Thailand’s main international airport was at a standstill because of swarms of anti-government protesters. For weeks, the crucial southeast Asian travel hub and its economy, the region’s second-largest, had been held hostage by tens of thousands of chanting, clapping demonstrators.
That was the scene in November 2008; a culmination of months of protests against a government allied to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecoms mogul, who was ousted in a military coup two years earlier. The sit-in underscored deep societal divisions, drove away tourists, and marred Thailand’s image overseas.
Six years later, could Thailand be facing a similar scenario? Anti-government protesters plan to take to the streets en masse on Monday. Once more, the same two sides are locked in bitter conflict: Bangkok’s middle classes, southerners and an oligarchy of royalists and conservatives fearful of Thaksin’s comeback, pitted against his rural supporters from the north and northeast alongside the billionaire businessman’s cronies.
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This time, the protesters are calling for an end to another proxy Thaksin government, headed by caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – Thaksin’s sister, and head of the Puea Thai party. To that end, they’ve planned a mass protest on January 13, aimed at shutting down Bangkok, ending parliamentary rule and aborting February elections which the ruling party is almost certain to win.
The head of the protest movement, Suthep Thaugsuban, has been calling for a new government leader to be chosen by Thailand’s king. Suthep, a former member of the Democrat Party and deputy in Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s administration, has proposed an unelected “people’s council”, whose members would be “decent men” who would introduce reforms. Elections would only be held after such reforms were made.
“Thailand is at a critical juncture. The country is losing, whoever wins. And democracy is also losing,” says Thongchai Winichakul, a professor of Southeast Asian History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The trigger for the latest upheaval was Yingluck’s attempt to pass a political amnesty law which could have allowed for Thaksin’s return.
“We will demonstrate indefinitely until Yingluck resigns,” said Akanat Promphan, the spokesman of a movement calling itself the People’s Democratic Reform Committee. They’ve promised to block 20 major road junctions in Bangkok on Monday, but say the capital’s airports and metro systems will be spared. The anti-government movement also plans to cut off power and electricity supplies at government ministries.
But looming over all the political wrangling and civil disobedience is the prospect of yet another military intervention.
Thaksin, who swept to power in 2001, is still a deeply divisive figure in Thailand because he’s seen as a crucial power-broker, influencing national policies from abroad. He lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai after a two-year jail sentence – which he says was politically motivated – was handed down to him in absentia. The Democrat Party says he bought votes by offering handouts to the rural poor, yet Thaksin’s parties in their various incarnations have won five elections since 2006, the last by a substantial margin.
“The old elite is fighting against a new elite,” says Pravit Rojanaphruk, a political columnist at The Nation newspaper. “Both sides are equally powerful, which is why neither can exterminate the other.”
Major disruptions expected
Ahead of the planned shutdown, Bangkok has swung into preparatory mode. The government plans to use an emergency law, says Sean Boonpracong, a national security adviser to the state. Police units are now stationed at the main international airport. Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific have cut back their Bangkok-bound flights. Hundreds of schools in the capital have cancelled classes, and major retailers are stocking up on essential supplies, reports The Nation, an English-language newspaper. At least 15,000 police and soldiers will be deployed.
As the February 2 polls approach, Yingluck’s administration is looking increasingly embattled. Thai courts and regulatory bodies have launched attacks against her party, moves which her supporters say are politicised. On Tuesday, the state anti-corruption body ruled that 308 politicians, mostly from the Puea Thai party, had acted illegally in seeking to pass a bill that would have made the Senate a fully elected body. The move could possibly see them banned from politics, if found guilty.
There’s also doubt over whether the February polls can take place at all. Fierce protests have stopped the registration of mostly Puea Thai candidates in dozens of electoral districts in the southern provinces. The move could potentially derail the February 2 vote, as Thai law stipulates that 95 percent of the seats in the lower house be filled.
Voters on both sides are deeply polarised. The anti-Thaksin camp says that the brash former prime minister bought his way into power with populist handouts to the poor. They say that reforms before elections are the only way forward.
“I support the protest against corrupt politicians and authorities. My wish is to see some improvement of Thai politics. It doesn’t matter that if the leader is Suthep,” says Juta Tongpiam, an anti-government demonstrator.
However, some analysts say the pro-Thaksin camp is fighting for a cause bigger than the man himself – that of political inclusiveness. His win in 2001, they say, enabled the country’s previously marginalised working classes to find their voice.
“Because of Thaksin, the lower classes are asserting political power,” says Larry Jagan, a journalist and Southeast Asia specialist.
The possibility of a military coup cannot be ruled out, given Thailand’s history. Since the first parliamentary elections in 1932, the country has had 11 successful coups and another seven attempted.
The Thai army chief has remained ambiguous about the possibility of a putsch in the latest crisis. “I cannot confirm whether there will or will not be a coup,” said the Thai army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, on January 7.
Other analysts are hedging their bets.
“The longer this political deadlock persists, the greater the likelihood of an outside intervention, including by the military or watchdog agencies such as the Constitutional Court, the anti-corruption commission and the Election Commission,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
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Two possible scenarios could trigger a coup. First, if Yingluck continues to dig her heels in and refuses to leave, and the protests show no sign of abating, resulting in an intractable political stalemate. The second, If violence does erupt, the chances of the army stepping in rise sharply, as has happened in the past. Right now, the government’s strategy appears to be to play it cool and to contain protests to make sure they don’t spread, says Boonpracong.
To diffuse the crisis, Yingluck called for snap elections in February, but that was only met by stiff resistance from the anti-government side. There’s good reason why Suthep’s camp is resisting going to the polls: The old guard, represented by the Democrat Party, is vastly outnumbered by Thaksin’s millions of fervent supporters. The Democrats have not won a general election in two decades.
Not many analysts are holding out hope that this crisis will be resolved anytime soon. “Even if there is a coup, there will be no political stability,” says Pravit. “Both sides are well organised, and there is more hate.”
Thaksin’s win in 2001 was to forever alter Thailand’s political landscape. A telecoms tycoon who went into politics, he shrewdly used his money while in power to court a small coterie of businessman and the-then disenfranchised poor in the north. But after winning another landslide victory in 2005, the divisive prime minister became locked in a major political scandal, as he faced allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest. Seen by the establishment as a threat to the country’s traditional institutions and the monarchy, a campaign began to get him out, and he was ousted in a September 2006 coup.
Throughout this ongoing crisis, Thailand’s revered but ailing king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, aged 86, has remained quiet. In past political crises, he has intervened only as a matter of last resort, at times when military intervention led to dozens of civilian deaths. But the royal palace has long been a major influence on Thai politics behind the scenes.
“Once the king dies there might be a new configuration,” says Pravit.
After his death, deeply buried rivalries could again come to the fore, as players in the royal house, their supporters and the pro-Thaksin side jockey for power.