Almost two years after ordering a massacre of his own citizens, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva remains the leader of the Democrat Party. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, whose troops carried out the killings, is still the Commander in Chief of the Thai army, while many of the officers who assisted in the crackdown’s planning and execution were rewarded with promotions. Even the retired General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who staged a military coup in 2006 against a government elected three times, is now a member of parliament; improbably, he was given the chairmanship of a parliamentary committee on “national reconciliation.”
These men did not just escape legal accountability for their actions, which is the historical norm in Thailand, but got to keep their positions and titles. Few in the domestic and international press have seriously questioned their fitness to serve.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra remains in self-imposed exile. Mr. Thaksin refuses to serve a two-year prison sentence, slapped on him for the “crime” of signing a consent form, as required by law, endorsing his wife’s registration of a plot of public land she purchased in a competitive auction.
Since the elections of July 2011, the possibility that Mr. Thaksin might be allowed to return to Thailand, whether as a result of a royal pardon, an amnesty, or a re-trial, has been discussed regularly in the international press. The tiresome articles and opinion columns written on the subject almost never fail to describe Mr. Thaksin as a “deeply divisive figure,” warning of the dangers posed by his return. For the good of the country, it is said, Mr. Thaksin should not force the issue. His supporters in Thailand should simply let it go.
The international coverage of Thailand’s political struggle has a surreal quality about it. The man who has won (directly or by proxy) each of the five elections since 2001 is too “divisive” to be allowed back into the country. Yet the men who have staged coups, invalidated elections, dissolved four political parties, arrested hundreds of their political opponents, and killed dozens of people to avoid dissolving the House of Representatives at an inconvenient time are accepted as legitimate leaders of the armed forces, major political parties, and parliamentary committees on “reconciliation.” Writers at the Financial Times, Foreign Policy, the Wall Street Journal, or the Council on Foreign Relations have never so much as suggested that these people leave their posts, much less leave the country.
Unfortunately, for a good portion of the Western media, the measure of the support that Thailand’s many “divisive” figures enjoy is not the issue. The issue is rather the identity of their supporters. For the past fifty years, Western governments, corporations, and media have forged a close relationship with Thailand’s establishment, all the while showing a great deal of mistrust for choices made by the people. The embarrassing diplomatic cables showing the United States Ambassador justify the 2006 coup to the State Department, and recommend that no measure be taken against the junta beyond symbolic gestures of disapproval or bland public statements, all the while blaming the elected government for its own downfall, are only the most recent example.
Indeed, Mr. Thaksin’s problem is not his “divisiveness.” Mr. Thaksin’s problem is that he is feared and hated by people to whom the international community and the international press have never applied the same standards, no matter how often they might trample on the will of the voters to defend their position.
Given the propensity that Mr. Thaksin’s enemies have shown for violence, and their proven determination to defeat him by any means necessary, it is not unreasonable to speculate that his return could trigger a backlash. Still it makes no sense to ask Mr. Thaksin to stay away, simply on account of his enemies’ hatred and disregard for democratic values. Telling Mr. Thaksin to stay away from a country he was elected to govern does nothing to either improve Thailand’s stability or heal its divisions. Doing so only emboldens those who have rejected the electoral process to continue to impose the will of a few powerful people over that of the majority of the population.
Mr. Thaksin’s enemies may have given up on elections altogether, but the international community and the international media should know better. Whether or not Mr. Thaksin returns to Thailand is of little consequence in this respect. What really matters is that Thailand will have no stability, so long as the elites whom Westerners treat with such deference do not accept to live with the outcome of competitive elections, especially those they do not win. For a change, the international press might consider asking them to set aside their sense of entitlement, and stop “dividing” a country that has rejected their leadership.