Thailand is no stranger to political turmoil but the current unrest looks set to be a protracted and especially bitter affair, raising the very real possibility of civil war.
The stage seems set for a showdown between anti-government forces, backed by powerful vested interests, and a flawed but democratically elected government that enjoys mass support, especially in its rural heartlands.
The conflict is being waged between rival factions of the elite, but also on class, ethnic and regional fronts. Predicting the future in Thai politics is futile, but more mass protests and bloodshed on the streets seem inevitable.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Over the past two months, tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of the capital Bangkok to demand less democracy, and the overthrow of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government.
They claim it is illegitimate and controlled by Yingluck’s brother Thaksin, who was overthrown as prime minister in a 2006 military coup. He lives in exile in Dubai to avoid a two-year jail term for abuse of power.
The protesters are backed by the ineffectual and misnamed Democrat Party, which has abdicated its role as a responsible opposition and announced that it will boycott snap elections called for Feb. 2. In the knowledge that it is likely to lose once again, it has, in effect, turned its back on democracy.
“The opposition has been unable to compete in the game of electoral politics and thus chose to play mob politics and provoke violence to overthrow the government,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at the University of Kyoto’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
The protest leaders portray the government “as an evil regime to legitimize their own unreasonable demands and behavior,” he added.
The protesters are drawn from Bangkok’s middle class and wealthy elite, and from opposition strongholds in the south of the country. Their constant refrain is that poor rural Thais — those who voted for the government — are ignorant, ill-informed and sell their votes to the highest bidder.
Frustrated at the inability of the Democrats to win elections, they say the country is not ready for democracy. This hate-filled rhetoric has contributed to an atmosphere where many Thais are now seriously debating the merits of universal suffrage and one-man-one-vote.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban – a former Democrat deputy prime minister facing murder charges for his role in a 2010 crackdown on anti-government demonstrations – now finds himself on the other side of the barricades.
He has called for the overthrow of the current government, the suspension of electoral democracy, and rule by an appointed council of “good people” — prompting some commentators to describe his goals as essentially fascist.
A rabble-rousing demagogue with a shady background tainted by allegations of corruption, Suthep is hailed as a hero by supporters for his promises to defend the monarchy, tackle graft and clean up government.
Although a warrant has been issued for his arrest on an insurrection charge, he rails daily against the “Thaksin regime” from the protest stages. He has vowed to sabotage the election and stop it taking place until legal, political and bureaucratic “reforms” are implemented, though his proposals are vague.
Protesters clashed with police as they tried to storm a stadium where election preparations were taking place on Dec. 26, and blocked candidate registration in eight southern provinces. Three people — a policeman and two protesters — were shot dead at the end of December. The gunmen have not been identified, but both sides have hinted at the involvement of a “third hand,” or agents provocateurs.
Meanwhile, in the north and northeast of Thailand — the government’s support base — millions of loyal “red shirt” voters are seething with anger over what they see as yet another attempt by the Bangkok elite to bring down a government they have voted into power.
The current protests were sparked in November, when the government clumsily tried to push through an amnesty bill that would have pardoned thousands of people convicted of politically related crimes between 2003 and last year.
This would have paved the way for the return of Thaksin, a deeply polarizing figure who is loved by his supporters and loathed by his enemies.
Human Rights Watch has described Thaksin as “a human rights abuser of the worst kind,” and he has been beset by allegations of corruption and nepotism. Yet he commands fierce loyalty in parts of the country for introducing policies that benefited the rural poor.
The policeman-turned-telecoms tycoon, who first swept to power in the 2001 general election, proved an astute politician. He took advantage of broad social changes, appealing to increasingly affluent and better-educated rural voters, especially in the poor northeastern region which had long been neglected by rulers in Bangkok.
His government introduced a number of well-received policies, including heavily subsidized healthcare, village grants and micro-credit for small businesses, which opponents decried as “populist” measures designed to buy support.
But his brash manner and willingness to upset the status quo made Thaksin many enemies among the Bangkok elite, which revolves around the palace, big business and the senior echelons of the military.
They saw him as a threat to the monarchy and their traditional power and privilege. In 2006, following mass street protests similar to the current ones, the army ousted Thaksin in a coup that was welcomed by many in the capital.
And yet, despite the best efforts of the elite, the Democrats and a politicized judiciary, the people of Thailand continue to elect Thaksin-backed parties into government. In various guises, they have now won the past five general elections, thanks mainly to their strong support in the north and northeast.
The staunchly royalist, nationalist Democrats continue to fare well in Bangkok and the south of the country. But they haven’t won a general election since 1992, although they headed a coalition government from 2008-2011 following a controversial court decision that dissolved a ruling Thaksin-backed party. Now they appear to have given up trying.