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perspective

Thai politics braces for turbulence in 2017


With potentially explosive issues coming to a head, we need to proceed with the utmost caution

Politically, 2016 has been another year of uneasy calm, just like 2015. But delayed issues are expected to reach a climax in 2017, notably the trial of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and others over the rice price-pledging scheme. Another potentially explosive case concerns Dhammakaya, the controversial Buddhist sect with a massive following and strong political links. 
In addition, Thailand is gearing up for a general election, whose outcome might not please anybody. Last but not least, the country’s two major political parties face possible upheavals, one more so than the other.
The conclusion of the rice-scheme trial has the potential to badly damage the Pheu Thai Party, the country’s biggest political entity, along with the still-powerful Shinawatra clan. The final verdict could involve imprisonment, staggering financial penalties and long-term bans from future elections. If the party and supporters of the Shinawatras view the ruling in the case as unfair, their response and that of the defendants will determine Thailand’s immediate political course.
The Dhammakaya controversy, meanwhile, has raised political tensions to a dangerous level and could combine with the fragile predicament surrounding the rice-scheme trial to cause havoc. The religious sect, whose former abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, is facing money-laundering charges, is said to have strong links with senior Pheu Thai members and some of the Shinawatras. 
A worrying scenario would see the two legal cases reach a conclusion just as voters go to the polls in the first general election since the Yingluck government’s ouster in the 2014 coup. The outcome of the 2017 election remains highly unpredictable, not least because it is unclear how much control the military will maintain over the next government.
Also of concern is how the Pheu Thai Party and its rival, the Democrat Party, prepare for the election. Pheu Thai is likely to be in the worse predicament because its patriarch, Thaksin Shinawatra, cannot return to Thailand without facing legal troubles, and its flag-bearer, Yingluck Shinawatra, might well be banned from contesting the election. While names of others have been floated to lead to party to the polls, but its immediate future remains far from settled. The Democrats are widely expected to face pressure to replace Abhisit Vejjajiva as leader, a situation not as problematic as Pheu Thai’s dilemma, but threatening far-reaching consequences nonetheless.
It should be clear enough that all of these political issues are related. Developments in any one case could have considerable impact on the others. Even the seemingly unrelated matter of the Democrat leadership could be dictated by what happens within Pheu Thai. 
The smallest spark can set off a deafening explosion, leaving Thai politics to drift further amid the unease that has continued for so many years already. 
What is of prime importance is that we not drift again into the kind of violence that caused death, injury and massive damage to the economy. Thailand is a dangerous place for political protest these days, with firearms readily available, innocent people easily turned into victims, and the increasingly polarised social media roiling the waters.
The new year will be strewn with political landmines and, since none of them can be avoided – these are issues that have to be settled sooner or later – we must approach them with the utmost caution. These matters have to be resolved for the sake of our democratic evolution, the purity of our Buddhist faith, and the stumbling but persistent struggle to end corruption.
This seems likely to be the year thatThailand bites the bullet. Let cool heads prevail.  

Published : December 23, 2016

By : The Nation