Thailand’s political turmoil feeds fear of economic ruin and civil conflict

Analysis: since Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister, protests and rhetoric have grown more intense

Anti-government protesters take part in a rally outside parliament in Bangkok yesterday. Thailand’s senate met to try to find a solution to protracted political turmoil in the polarised country. Photograph: Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters

Anti-government protesters take part in a rally outside parliament in Bangkok yesterday. Thailand’s senate met to try to find a solution to protracted political turmoil in the polarised country. Photograph: Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters


Thailand’s senate was working yesterday to find a way of breaking the country’s political deadlock and resolving turmoil that has crippled the government and sparked fears of economic disaster and even civil war.

The crisis has escalated since the country’s top constitutional court ousted Yingluck Shinawatra as premier, and nine of her cabinet ministers, saying she had abused her power, while her “Red Shirt” supporters have condemned the move as a judicial coup.

The crisis is the latest stage in a decade of intense rivalry between the royalist establishment and Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist former prime minister ousted by a military coup in 2006 and who now lives in exile in Dubai.

Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan was appointed in Yingluck’s place and the interim leader said yesterday that holding an election scheduled for July 20th is the only way to resolve the turmoil and reforms should be implemented by a new government.

“Political reforms are a good thing, and we need to modernise the country,” Niwattumrong said. “But we can’t stop the election. We should have the election first and a new government can implement reforms.”

He is facing calls from opposition protesters to stand aside and allow a “people’s council” to be installed to rewrite electoral rules before a vote. The move is illegal and may spark violence, he said.

In recent days, rival supporters have staged sit-in protests in and around Bangkok, raising fears of renewed violence.

Yingluck was ordered to step down last week over the illegal transfer in 2011 of her security chief, while another court has indicted her for negligence.

Civil war risk
Jatuporn Prompan, head of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the “Red Shirt” backers of the democratically elected Yingluck, said any attempt by the Supreme Court and the Senate to discuss “unlawful” demands for an interim government could steer Thailand toward a civil war.

Two anti-government protesters were injured in a suspected grenade blast on Saturday night outside the prime minister’s offices, which have been empty for weeks. Anti-government protesters want to force out the government, postpone the election, and rule by an interim council, ending what they see as the residual and corrupt influence of Thaksin.

The Shinawatras’ power base is in the northeast, Thailand’s poorest region and home to one-third of its 66 million. Thaksin’s popularity has undermined the influence of the traditional Bangkok- based power elite.

He or his loyalists have won every election since 2001 and Yingluck, his younger sister whom he has described as his “clone”, became prime minister after a 2011 election win.

Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party is still technically in control of the government and Niwatthamrong is a staunch Thaksin loyalist. Yingluck and her party are a good bet to win the election if it goes ahead.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy premier in a government run by the pro-establishment Democrat party, repeated his call for the senate, the courts and the country’s election commission to establish an interim, unelected “people’s government”.

He has moved his supporters from a city park to an avenue outside parliament to reinforce his call for the senate to act. The protests were sparked by signs Yingluck was seeking ways to bring her brother back and give him an amnesty.

Twenty-five people have been killed since this round of protests began. She was indicted by Thailand’s anti-corruption agency last week for a rice-subsidy scheme under which the state paid farmers above market prices for crops.

Democratic domain
The opposition is criticised for trying to undermine democracy in Thailand by using legalistic points and loopholes to keep kicking out the Shinawatras, and for saying the majority of Thais are not yet ready for democracy. In its defence, the opposition points to the rice subsidy scheme as typifying the way the Shinawatras hold on to power, by not playing fair and by winning over the voters using grants and subsidies.

The army, which has staged multiple coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, has stayed out of the turmoil so far. But if violence escalates, they may be forced to intervene.

As in previous Thai crises, all eyes are on the royal family, which commands huge respect.

Bhumipol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving monarch, has been ill for many years, but he has had a higher profile in recent months, and there are divisive issues about who would succeed him.

There is anger among the population about the way the “juristocracy” is running the country and bypassing the electorate. In 2008, the constitutional court ousted then-prime minister Samak Sundaravej for hosting a cooking show, while former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva came to power through court machinations.

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