Impasse in Thailand


The last time a Thai government declared a state of emergency against protesters was in 2010. Two months later the government ordered the military to intervene, resulting in 90 deaths and more than 2,000 injuries. The person who ordered that intervention was Suthep Thaugsuban, then prime minister and now himself the leader of tens of thousands of protesters in Bangkok. The current prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra ordered the state of emergency against them this week but has so far not cancelled planned elections on February 2nd, which the opposition is boycotting.

This rerun of street politics and state crackdown perfectly illustrates the complete impasse reached in Thailand between the two major political and social forces struggling for control. The “yellow shirt” protest movement against the government decisively elected in 2011 refuses to accept its legitimacy, claiming that victory was based on cheating and corruption by Ms Shinawatra. Her father Thaksin, a billionaire industrialist, was first elected by the country’s rural poor in 2001 and put out of office in 2006. The Bangkok protest movement is based on the city’s middle and upper classes who reject that family’s democratic role and demand their removal.

So far the armed forces have stood aloof from this round of protest, aware that their lengthy record of coups and other interventions could backfire on this occasion. The recent protests seem designed to provoke them into action in a dangerous escalation of the conflict. Already Thailand’s thriving tourist market and manufacturing exports are being affected and a government supporter was shot in northern Thailand, heralding further violence.

Mr Thaugsuban has rejected a government offer to postpone the elections until May while negotiations take place, indicating there is little or no leeway for compromise. Holding an election during a state of emergency clamping down on freedom of assembly and speech is unacceptable. Thailand seems headed for deeper confrontation.