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Pavin Chachavalpongpun: Is Yingluck willing to break the status quo?

Former Prime Minister-turned-fugitive Yingluck Shinawatra was spotted, on a London high street on January 4, for the first time since she fled Thailand prior to the reading of her verdict. Yingluck was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for mishandling a rice subsidy scheme which allegedly cost Thailand at least $8bn. 
  
Her recent appearance in public immediately lifted morale among some of the red shirts in Thailand. They convinced themselves that Yingluck, having fled the political charges, would now exercise her freedom and courageously stand up to challenge the legitimacy of the military regime at home. 
 
 
 
Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was spotted in London in early January.
 
It is undoubted that both Yingluck and her fugitive brother, Thaksin, have maintained a certain level of popularity among their supporters. Some continue to see them as icons of democracy. However, others have abandoned hope in the two leaders, citing their insincerity in promoting democracy or in obliterating the old power structure dominated by the military and the monarchy.
 
The Shinawatras’ past approach in dealing with their opponents might well explain eroding support from some red-shirt quarters. Compromise has long characterized their key strategy. But this strategy often met with failure, because the opposing factions were never genuinely interested in reconciliation. 
 
Hence, many red shirts feel let down by the Shinawatras. While Thaksin and Yingluck lament how they were mistreated and removed from power unjustly, their attitude of compromise only encourages the unjust system to continue. In other words, they ingratiate themselves in that system that brought their downfall instead going all out to prove that the system is corrupt.
 
But the future is unclear for the red-shirts in their role as anti-junta agents without the Shinawatras’ support. Since the 2014 coup, members of the red shirts have been harassed by the military. Some of their leaders have been detained and arrested, events that frequently went unreported in the local media. It is a fair assessment that the red-shirt networks were dismantled piece-by-piece by the military. 
 
Occasionally, there were activities organized by the intellectual wing of the anti-junta circle, mostly led by university students, as seen in the New Democratic Movement (NDM). Members of the NDM attempt to strengthen their position by knitting new alliances with red-shirt groups overseas. But success is slim. Their detachment from Thaksin and Yingluck is a drawback in earning support from loyalists of the Shinawatras abroad.
 
A sense of disappointment in the junta is also detected in the yellow-shirt camp. Although the yellow shirts worked intimately with the military in bringing down the Yingluck government, signs of frustration with the junta have emerged. Prominent members of the yellow shirts have lately criticized the junta for its overt political ambitions and the widespread corruption scandals. 
 
Among them, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva from the pro-junta Democrat Party, called upon General Prawit Wongsuwan, Deputy Prime Minister, to resign following the “wristwatches scandal.” But criticism from the yellow shirts can hardly shake the junta’s solid political foundation. They secretly hope for a piece of the pie after the next election should the “military political party” wins the race. 
 
With little hope for the Shinawatras and ineffective opposition, Thai politics seems to drift further into the unknown. Worse, there is no confirmed date for general elections. Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha continues to postpone the next polls. Thai old elites remain concerned about political uncertainties in the wake of the royal succession. They fear that the elections could shift the political trajectory to their disadvantage. 
 
An election postponement could be justified by a series of imminent royal ceremonies. The Queen has been gravely ill and the Thai nation could enter into another stage of extended mourning. The official coronation is upcoming, and possibly followed by a royal wedding. All these can serve to prolong the Thai political stalemate.
 
That said, Thailand’s future political landscape depends partly upon the political view of its new King, Vajiralongkorn. For so long, old Thai elites have been haunted by rumours of an intimate relationship between Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn. Real or fake, the talk was scary enough to compel the military to stage two coups in order to terminate any intimacy. For the elites, a partnership between Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn was a looming threat to their political interests.
 
In Thailand, the monarchy is utterly sacred. Although the current King is not much loved by the public, the existing lèse-majesté law serves as a blunt instrument to crush any hint of rising anti-monarchism. Vajiralongkorn is ruling his kingdom by fear. It is therefore natural for the Shinawatras to reaffirm their loyalty to the new King, even in so doing they further entrench the position of the monarchy in politics.
 
But a mistake is being repeated. The Shinawatras’ loyalty has not paid off in the past. After all, Yingluck was not spared by the royalist courts. Since Vajiralongkorn became King, there has been no indication that his alleged partnership with Thaksin has altered the latter’s image as a public enemy. It is obvious that Vajiralongkorn leans more toward the junta for his own security.
 
Given this, Yingluck’s latest appearance is likely to offer little hope for a political change. Thailand has lost many years to bitter political conflicts. Yingluck’s new comfortable life in the UK, while cheering many of her diehard fans, suggests political stagnation. It is a status quo, which the Shinawatras remain reluctant to break, and political domination, which the military and the monarchy remain adamant to maintain.
 
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
 

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