Bangkok, Thailand – After nearly two weeks of anti-government protests and violence, the Thai capital was calm on Thursday as celebrations kicked off to mark the birthday of the country’s highly revered monarch.
The demonstrators, who are closely aligned with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, halted their raucous gatherings at key government offices on Tuesday out of respect for the world’s longest-serving monarch. However, whether the calm will last after celebrations are over remains to be seen.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has refused to step down and urged negotiations with her opponents. One of the protest leaders, Suthep Thaugsuban – a former deputy prime minister – has said there’s nothing to negotiate, and that demonstrations will continue until the government is gone.
“This is not the end,” protester Kanjana Saeiu, 41, told Al Jazeera. “Our pulling back for now is only a symbol. It is part of the process to remove the government.”
A symbolic head of state with no legal powers, Bhumibol still wields great influence over the political scene and has in the past stepped in to calm tensions.
Sitting in a gold-plated chair adorned with a gold robe, King Bhumibol spoke slowly and softly, reading from a single sheet of white paper as his family and dignitaries looked on, including Yingluck.
“Our home has been peaceful for a long time because we are united,” he said from the Klai Kanwon Palace in Hua Hin, about 220 kilometres south of Bangkok. “We have our duty and we all know our roles. For the benefit of our country, Thai people must be aware and must pay attention to this duty.”
It remains to be seen whether anti-government forces will interpret the birthday speech as a signal to ratchet down the pressure on the government. Panitan Wattanayagorn, at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said the celebrations afforded the prime minister an opportunity to talk to top military officers and other important royalist figures.
Our pulling back for now is only a symbol. It is part of the process to remove the government.
Supong Limtanakool from Bangkok University said the government believes it scored a victory by removing barricades on Tuesday and letting the demonstrators converge on Government House and the Metropolitan Police Bureau.
Police had been firing rubber-coated bullets and tear gas, as well as water cannon with chemical-laden water for days. Four people have died so far, and hundreds wounded. But after the barricades came down, the police were greeted with hugs and handshakes from the demonstrators, who peacefully departed after several hours in a carnival-like atmosphere.
“The government still feels it is in power and they have not conceded that they want to dissolve the parliament,” Supong said. “They think ‘we won’. Demonstrators have marched into here and there, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
While Yingluck has so far balked at stepping down, Panitan said she really only has two options left: dissolve the parliament and allow 60 days for new elections, or appoint an interim government. “I think the next step is to make sure that real negotiations are taking place between the prime minister and the leader of the demonstrators [Suthep],” Panitan said. “Although the leader insists they don’t want to talk to her, I think the prime minister should try and accommodate their demands.”
Foot off the pedal?
Thailand’s turmoil has flared intermittently since the bloodless 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother. Elections since then have repeatedly given Thaksin’s allies large parliamentary majorities, thanks to populist policies that benefit rural villagers.
But the middle and upper classes, mostly based in Bangkok, accuse Thaksin of running the government from exile in Dubai, and using his billion-dollar fortune to buy votes.
It doesn’t appear that Suthep will take his foot off the pedal in pressuring Yingluck. Suthep has a warrant out for his arrest for treason, and the protest leader’s vitriolic speeches have angered the government and its supporters. Suthep said plans were in place to again mobilise his followers on Friday to surround government offices and keep civil servants from their work to force the prime minister’s hand.
Even if the prime minister does step aside, though, a lasting peace is unlikely to follow. Suthep has vowed to remove the government by the end of the year and, instead of new elections, replace it with an unelected “people’s council” chosen by palace officials – a move some analysts have called undemocratic.
Kevin Hewison from Australia’s Murdoch University said such leadership would be authoritarian by nature. “It will be a chilling despotism, rather than new politics,” he said.
But Kanjana, the protester, said the current political system has failed and that Suthep’s plan would work. “This is the time to challenge the Thaksin regime. Otherwise people in the future won’t be able to stand,” she said. “The Thaksin system uses money to control politics. Money is good, but if it’s in bad people’s hands, that’s not so good.”