Wednesday, 27 November 2013

THAILAND: Bangkok Protests

Thousands of anti-government protesters have rallied in the Thai capital Bangkok, at first turning out against a bill that would have offered amnesty to deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but continuing to protest after the bill was defeated. As the government he influences from overseas fights for survival, Thailand's latest political crisis threatens longer-term damage to Thaksin's support base.

Portrayed by the Shinawatras as an attempt to draw a line under nearly a decade of bruising political encounters, the amnesty bill would have cleared Thaksin of a two-year prison term for graft in absentia after his ouster by coup in 2006. Murder charges against Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition Democrat Party, over his role in crushing Bangkok street protests by Thaksin supporters, known as "Red Shirts," when he was prime minister in 2010 would also have been quashed.

The Pheu Thai-dominated lower house unanimously passed the bill amid an opposition walkout. By the time it reached the upper house on Nov. 12, however, the bill had become so toxic that senators had little choice but to reject it 141-0.  As it reached the Senate, almost every corner of Thai society was livid. Office workers in the central Silom district of Bangkok left their desks and poured into the street blowing whistles; university staff and students marched together on campuses, and opposition supporters set up tents around the capital's Democracy Monument near the seat of government. 

Following a coup in September 2006, Thailand's political divide has widened in a cyclical series of political crises typified by protests and clashes involving the "Yellow Shirts," self-proclaimed defenders of the monarchy, and the Red Shirts, opponents of the coup. As a result, chaos has become a regular feature of life in the Thai capital.

In November 2008, Yellow Shirts seized both Bangkok airports to protest a new government deemed a proxy of Thaksin; less than two years later, parts of Bangkok were turned into free-fire zones as the army clashed with encamped Red Shirts. Amid the battles, the Reds have aimed to overturn the constitutional legacy of the coup in the name of greater democratic reform. For the Yellows, the goal remains the end of Thaksin's influence, a man deemed a threat to the monarchy, an enduring symbol of graft and greed.

It is not clear that the Yingluck government has much of a “policy agenda.” Granting amnesty reflected attempts to firm up the support base of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, working in the interests of people ranging from Yingluck’s self-exiled brother Thaksin Shinawatra, to rank-and-file government supporters who faced various politically motivated charges in the period following the 2006 military coup. Nevertheless, the amnesty legislation backfired, provoking anger on all sides—though for different reasons. It has now been dropped, and current protests are aimed at toppling the government rather than blocking the amnesty bill.

Thailand has a long tradition of political rallies and protests; street demonstrations by anti-government groups in Bangkok are nothing new. To date, the number of people taking part has been relatively small, and there is no obvious threat yet to the stability of the elected government, which commands a strong parliamentary majority.

Protests typically cannot bring down governments unless they have the backing of key figures linked to the military or royalist elite. While many in the conservative establishment are not delighted with the current government, they are also well aware that suspending electoral politics—as happened for more than a year after the 2006 military coup—could easily create far more problems than it would solve. For this reason, the anti-government demonstrators remain marginalized: They have no real answers to the country’s political problems.

The latest protests are also a reminder that Thailand remains a deeply divided country. For decades, the upper and middle classes in Bangkok have enjoyed considerable economic and political privileges. But the growing importance of elections means that Bangkokians are now consistently outvoted by people from the northern and northeastern regions of Thailand, who make up the majority of voters. Many are so-called urbanized villagers—people who are registered to vote in the provinces, but often spend most of the year working in urban areas; since 2001, they have been voting largely en bloc for pro-Thaksin parties.

Many of those who are protesting against the Yingluck government are discontented Bangkokians with increasingly anti-democratic sentiments. But in the long term, the Bangkok elite will have to concede ground in the face of a socio-economic tide that is pushing against them. Thaksin and his sister are not the real agents of change; rather, they are capitalizing on the aspirations of the wider population, which include growing resentment toward the capital city and a desire to take more control over their own destinies.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP-Thailand Protest-Photo