Thai tension high despite election call

Prime minister’s refusal to resign ahead of vote keeps anti-government protesters on the streets.

Suthep Thaugsuban gives a speech in front of Government House on Monday [Carlos Sardina Galache/Al Jazeera]

Bangkok, Thailand – More than 150,000 Thais took to the streets with the goal of toppling embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. Instead, they received a dissolved parliament and upcoming elections. But that does not appear to have appeased the determined anti-government camp after weeks of sometimes-deadly protests.   

Yingluck is the sister of controversial former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a bloodless coup d’etat in 2006, and who is widely assumed by his detractors to be the real power behind the government.

Suthep Thaugsuban led what he termed “D-Day” protests on Monday to put an end to the “Thaksin regime”. Suthep is a former deputy prime minister who resigned in November as a member of parliament from the opposition Democrat Party to take the leading role of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) against the government.

His self-styled popular movement calls for an ill-defined and royally appointed “people’s council”- led by Suthep himself – to run the country of nearly 70 million people.

We are a good mob, not like the red shirts, who three years ago made things as bad as in Syria now.

by - Rita Ta, 43, anti-government protester

“We have said to the people all over the country that we need to come together to show power, to give back to them the sovereignty that was given to the government and the parliament, and to take back what is rightfully ours,” said Suthep during an interview with Al Jazeera ahead of Monday’s massive rally.

According to Thai police, about 150,000 people converged on Government House. Suthep – who has a warrant out for his arrest for insurrection – walked 20kms under the burning sun to the prime minister’s office from another government complex, which protesters have occupied and turned into their unofficial headquarters.

Amnesty bill spark

The protests started in November when Yingluck’s ruling Puea Thai Party tried to pass an amnesty bill in the parliament that would have cleared politicians of any wrongdoing committed since the 2006 coup deposed her brother. It would have paved the way for the return to Thailand of Thaksin – who has lived in exile in Dubai since 2008 – and nullified his two-year prison term for corruption, something detractors of the billionaire-telecom tycoon fiercely oppose.

The bill was rejected by the senate on November 12, but protests gathered momentum after that.

Mostly peaceful, the demonstrations turned violent 10 days ago, when five people were killed during clashes between anti-government protesters and government supporters. More than 280 were injured in the following days, as rock-throwing protesters trying to storm key government offices were met with tear gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets.

“The protest now seems to focus on the eradication of the so-called ‘Thaksin disease’ in Thai politics,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, told  Al Jazeera.

Monday’s large demonstration was peaceful with many families taking part, particularly from Bangkok and the southern provinces of the country – strongholds of the Democrat Party. Fears of more violence after last week’s sustained assault by protesters never came to fruition.

Protesters wave Thai flags [Carlos Sardina Galache/Al Jazeera]

The last serious spate of political violence erupted in 2010 when so-called red shirt protesters – supporters of Thaksin and the current government – occupied downtown Bangkoks central business district for months before the Thai military moved in. More than 90 people, mostly red shirts, were killed.

“We are a good mob, not like the red shirts who three years ago made things as bad as in Syria now,” said protester Rita Ta, 43, from Ayutthaya – 50kms north of Bangkok – who has camped at the government complex for almost two weeks.

Not satisfied

“D-Day” protests continued even after the prime minister announced the dissolution of parliament and new elections to be held on February 2.

Suthep, meanwhile, declared victory Monday night. “From this minute, sovereign power has been taken back from the government by the people,” he told supporters in his first speech near Government House.

The Democrat Party is closely associated with Suthep’s PDRC. Pundits have given it little chance of winning the upcoming election, however. Successive parties associated with Thaksin have won all elections held since 2001, with the last electoral triumph of the Democrat Party taking place in 1992.

Despite persistent calls for Yingluck to step down ahead of the vote, she remained steadfast on Tuesday.  

“I must do my duty as caretaker prime minister according to the constitution,” Yingluck said. “I would like the protesters to stop and to use the electoral system to choose who will become the next government.”

Sean Boonpracong, the government’s national security advisor, told Al Jazeera that Yingluck was ready to hold dialogue with her opponents to diffuse the situation.

“The government will maintain its position, which is to hold power constitutionally with Yingluck as caretaker prime minister until the elections. Yingluck is clear on this,” Boonpracong said.

Suthep, however, has repeatedly stated there is nothing to negotiate. “We believe that the purpose of the negotiations started by the government is to engage us in a conversation to make sure that the government, the parliament, and the Thaksin regime retain power.

A march to Government House [Carlos Sardina Galache]

“So we will not engage in any conversation that will involve dealing with Thaksin and negotiating how he can keep power because our goal is very clear, and it’s to uproot this Thaksin regime so we can push forward comprehensive reforms – so we can change Thailand,” he told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, the arrest warrant against Suthep has so far not been carried out. Boonpracong told Al Jazeera that “it would be unwise to enforce it now, but the police will do it when the timely moment arrives”.

Another coup?

Amid the political deadlock, many fear – though some hope – a military intervention like that of 2006 takes place. But the army has been reluctant to enter the political fray over the last weeks – so far. Thailand has a long history of military takeovers with 18 coup d’etats over the past 70 years.

“The military has not made a big move because of its fear that it could be counterproductive to its own political position,” said professor Pavin. “It possibly learned well from the effects of the [2006] coup and the crackdown in May 2010; that another intervention would be fiercely rejected by the red shirts.”

The role of the monarchy is more difficult to ascertain. In his birthday speech last Thursday, revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej made a plea for Thais to unite, but he maintained his neutrality in the ongoing turmoil.

“The role of the monarchy is small at this point in time,” said Pavin. “Of course the monarchy has continued to be politicised by the protesters. They used the monarchy against the Yingluck regime, which was deemed as tilting toward republicanism, or some sort of it.”

Pavin noted the protesters – who once adorned yellow shirts at past rallies – are closely linked to the monarchy.

If the government can't control the situation, the people will act.

by - Thida Thavornset, 'red shirt' leader

“To be fair, the monarchy has politicised itself too. This explains why the monarchy had been silent in the current conflict, realising that it has lost moral authority. Who would listen to the monarchy, which obviously took the yellow shirts’ side [in past protests]?” he said.

With an embattled government and an opposition unwilling to negotiate, “D-Day” could be the beginning of a new cycle of political confrontation, rather than its conclusion.

Of course, the red shirts – who had gathered in Bangkok in the tens-of-thousands in recent weeks – could return in support of the government.

An estimated 70,000 converged at the Rajamangala Stadium at a rally November 30.

The United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the main red shirt organisation, ordered followers to return home after violence erupted nearby.

“The people of Thailand are represented here … If the government can’t control the situation, the people will act,” UDD Chairwoman Thida Thavornset told Al Jazeera. 

Source: Al Jazeera