Bangkok, Thailand – Political deadlock in the Thai capital grows more difficult to resolve by the day after two months of anti-government protests that appear to have no end in sight.
At least 28 people were injured by an explosion at an anti-government rally on Friday, underscoring the ongoing tensions.
After dissolving parliament in December, embattled caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced Wednesday that her government will go on as planned with elections scheduled for February 2.
Nevertheless, protesters remain unyielding in their demands for the government to step down immediately and the introduction of political reforms overseen by a royally appointed council to eradicate what they call the “Thaksin regime”.
The controversial brother of Yingluck, Thaksin Shinawatra is a telecommunications tycoon turned Thai prime minister who was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006. He has been accused of controlling the government through his allies while in self-imposed exile in Dubai.
Yingluck held discussions with several political parties and state agencies about the possibility of postponing the election before announcing it would go ahead.
People have made clear that we are asking for reform before the elections. If the government postpones the elections but doesn't resign from its caretaker duties, what is the point of that?
The main opposition Democrat Party and People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) – the group organising the protests and led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister – have refused to participate in the vote.
“We are not asking for the elections to be postponed, but for reforms. The idea of negotiating whether to postpone the election or not is not the thing what we are asking for,” Akanat Promphan, spokesman of the PDRC, told Al Jazeera.
“People have made clear that we are asking for reform before the elections. If the government postpones the elections but doesn’t resign from its caretaker duties, what is the point of that?”
The government, meanwhile, insists any kind of reform process can only take place after a new government is elected democratically.
“Any government who wins the election will be a reform government,” Suranand Vejjajiva, secretary general to the prime minister, told Al Jazeera.
“Yingluck Shinawatra has already committed that she will implement whatever reform agenda is proposed, if she becomes prime minister again. And once the reform agenda is complete, the house [of parliament] will be dissolved again and another general election will be called.”
Meanwhile, thousands of protesters continue to occupy seven key junctions in the capital as part of their effort to “shutdown Bangkok” until Yingluck and her cabinet resign. This city of about nine million people has not come to a standstill so far despite the disruptions, and life continues on as normal in most of Bangkok.
“The protesters are mostly to be found among the middle and upper middle class from Bangkok, [but] there are also southerners,” Charnvit Kasetsiri, a Thai historian and former rector of Thammasat University, told Al Jazeera.
“I think the supporters come from both a class background, and from traditional patronage relationships in the south.”
Demonstrations started in November when the government tried to pass in parliament an amnesty bill that would have made possible the return of Thaksin, who has not set foot in Thailand since 2008 to avoid a two-year prison term for corruption.
Protest leader Suthep would have also benefited from the proposed amnesty amid accusations against him for his role as deputy prime minister during the 2010 military crackdown, which killed about 90 people and wounded hundreds, mostly “red shirt” supporters of Thaksin.
|So far the ‘shutting down’ of Bangkok has been mostly peaceful [EPA]|
The majority of red shirts – led by the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) – hail from the populous, impoverished, and historically neglected regions of the north and northeast.
In 2010, the UDD had occupied some of the same places that Suthep’s followers occupy now. The red shirts took to the streets after Thailand’s parliament – not a popular vote – elected a Democrat-led government in 2008.
The controversial amnesty bill was dropped by the senate in November, but protests had already gathered momentum with Suthep at the helm after he resigned from parliament.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, told Al Jazeera allegations of corruption helped galvanise the anti-government protesters, who gathered in the tens of thousands.
“Suthep has been successful in injecting a large dose of ‘Thaksinophobia’ among rich Thais in Bangkok, who went along with it because of their own anxiety since Thailand is approaching the end of the King Bhumibol reign,” Pavin said, referring to the country’s 86-year-old monarch who is highly revered among Thais.
So far, the “shutting down” of Bangkok has been mostly peaceful, but there are fears the situation might spiral out of control following Friday’s explosion. On Tuesday, there were shootings that wounded two people. Violent clashes in late November and early December resulted in several deaths and hundreds of injuries.
The military question
Security forces have acted with restraint so far, and an arrest warrant out for Suthep for insurrection has not been carried out. According to the prime minister’s advisor Suranand, this restraint is part of the government’s strategy.
“What they [protesters] want us to do is the same they did in 2010 – to have a government crackdown – and then they hope the military will come. We don’t want to play that game. We hope that with a public debate, the people will come to see that the right way is the democratic process, and then the protesters will be smaller in numbers.”
The PDRC’s Akanat dismissed the accusation that the aim is to create chaos in order to invite a military intervention as “a spiced-up, sexed-up conspiracy theory”.
There has to be violence and chaos, then the army can come in. I think Yingluck and her team, as well as the red shirts, understand this. That is why they are playing calm and cool.
“Whatever happens, we still insist upon non-violence,” Akanat said.
But fears of military intervention are high in a country that has seen 18 coups d’etat since 1932. Adding to those worries were the ambiguous words of the army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, in late December who refused to rule out that possibility.
“That door is neither open or closed, everything depends on the situation,” Prayuth said when asked if the military would step in.
Asked on Wednesday about Prayuth’s comment and the possibility of a coup, army spokesman Winthai Suvaree refused to answer saying it would be “inappropriate to the present situation”.
But according to the historian Charnvit, a serious outbreak of violence would certainly bring the military into play.
“The army is undecided [on intervention] because it is not sure if it can nicely succeed. The chiefs are reluctant because they may not get anything out of it but blame. It has to wait to be called or have excuse,” Charnvit said.
“There has to be violence and chaos, then the army can come in. I think Yingluck and her team, as well as the red shirts, understand this. That is why they are playing calm and cool.”
With protest leaders unwilling to negotiate except on their own terms and the government refusing to step aside, Thai society is becoming increasingly polarised by the day, leading some to suggest a civil war could be the endgame.
“If there is no election and if Suthep and the Democrats, the Bangkokians, and the middle southerners win, Thailand will be more split – not just along anti-government versus red shirt lines – but even among the regions,” said Charnvit.
“On Facebook, you can see people talking about separation: north and northeast versus Bangkok and south.”