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Inside Story

Thailand: On the edge of a political crisis?

As thousands rally against the prime minister, we ask if the country is entering a new chapter of political instability.

Last updated: 27 Nov 2013 12:28
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Thai opposition protesters are intensifying pressure on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down. They have laid siege to government ministries and state buildings in the biggest street demonstrations since 2010 when more than 90 people were killed in a military crackdown. The prime minister is also facing a vote of no confidence from members of parliament.

In the parliament ... it is almost impossible to undo the government and therefore the street protests have been used these days and ... in the past few years ... to try to influence the public on ideas of how to bring down the government. And therefore because ... the conflict is so deep and the balance of power on both sides is almost equal ... this is [why] you are seeing a display of this conflict spilling out from the politics in parliament onto the streets.

Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, a senior fellow at Harvard University

She is the sister of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been living in exile since being convicted of corruption. Protesters argue he is still effectively running the country, and using his sister as a puppet prime minister.

Tens of thousands of protesters have filled the streets of Bangkok and Yingluck Shinawatra has used an emergency law to tighten security in the capital, but says the government will not use force against demonstrators.

She also defended her leadership, saying: "I insist that there is only one cabinet, with me as the prime minister. There are some accusations that I lack independence, and that I lack intelligence, and have to be controlled by pushing a button. I have to say, have I not been independent in the past two years that I administered the country as the head of the government, which all of you may have learned while we went through all those crises."

Thailand has been hit by years of political unrest, with protests against whoever has been in power.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in a military coup in September 2006 while he was out of the country. His Thai Rak Thai party was banned, but in December 2007, a reincarnation of that party, the People Power Party, won the most votes in a general election

Thaksin was charged with corruption in August 2008, and fled the country for London. He was later sentenced to two years in jail in his absence.

The year 2008 saw three prime ministers in three months, which led to yet more protests.

The worst lasted from March to May in 2010, when soldiers eventually broke up the crowds of Thaksin supporters wearing their trademark red shirts.

The pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party won a landslide victory in elections the following year and Thaksin's sister, Yingluck became prime minister.

This year has been tough for her. She tried unsuccessfully to change the 2007 post-coup constitution, and triggered the latest protests by trying to push through an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother Thaksin to return to Thailand without facing jail.

Thailand's economy has also suffered this year, and there are concerns the current political crisis could hurt it still further. The economy's growth slowed to 2.7 percent in the third quarter of 2013, compared to 5.4 percent at the beginning of the year.

The government has blamed a drop in the number of cars being sold, and a slowdown in construction, and global demand for Thai products. Thailand has now cut its projected GDP growth rate for 2013 from 3.8 percent - 4.3 percent predicted in August, to just three percent, and the seemingly endless cycle of protests has prompted some analysts to suggest that Thailand is set on economic suicide.

So what is behind the long-running political conflict? What is at stake in the region? And how will Thailand's political crisis affect the country's economy?

Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, is joined by guests: Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, a senior fellow at Harvard University and a former member of Parliament for the Democrat party; Rajiv Biswas, the Asia Pacific chief economist for IHS Global Insight; and Supong Limtanakool, a chairman of strategic studies at Bangkok University.

"We have been seeing a stabilisation in the last year or so but this [has] reopened a lot of old wounds. The deep political divisions are coming to the forefront, and the victim is the Thai economy ... clearly protests in Bangkok are going to be very disruptive to tourism ... What is unclear is the length of time it's going to take for this situation to stabilise ... so the risks are increasing that the protests will affect the tourism industry, [which is] about 7 percent of [the] Thai GDP; and it's happening at a time when other exports are weakening, particularly the rice export which [is] very, very important for Thailand has been badly affected by the government subsidy programme."

Rajiv Biswas, the Asia Pacific chief economist for IHS Global Insight

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