Thailand’s simmering tensions raise question of stability

Ongoing protests suggest another prolonged period of civil unrest looming

An anti-government protester rests next to a banner during a rally outside the Government House in Bangkok on Thursday. The fresh round of anti-government protests has raised the question whether Thailand could again be subject to a prolonged period of civil unrest. Photograph: Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters

An anti-government protester rests next to a banner during a rally outside the Government House in Bangkok on Thursday. The fresh round of anti-government protests has raised the question whether Thailand could again be subject to a prolonged period of civil unrest. Photograph: Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters

Fri, Dec 13, 2013, 01:11

Civic unrest in Thailand usually comes colour-coded, red and yellow, but this does not make the turbulence in Bangkok any less complicated.

The fresh round of protests has raised the question whether Thailand could again be subject to a prolonged period of civil unrest, and just how stable is one of southeast Asia’s more successful democracies. Also, what about the other colour in Thai politics, the olive green or camouflage of army fatigues that has staged dozens of coups in the past century?

Red- and yellow-shirted demonstrators have taken to the streets of the Thai capital once more, and so far, the protests have seen government buildings occupied, yet again, and the death of five people and more than 300 wounded.

The family of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is traditionally backed by the red shirts, who love her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by a military coup and exiled in 2006, but who has strong residual influence in the government. Yingluck was democratically elected by a landslide and her Puea Thai Party controls parliament, an assembly she has dissolved and which will go to the polls in February 2nd snap elections.

Yellow-shirted opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban is a veteran politician who quit the mainstream opposition to lead the protesters, and is aware it will probably lose the election.

Instead, he wants parliament suspended and replaced by an unelected people’s council made up of appointed “good people”.

The yellow shirts largely reflect the interests of Bangkok’s moneyed elite.

Suthep is fond of what can be described as, at best, fiery rhetoric and wants police to arrest Yingluck for treason.

The red and yellow shirts have been at each other’s throats since the tycoon fled, but Thaksin and his family remain the popular choice in Thailand

Despite Yingluck’s efforts to play down his influence, he remains a powerful force, and has held cabinet meetings by webcam from his villa in Dubai.

A Bangkok Post newspaper editorial said Yingluck would probably win the election. “But it will not resolve the deeply entrenched political conflict which has practically divided the country into two main rival political groups, the pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin, and those in the middle.”

Yingluck’s government is seen as inept and corrupt by the opposition, who see her as a proxy for her exiled brother.

The Shinawatras have a weakness for populist measures. The prime minister has maintained her popularity with her red-shirt supporters by introducing affordable healthcare, low interest loans and a vast infrastructure programme.

Yingluck took over power from Abhisit Vejjajiya, the Eton and Oxford-educated leader of the opposition Democrats, whose 2008-2011 government oversaw a bloody crackdown on the red-shirt protesters in 2010.

Despite their name, the Democrats are not big believers in democracy.

Abhisit – who was yesterday charged with murder in connection with the 2010 crackdown – managed to become prime minister in late 2008 only after Thailand’s courts dissolved the pro-Thaksin governing party. This took place after the yellow shirts occupied Bangkok’s international airport. The last time the Democrats won the most seats in parliament was in 1992. The party was beaten by Thaksin in 2001 and again, by a landslide, in 2005.

So far the focus of the protests has been Bangkok, and much of the noise has been generated by yellow shirts.

But if the protesters and the Democrats succeed in replacing the democratically-elected Yingluck government, then the red shirts are expected to come out in force in Bangkok.

This has been the pattern for several years, but now divisions are intensifying and the next time the red shirts come to Bangkok in force could mean a much more intense civil conflict. This would most likely lead to another military coup. So far, the army is staying out of it. Military chief Prayuth Chan-ocha vociferously denies any involvement in the crisis.

“The army did not force the prime minister to dissolve the House. She consulted us and merely let us know before she did it,” said Gen Prayuth.

“We never think about a coup. We have learnt the lessons.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University, said Thais are losing faith in the electoral system. “They keep losing and they think the electoral system only produces corrupt politicians based on money politics under Thaksin’s influence, led by Yingluck, so they are rejecting that system,” he told Bloomberg TV.

So, once again, people’s attention turns to the monarchy, which is seen as critical to the future of Thailand.

Beloved but ageing, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been a powerful if mostly invisible presence since 2009 and the consensus is that his not-very popular only son will take the throne when he dies.

As in every political crisis over decades, Thailand looks to its royal family for guidance. But there is a sense that both the military and the royal family are increasingly unwilling, or incapable, of resolving Thailand’s simmering tensions. The political parties may be forced, despite themselves, to sort things out themselves.

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