2015 in Thailand: The year of fragile political peace

Former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban.
PHOTO: AFP

Ranking this year's landmark events by significance is a tough challenge, as Thai politics is played at several levels - by geniuses, by fools and by unknowing participants. The actions of each of these players can affect the outcomes, yet they often cancel each other out. Also, developments initially dismissed as insignificant can turn out to be very meaningful in due course, as the "butterfly effect" stirs up political storms.

But the end of the year looms and I'm obliged to do what fellow journalists are doing in newsrooms round the country - remind you of what has happened since January 1, 2015, which has set the stage for 2016. Here's how I see important national developments which make next year very interesting. The ranking is mine alone, so feel free to question it.

10. The red-faced US embassy apology. This year's speculation about America's motives regarding Thailand couldn't have been any wilder. Our kindest critics of US diplomats saw busybodies with one-track minds attempting to impose rigid yet hypocritical ideas about freedom and democracy on the Kingdom. The conspiracy theorists conjured up far more florid scenarios.

Whatever the facts of the case, the embassy did itself no favours by committing an unfortunate gaffe. An invitation for Fourth of July celebrations sent to a prominent critic of Thaksin Shinawatra called him "anti-Thaksin" outright. The description was factually accurate but hardly diplomatic. An apology was quickly proffered, and met with boos and jeers from the growing anti-American brigade here. The issue died down, but it underscored the glaring fact that bilateral relations would never be the same.

9. Much ado about Thaksin's police rank. He said he didn't care about it. His opponents said he didn't deserve it. Anyway, he was stripped off it. And that was that.

8. The return of Suthep. This issue may have deserved a higher ranking, but even Suthep Thaugsuban, who led the largest political rallies Thailand had ever seen just a couple of years back, could not regain the political spotlight. Some say he is working behind the scenes this time, as political developments seem to be flowing towards his ultimate goal - a long delay before an election.

7. A flip-flopping Prayut. The prime minister and coup leader may be a ruthless dictator in the eyes of his critics, but he has shown he's a back-tracker, too. A proposal to scrap Thailand Knowledge Park and other national learning centres was shelved following a major outcry. Earlier, a plan to create a single Internet gateway was apparently aborted because both rights advocates and tech experts objected.

6. Prayut's uneventful UN trip. That it was uneventful was news. A baptism of fire had been forecast for the prime minister in New York, for obvious reasons. There turned out to be no newsworthy protest, and he returned home unscathed while the cameras were distracted by an American anti-junta activist. Instead of confronting Prayut over the lack of freedom, democracy, elections and so forth, the activist demanded to know why the prime minister had stripped Thaksin of his police rank.

5. Refugees, displaced persons and illegal immigrants. Prayut's government failed to treat Rohingyas and Uighurs well and in return was lambasted by human rights activists and opponents of the administration. It's tempting to wonder how an elected government would have handled these unfortunate migrants, but the Prayut regime's path to power led to a politics that exacerbated this human tragedy.

4. Deaths in captivity of high-profile lese-majeste suspects. That they occurred while Thailand was in the grip of military rule provoked strong and widespread scepticism, despite the government's insistence that there was nothing suspicious in this "unfortunate coincidence".

3. Yingluck's trial. Next year this could top the ranking. This year, it has been edged by two bigger issues, thanks largely to the fact that the verdict is still pending. Putting Yingluck Shinawatra on trial in a criminal court is a make-or-break political move with huge potential ramifications, not least because she's virtually the last line of defence for her embattled clan. Yaowapa Wongsawat will never command as much affection. Panthongtae Shinawatra wields very little political clout.

2. Military rejection of the charter draft. When military appointees killed the draft Constitution written by other military appointees, we knew we were in for a repeat performance of the drama, with military appointees rewriting and revoting on our national blueprint. The circularity could be vicious: the actions of military appointees in the legislature can impact the length of stay of military appointees in the government.

1. The Erawan Shrine bombing. Nothing was bigger than this unprecedented act of terrorism. Whether we label it a "political" or a "national" event doesn't matter. The incident changed a great many things profoundly. If it was not political, the political reaction - at all levels - was scary. If it was political, it was even scarier. After the fatal blast, Thailand looked at itself in the mirror and saw a stranger.

All right, there you have it, my list of major national news events of 2015. Each will influence the way events unfold next year. One dark horse is not on the list, though. The Rajabhakti Park scandal was a latecomer, but it could pick up pace quickly to become the bete noir that swallows the military government. The prime minister is apparently not paying it serious attention, which is exactly what this kind of scandal needs in order to turn into a political monster.

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