the protests, said by phone. “The people he picked mostly supported the coup and the present constitution, which is the fundamental problem.”
Rival groups with different visions for governing Thailand have battled on the streets since the army ousted Thaksin in 2006. Failure to reconcile those interests may lead to a repeat of violence that has deterred investors, said Paul Chambers, a senior research fellow at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.
“It’s hard to believe there is going to be some genuine move toward any real constitutional changes,” said Chambers, who has published research on Thai politics for the past decade. “If the plan turns out to be mere fluff, those upcountry will get angrier.”
The instability has made Thai stocks the third-cheapest in Asia after Pakistan and South Korea, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Thailand’s SET index has risen 9.7 percent this year, against a 14 percent decline over the previous two years, as investors took advantage of bargains.
Vietnam, which drew one-fifth as much foreign investment than Thailand in 2006, attracted more in each of the past two years, according to the Manila-based Asian Development Bank.
The political turmoil has “weighed on investment and perception of risk in Thailand,” said Supavud Saicheua, managing director of Bangkok-based Phatra Securities Pcl, Thailand’s second-biggest brokerage.
Thaksin, who fled a two-year jail sentence for abuse of power in 2008, is calling for the reinstatement of the 1997 constitution under which he won office. He lured the poor in the country’s northeast with improved health care and cheap loans, and his allies mobilized that support in the latest rallies against Abhisit.
Abhisit announced on June 18 that Anand, who was appointed prime minister by the military in 1991 and again by the monarch after bloody street protests the following year, will lead a forthcoming national reform panel. The process will outlive the government, which has 18 months left in its term, Abhisit said.
“I told the Thai people that it’s time we reconcile, drawing our hearts as one for reform,” the prime minister told foreign investors on June 18 in Nonthaburi outside Bangkok. “I will do my best to arrange for all voices and all ideas to be heard.”
Abhisit’s plan has five main points that are “equally important,” he said. They are amending the constitution, investigating the protest violence, protecting the monarchy, regulating the media and addressing economic disparities.
The pro-Thaksin red shirted protesters, hailing mostly from poorer parts of Bangkok and the agrarian northeast, call for a return to the rules in place before he was ousted. Their yellow- shirted rivals, composed of more well-to-do royalists in Bangkok and from the south, mostly prefer the post-coup constitution, which empowers appointed bodies at the expense of elected politicians.
Under a clause in the post-coup constitution, a party can be disbanded and its executive board banned from office for five years if one member is found guilty of a crime. Since the coup, courts have disbanded four political parties, including the two composed of Thaksin’s allies that won the past two elections.
In April, Abhisit, 45, came under the system’s spotlight as well when the Election Commission, a Bangkok-based independent regulator, filed two cases contending that the party should be disbanded for accepting an illegal donation and for making campaign posters that were 10 centimeters narrower than regulations allow.
The dissolution case against Abhisit’s Democrats is an “obstacle” to changing the constitution because neither his party nor the opposition will act on the matter until the court gives a verdict, said Chaturon, one of 220 mostly pro-Thaksin lawmakers serving five-year political bans.
Disbanding the Democrats “would lead to another election sooner,” said Kanin Boonsuwan, a law lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University who helped write the 1997 constitution. “On the other hand, if the party isn’t disbanded, there will be more political chaos.”
The panel of 19 academics reviewing the constitution includes four original drafters. Three others, including the chairman, served in the junta-appointed legislature. Another member, Banjerd Singkaneti, drew a rebuttal from the Israeli Embassy in 2006 when he was quoted in the Bangkok Post saying that Thaksin was worse than Hitler.
“It’s a very worrying sign when they ask the guys who wrote a bad constitution to study ways to reform it,” said Noppadon Pattama, a former foreign minister and spokesman for Thaksin.