By Wenchi Yu
Every year, December 5 is the most celebrated holiday in Thailand because it is King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday. The streets are decorated with shades of yellow – the color of the King – and people line up to pay respect to the King and heed his wise words. The world’s longest reigning monarch, King Bhumibol has been a critical force for stability and moral authority in Thailand’s highly volatile politics.
However, on the eve of Bhumibol’s 86th birthday, Thailand is once again engulfed in political battles. This year’s speech is going to be more challenging for King Bhumibol, and his appearance will be a reminder that Thailand desperately needs to unify before he goes, or it might descend into chaos.
Since former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup in 2006, the political division between the red and yellow shirts – pro-and anti-government supporters – has caused years of instability and political crisis in Thailand. In recent weeks, an ill-conceived amnesty bill backed by the party of Yingluck Shinawatra, the current prime minister and Thaksin’s sister, was viewed as clearing the path for Thaksin’s return to the country and has resulted in large-scale demonstrations and escalating violence in Bangkok. Anti-government protesters, led by former Democrat Party lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, have been calling for Yingluck to step down and for an end to what they call the “Thaksin regime.”
Earlier this week, both sides reached a temporary truce in honor of the King’s birthday, but the anti-government faction vowed to resume the fight after the celebrations. The highly anticipated speech by the King will no doubt call for the country’s unity, as it has done in the past. However, will it be enough to resolve the current crisis? So far, the King has not spoken on current events, and the entire country is watching and holding its breath.
If the King’s speech does not provide obvious guidance, Suthep and his supporters will likely call for more demonstrations until they can extract concessions from the Yingluck government. While Yingluck has offered to negotiate, she has deemed Suthep’s proposal of a new form of government, led by a non-elected “people’s council,” unconstitutional and impractical. As a result, neither side has inched closer to an agreeable deal.
For Yingluck, keeping the police calm and military intervention at bay would likely keep her in office.
For Suthep, any loss of momentum due to the truce might not be to his advantage, but Yingluck’s refusal to accept his proposal could give him the excuse he needs to fight on.
For Thailand’s military leadership, out-of-control violence would be their ultimate nightmare, given Thailand’s history of military intervention and coups. So far, army leaders have recused calls from the protesters to intervene, but have allegedly taken steps to help mediate between Yingluck and Suthep.
It all comes down to the King’s speech. His words will be listened to carefully and interpreted by both sides for their own political purposes. But his speech cannot be the long-term solution. The decade-long battle is a symptom of the painful transitions Thailand is experiencing politically, economically, and socially.
Although years of sustained economic growth have brought new high-rises, fancy cars, and shopping malls to meet the demands of a growing middle class in Bangkok, the country’s rural population remains largely poor and uneducated. This deep divide cannot be healed without fundamental changes to the corrupt political system that benefits only the rich and the elites. Ultimately, new systems would have to be put in place to help ensure more inclusive and balanced growth.
The King’s speech might temporarily save his beloved kingdom again. But one cannot help but wonder if his words are capable of permanently ending the vicious cycle that has come to define Thailand.
Ms. Wenchi Yu is an Asia Society Associate Fellow and a non-resident fellow at Project 2049. She is a former U.S. Department of State official and currently lives in Bangkok.