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Democracy after 1932

Thailand had been a kingdom under absolute monarchy for over seven centuries before 1932.

At the beginning of the colonial era, western powers pressured the country to evolve along republican, parliamentary and revolutionary lines having their roots in French revolution and the fall of the Russian tsar. Despite the efforts of several kings, Thailand had insufficient time to educate its population in preparation for western political, industrial and economic changes, albeit female vote was granted since the first general election.

Since becoming a constitutional democratic monarchy in 1932, despite of the western-style democratic structure, for most of the time, the country has been ruled by military governments. Political freedom, freedom of speech and basic human rights were strongly compromised in the first three quarters of the twentieth century.

The system of rule fluctuated between unstable civilian governments and interludes of military takeover. During democratic periods, the middle-class in the cities ignored the poor in the rural areas. The media accepted bribes. To corrupt bureaucrats and politicians became well accepted business practice. The military would take over as a measure of ultima ratio.

Every time a coup was staged, some scapegoats or excuses were always found to justify it. Eventually, the ensuing junta government would hand the government back to elected officials. As a result, there have been 18 coups and resultant 18 constitutions in the history of Thai politics.

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The Black May uprising, in 1992, lead to more reform when promulgating the 1997 constitution - "The People's Constitution" - aiming to create checks and balance of powers between strengthened government, separately elected senators and anti-corruption institutes. Administrative courts, Constitutional Courts and election-control committee were established to strengthen the checks and balance of politics.

The 2007 constitution, following Thaksin's ouster, was particularly designed to be tighter in its control of corruptions and conflicts of interests while reducing the authority of the government.

Government of Thailand

According to the constitution, the three major independent authorities holding the balance of power are executive, legislative, and judicial.

The King has little direct power under the constitution but is a symbol of national identity and unity. The present monarch has a great deal of popular respect and moral authority, which has been used to attempt to resolve political crises.

The head of government is the Prime Minister. Under the present constitution, the Prime Minister must be a Member of Parliament. Cabinet members do not have to be Members of Parliament. The legislature can hold a vote of no-confidence against the Premier and members of his Cabinet if it has sufficient votes.

Political history

Following the 1932 revolution which imposed constitutional limits on the monarchy, Thai politics were dominated for a half century by a military and bureaucratic elite, in collaboration with a dozen or so oligarchs commonly known as persons of influence. Changes of government were effected primarily by means of a long series of mostly bloodless coups.

Beginning with a brief experiment in democracy during the mid-1970s, civilian democratic political institutions slowly gained greater authority, culminating in 1988 when Chatichai Choonhavan — leader of the Chart Thai Party (Thai Nation Party) — assumed office as the country's first democratically elected prime minister in more than a decade. Three years later, yet another bloodless coup ended his term.

Shortly afterward, the royally appointed Anand Panyarachun, a businessman and former diplomat, headed a largely civilian interim government and promised to hold elections in the near future. However, following inconclusive elections, former army commander Suchinda Kraprayoon was appointed prime minister. Thais reacted to the appointment by demanding an end to military influence in government. Demonstrations were violently suppressed by the military; in May 1992. According to eyewitness reports of action near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, soldiers may have killed seven hundred and fifty protesters after only two days of protests.

Domestic and international reaction to the violence forced Suchinda to resign, and the nation once again turned to Anand Panyarachun, who was appointed interim prime minister until new elections in September 1992. In those elections, political parties that had opposed the military in May 1992 won by a narrow majority, and Chuan Leekpai, a leader of the Democrat Party, became prime minister at the head of a five-party coalition. Following the defection of a coalition partner, Chuan dissolved Parliament in May 1995, and the Chart Thai Party won the largest number of parliamentary seats in the subsequent election. Party leader Banharn Silpa-archa became Prime Minister but held the office for only little more than a year. Following elections held in November 1996, Chavalit Youngchaiyudh formed a coalition government and became Prime Minister. The onset of the Asian financial crisis caused a loss of confidence in the Chavalit government and forced him to hand over power to Chuan Leekpai in November 1997. Chuan formed a coalition government based on the themes of economic crisis management and institution of political reforms mandated by Thailand's 1997 constitution. It collapsed just days before its term was scheduled to end.

2001 - 2006

In the January 2001 elections, telecommunications multimillionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party won an overwhelming victory on a populist platform of economic growth and development.

Thaksin also marginally survived (8:7) a guilty verdict in the Constitutional Court where he was charged by the Board of Anti-Corruption of hiding hundreds-of-million-baht-worth of shares with several of his employees. A decade later, a Supreme Court ruling in another case accepted a possibility of bribery in the Constitutional Court case.

After absorbing several smaller parties, TRT gained an absolute majority in the lower house of the Parliament, controlling 296 of 500 seats. In a cabinet reshuffle of October 2002, the Thaksin administration further put its stamp on the government. A package of bureaucratic reform legislation created six new ministries in an effort to streamline the bureaucratic process and increase efficiency and accountability.

The general election held on 6 February, 2005 resulted in another landslide victory for Thaksin and TRT, which controlled 374 seats intaksin
Parliament's lower house. Thaksin's populist policies found great favour in rural areas which aided him. Thaksin introduced government programs which greatly benefited rural areas of the country. These programs included debt relief for farmers still reeling from the Asian Financial Crisis and a new health care program which brought coverage to all Thais for 30-baht per visit(about 1 dollar). Despite the majority and surging popularity amongst rural Thais, Thaksin came under severe questioning for selling telecommunication shares to Temasek, a Singapore investor for about 70,000 million baht without paying any tax. More complex and high-level corruption and conspiracies were discovered and exposed by Sonthi Limthongkul, Manager Media Group owner, who reached the middle class in the capital and the cities through the only small satellite and internet media channel, ASTV.

Thaksin refused to publicly answer PAD's questions. Because of failure to clear himself in the alleged corruptions, Thaksin's regime fell apart during public protests led by the People's Alliance for Democracy which led to widespread calls for his resignation and impeachment.

The People's Alliance for Democracy, a large group of the middle class and a coalition of anti-Thaksin protesters, led by Sonthi Limthongkul, gathered in Bangkok, demanded that Thaksin resign as prime minister so that the King could directly appoint someone else. Thaksin refused and protests continued for weeks.

Thaksin dissolved parliament on 24 February 2006 and called a snap election for 2 April 2006. The election was boycotted by the opposition parties, leading to unopposed TRT candidates for 38 seats failing to get the necessary quorum of 20% of eligible votes. As the Thai constitution requires all seats be filled from the beginning of parliament, thisproduced a constitutional crisis. After floating several suggestions, on 4 April 2006, Thaksin announced that he would step down as prime minister as soon as parliament had selected a successor.

In a televised speech to senior judges, King Bhumibol requested them to execute their duty justly.

Criminal charges and allegations of administrative abuse cases were brought against the Election Committee. The courts voided the election results, jailed the committee for abuse of power, and ordered a new round of elections for 15 October 2006. Thaksin continued to work as caretaker prime minister.

Civil movements in Thailand were active in 2000s, with some groups perceiving the Thaksin government as authoritarian, citing extrajudicial killings in his War on Drugs, special security laws passed by the administration, and the government's increasingly hardline responses to the insurgency in the southern provinces. Thaksin's government was facing mounting opposition from the urban middle classes, while continuing to remain popular in the predominantly poor and rural North and Northeastern regions. However, the most severe critic of Thaksin seemed to be Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon and former colleague.

2006 coup

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Reacting to the situation, poor people from the rural areas were paid and encouraged to gather to form a big mob (DAAD) in Bangkok. While Thaksin was in New York City to make a speech at UN Headquarters, there was a conspiracy to create a violent clash to brutally end the month-long PAD protest. Just in time to prevent the alleged clash, the military seized power on 19 September, 2006.

The Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin was formed. Political activities were banned by the junta after the coup on 19 September 2006. The 1997 Constitution was abrogated, although most of the institutions of government remained intact. A new constitution was drafted and promulgated in late 2007.

One month after the coup, an interim civilian government was formed, including an appointed House of Representatives from a variety of professions and an appointed Constitutional Court. Freedom of speech was restored.

During 2006 and 2007, organized underground terrorist activities took place, burning numerous schools in rural areas of the north and the northeast of Thailand and bombs planted in ten locations in Bangkok killed and injured several people on the New Year's Eve of 2006.

A national referendum for the 2007 constitution was called by the military and the 2007 constitution was accepted by the majority of the voters. The junta promised a democratic general election which was finally held on 23 December 2007, sixteen months after the coup.

The constitutional court unanimously dissolved the populist Thai Rak Thai party following a punishment according to the 1997 constitution, banning 111 TRT members from politics for five years.

The military drafted a controversial new constitution following allegation of Thaksin's corruption and abuse of power was particularly designed to be more tighter in control of corruptions and conflicts of interests of politicians while decreasing the previously strengthened authority of the government. A national referendum accepted the 2007 constitution with significant disapproval in the Thaksin's stronghold, the north and northeast.

On 23 December 2007 national parliamentary election was held, based on the new constitution, and People Power Party (Thai Rak Thai's and Thaksin's proxy party), led by former Bangkok governor Samak Sundaravej, began taking the reins of government. Thailand's new Parliament convened on January 21, 2008.

The People Power Party (PPP) which is Thaksin's proxy party, won the general election by a solid margin after five minor parties joined it to form a coalition government.

A complaint was filed against PPP in the Thai Supreme Court, charging PPP of being the TRT nominee party. Moreover, in 2008, one of its leading members was charged with electoral fraud. The Election Committee also proposed that the PPP should be dissolved due to the violation of the constitution.

2008 political crisis

During 2008, Thailand saw increasing political turmoil, with the PPP government facing pressure to step down amid mounting civil disobedience and unrest lead by the PAD. The conflict centred on the nature of the political system. The PPP supports the democratic electoral system, whereas the PAD want it replaced with a system in which some representatives are chosen by certain professions and social groups. The anti-government protesters were mostly better educated, more affluent, urban Thais demanding that the country move away from a Western-style electoral system, which they say Thaksin exploited to buy votes. They instead favor a system in which some representatives are chosen by certain professions and social groups. They are vastly outnumbered by Thaksin's supporters in the rural majority, who delivered his party two resounding election victories. Their loyalty was rewarded by generous social and economic welfare programs for previously neglected provincial areas. The anti-government forces were well organized, and had the behind-the-scenes support of elements of the military and parties close the royal palace, the country's most influential institution.

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Samak Sundaravej was elected Prime Minister of the first government under the 2007 constitution.

Samak Sundaravej, who is an articulate politician, acknowledged being the "replacement" of fugitive Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra.

In 1973, he ran a prominent month-long propaganda campaign, accusing democratic students' movements of being communist rebellions, traitors and spies. The event ended in a massacre of hundreds of students at Thammasat University on October 14, 1973, and a further military coup was conducted, giving him the interior minister position in the junta.

While Prime Minister, PM Samak held daily national state television broadcasts with his own political messages. These were not well areceived by PAD. NBT, the National Broadcasting Television, the state-owned media enterprise, was openly used to counter the PAD's message, which emphasises the overturning of the current democratic system.

Former PM Thaksin had welcomed the offers to come back to Thailand in February 2008 to face corruption charges and to get close control of the PPP party, successor of his Thai Rak Thai Party.

The opposition forced a no-confidence vote on a constitutional amendment which may have resulted in the reinstatement of Thaksin's reputation. The failure to address dramatically rising food and energy prices, and a temple dispute with Cambodia damaged the coalition government's reputation.

Street protests led by the PAD, the major opposition movement, began in late May after the ruling party agreed to amend the constitution. Their main objective was to block any constitutional amendment aimed chiefly at reinstating Thaksin's reputation and saving the PPP from dissolution after one of its leaders was charged with electoral fraud.

Another of PAD's objectives was to support the courts and the judicial system in justly carrying out hearing Thaksin's cases. While PM Samak has been successful in controlling the police and civil service, various courts remain independent and have issued several independent verdicts.

The Constitution Court concluded that PPP's second-in-command, Yongyuth Tiyapairat, bought votes which would subject the party to dissolution. Both the Constitution Court and Administrative Court ruled that his government seriously violated the constitution and might have prejudiced national sovereignty in negotiating over the sovereignty of the Preah Vihear Temple with Cambodia. The case brought the resignation of his first foreign minister, Nopadon Patama. Several other ministers found wrongfully informing the Anticorruption Board or Election Governing Board of important information, were discharged when this was discovered.

Thaksin and Pojaman's three lawyers were caught red-handedly attempting to bribe Supreme Court judges and were given jail sentences.. That was an ominous sign for Thaksin. Later a criminal court returned a verdict against Pojaman, of tax evasion, to be jailed for three years. Days later, Thaksin and Pojaman jumped bail and issued a statement from London announcing through Thai TVs his decision to seek political asylum in the UK in an attempt to avoid what he called "biased" treatment under Thailand's current judicial system.

Thaksin and his family fled to Great Britain on August 11, 2008, to apply for political asylum after his wife was convicted of tax evasion.

PM Samak Sundaravej, through his parliamentary, was able to complete budget bills for megaprojects which cost so much that the King of Thailand spoke out to protest and to thank the head of the National Bank of Thailand (under threats from the government) that the country was on the brink of disaster because of too high and careless expenditure.

PM Samak Sundaravej said "I will never resign in response to these threats. I will not dissolve the House. I will meet the King today to report what's going on". He met with King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Hua Hin palace.

From August 26, 2008, 30'000 protesters, led by the People's Alliance for Democracy, occupied Sundaravej's Government House compound in central Bangkok, forcing him and his advisers to work at Don Muang International Airport, Bangkok's old international airport. Thai riot police entered the occupied compound and delivered a court order for the eviction of PAD protesters. Chamlong Srimuang, a leader of the PAD, ordered 45 PAD guards to break into the main government building on Saturday. 3 regional airports were closed for a short period and 35 trains between Bangkok and the provinces were canceled. Protesters raided the Phuket International Airport tarmac on the resort island of Phuket Province resulting to 118 flights canceled or diverted, affecting 15,000 passengers.

Protesters also blocked the entrances of the airports in Krabi and Hat Yai (which were later re-opened). Police issued arrest warrants for Sondhi Limthongkul and the 8 other PAD leaders on charges of insurrection, conspiracy, unlawful assembly and refusing orders to disperse. Meanwhile, General Anupong Paochinda stated: "The army will not stage a coup. The political crisis should be resolved by political means." Samak and the ruling coalition called for an urgent parliamentary debate and session for August 31.

PM Samak Sundaravej tried using legal means involving through civil charges, criminal charges and violent police force to remove the PAD protesters from the government office on August 29. However, the PAD managed to get temporary reliefs from courts enabling them to legally continue the siege of the government office.

One person died and forty people were wounded in a clash, which occurred when the DAAD (NohPohKoh) protesters, supported by Thaksin and the PPP party moved toward PAD at about 3am of September 2 without adequate police intervention.

By the second of half of September 2008, PM Samak Sundaravej was the subject of several court cases for his past actions. An Appeal Court verdict upon a long-standing criminal charge of slander may jail him. A Constitutional Court will return verdict upon whether he has a conflict of interest by being a private employee while holding a PM position. The Anti-Corruption Board may bring a charge of abuse of power in the Preah Vihear case to the Constitutional Court. These instantaneously terminated PM Samak's political role. While fugitive ex-PM Thaksin and Pojaman would also face verdicts from the Supreme Court.

People Power Party's deputy spokesman Kuthep Suthin Klangsang, on September 12, 2008, announced: "Samak has accepted his nomination for prime minister. Samak said he is confident that parliament will find him fit for office, and that he is happy to accept the post. A majority of party members voted on Thursday to reappoint Samak. Samak is the leader of our party so he is the best choice." Despite objections from its five coalition partners, the PPP, in an urgent meeting, unanimously decided to renominate Samak Sundaravej. 5 coalition parties, namely Chart Thai, Matchima Thipataya, Pracharaj, Puea Pandin and Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana, unanimously agreed to support the People Power party (PPP) to set up the new government and vote for the person who should be nominated as the new prime minister. Chart Thai deputy leader Somsak Prissananantakul and Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana leader Chettha Thanajaro said the next prime minister was nominated. Caretaker prime minister Somchai Wongsawat said PPP secretary-general Surapong Suebwonglee will notify the 5 parties who the PPP nominated, to take office again. Some lawmakers, however, said they will propose an alternate candidate. Meanwhile, Thailand's army chief General Anupong Paochinda said he backed the creation of a national unity government that would include all the country's parties, and he also asked for the lifting of a state of emergency that Samak imposed in September 2.

Embattled Samak Sundaravej abandoned his bid to regain his Thailand Prime Minister post, and he also resigned the People's Power Party (PPP) leadership. Meanwhile, PPP's chief party spokesman Kudeb Saikrachang and Kan Thiankaew announced on September 13 that caretaker prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, caretaker justice minister Sompong Amornwiwat and PPP Secretary-General Surapong Suebwonglee were PPP's candidates for premiership post. However, Suriyasai Katasila of People's Alliance for Democracy (a group of royalist businessmen, academics and activists), vowed to continue its occupation of Government House if a PPP candidate would be nominated: "We would accept anyone as prime minister, as long as he is not from the People's Power Party."

On September 14 the state of emergency was lifted. The ruling People Power Party, on September 15, 2008, named Somchai Wongsawat, candidate for prime minister to succeed Samak Sundaravej. The PPP will endorsed Somchai, and his nomination will be set for a parliamentary vote on Wednesday. Meanwhile the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in a corruption case against Thaksin and his wife, to be promulgated after the parliament vote for the new prime minister.

On October 4, 2008, Chamlong Srimuang and rally organiser, Chaiwat Sinsuwongse of the People's Alliance for Democracy, were detained by the Thai police led by Col. Sarathon Pradit, by virtue of August 27 arrest warrant for insurrection, conspiracy, illegal assembly and refusing orders to disperse (treason) against him and 8 other protest leaders. At the Government House, Sondhi Limthongkul, however, stated demonstrations would continue: "I am warning you, the government and police, that you are putting fuel on the fire. Once you arrest me, thousands of people will tear you apart." Srimuang's wife, Ying Siriluck visited him at the Border Patrol Police Region 1, Pathum Thani. Other PAD members still wanted by police include Sondhi, activist MP Somkiat Pongpaibul and PAD leaders Somsak Kosaisuk and Pibhop Dhongchai.

On October 7, 2008, Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh resigned and admitted partial responsibility for violence due to police tear gas clearance of the blockade of the parliament, causing injuries to 116 protesters, 21, seriously injured. His resignation letter stated: "Since this action did not achieve what I planned, I want to show my responsibility for this operation." But after dispersal, 5'000 demonstrators returned and blocked all 4 entries to the parliament building.

The protesters attempted to hold 320 MPs and senators as hostages inside the Parliament building, cutting off the power supply, and forcing Somchai Wongsawat to escape by jumping a back fence after his policy address. But other trapped MPs failed to leave and flee from the mob. The siege on the area beside the near prime minister’s office forced the government to transfer its activities to Don Muang International Airport, Bangkok's former international airport.

On November 26, 2008, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) issued a statement saying that the current crisis is a watershed moment for democracy and rule of law in Thailand. It contains harsh critique of PAD and the criminal justice system of Thailand. This critique should not be seen as one-sided as AHRC have a history of also being critical of the current government (per nov 2008), the Thai Supreme Court, the earlier military junta and the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

 

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