Thailand’s anti-government unrest has taken an increasingly ugly, more violent turn with children killed or injured, their tiny bodies maimed and turned lifeless by shrapnel or gunshots.
Thailand’s government will remain paralyzed for months, raising the risk of further street violence and possible damage to the economy, after the country’s Election Commission announced it would try to complete this month’s disputed election in late April.
Thailand recently held parliamentary elections amid anti-government protests, which have grappled the country for four months now. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the parliament in December 2013, giving her government the title of a ‘caretaker government’ with the hope of finding a way past the anti-government protests.
Even though the government called the snap election to try and mitigate the unrest, the protests show no sign of abating as neither the government nor the opposition seem to be willing to compromise, which means that their opposing stands will continue to polarize the Thai society, leaving very little space for negotiation or a peaceful solution in the coming days.
The elections provided no clear outcome, particularly because the opposition refused to take part in the elections while their supporting protestors blocked voting stations and ballots from allowing the elections to take place. Consequently, the protests turned violent with deaths, which resulted in the country remaining tense while its capital Bangkok and surrounding areas are operating under a state of emergency.
Thailand is no stranger to political unrests and the ongoing agitation against the Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is a political deadlock that is undermining Thailand’s democracy, economy and tourism.
The demonstrations kicked off in the last week of November last year after Thailand’s lower house passed a controversial amnesty bill, which was blatantly rejected by the senate. However, the critics believe the bill is a measure to safeguard PM Yingluck’s brother and former leader Thaksin Shinawatra to return from a self-imposed exile without serving time in jail.
Thaksin Shinawatra, a divisive figure in Thai politics and accused of running the county through Dubai under his sister’s cover, was ousted in a military coup in 2006. Though he lives overseas, he remains incredibly popular among the rural class. Conversely, he is loathed by the middle classes and elite class who accuse him of being corrupt.
This division forms the basis for opposing strands in Thailand’s society, which has maintained a tense political atmosphere ever since civilian rule was established in 2006.
The army toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup, after months of protest against him, led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (popularly known as the ‘Yellow Shirts’), which accused Thaksin of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin was a telecom tycoon turned politician who fled the country after his topple.
However, the People Power Party (PPP), seen as a reincarnation of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais loves Thais) party, won the most votes. Samak Sundaravej of the Thaksin-linked People Power Party was sworn in as Prime Minister following which, Thaksin Shinawatra returned from a self-imposed exile. However, on return, his former wife was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to three years in jail. She was granted bail, following which Thaksin, along with his family again flew to Britain after failing to appear in court to face corruption charges.
In 2009, Thaksin’s supporters held mass rallies against the government’s economic policies. The then PM Abhisit Vejjajiva moved troops into Bangkok to end an opposition protest sit-in in which more than 120 people were injured in resulting clashes. At the end of the year, up to 20,000 Thaksin supporters rallied in Bangkok to demand fresh elections.
The protests continued in 2010, as thousands of Thaksin supporters in their trademark red shirts paralyzed parts of central Bangkok with month-long protests calling for PM Abhisit’s resignation and early elections. Troops were called in to break the deadlock and end demonstrations. The death toll in the violence was the worst in the country’s modern history.
In 2011, the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra Pheu Thai Party won a landslide victory in elections. Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra was appointed as Prime Minister.
In the same year, the government introduced a rice subsidy scheme with the aim of ensuring farmers-who form the main part of Pheu Thai’s social base in the rural areas of northern Thailand, that they receive a guaranteed price for their rice crop. The scheme caused government debt to soar and the resulting increase in the price of Thai rice caused the country to lose its rank as the world’s number one rice exporter.
In June 2012 Yingluck’s government attempts to pass a bill of national reconciliation intended to end the political tensions.
The opposition claims the legislation is designed to protect former prime minister Thaksin and permit his return from exile.
The anti-government Yellow Shirts blocked parliament to debate on that bill and also called for the overthrow of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The current protests come after significant developments. First, the constitutional courts blocked a move by the ruling Pheu Thai Party to amend the 2007 post-coup constitution. The second and immediate cause of the protests was against the proposed political amnesty bill that would have voided most political crimes dating back to a 2006 military coup that ousted the then PM Thaksin Shinawatra. The bill angered many on either side of Thailand’s political divide.
With policies such as cheap healthcare and subsidized rice farming, Thaksin Shinawatra created loyalty among rural voters, particularly in the north and north east regions of Thailand, that account for approximately 70% of rice production.
Interestingly, the bill would also have pardoned former PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is charged with murder over the 2010 crackdown.
The demonstrations, being led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Thai deputy Prime Minister who resigned from the opposition Democratic Party to lead the rallies has led protestors to surround and occupy government buildings in an attempt to force the Pheu Thai party to step down. He is fighting for a temporary suspension of the constitutional government so that an unelected “people’s council” can “save” democracy, something that PM Yingluck Shinawatra has deemed unreasonable and unconstitutional.
His campaign has raised suggestions that he may have the backing of the military, which has long held influence over Thai politics. The Thai army has often stepped in during times of crisis, carrying out 18 coups since the 1930’s.
Even Thai police withdrew from their HQ, enabling anti-government protesters to make a politically symbolic occupation of the complex and the prime minister’s offices.
Accusing the government of having ‘bought votes’ in the last elections, the protestors say their goal is to uproot the ‘political machine of Thaksin’, who they believe is actually handling the government from behind-the-scenes while PM Yingluck is nothing more than a proxy face. They believe that the elected ‘people’s council’ will pick the country’s future leaders.
In response to the unrest, Yingluck Shinawatra proposed snap elections for last month. The opposition refused to contest the polls. The Pheu Thai Party still enjoys majority in the lower house and is also hugely popular in the rural areas of Thailand’s north and north-east, which would have easily enabled them to win. That is why Yingluck has reportedly flown to the city of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand where she has a strong support base to inspect government-backed projects there. Meanwhile, pro-government protesters surrounded the NACC office and chained the gates to prevent officials from entering.
Amid a four-month long protest in the country demanding her removal from the post, the National Anti-Corruption Commission, or the NACC, had filed charges against Yingluck claiming that she had ignored warnings that the rice-subsidy scheme was encouraging corruption and leading to financial losses.
She has also skipped an anti-corruption panel hearing and instead sent her lawyers to face charges leveled against her of negligence and corruption on a rice-subsidy program. If found guilty, it could lead to her ejection from office and a five-year ban from politics.
However, the opposition realized the strong foothold of Shinwatras’ which is why they decided to boycott the elections. The demonstrators do not want the election to take place. These activists represent a segment of the urban affluent and middle classes. In addition, the army’s support for the current government is uncertain, with the army chief recently making an ambivalent statement about whether or not another coup could take place.
The king, on the other hand, has not been able to do much, apart from calling for peace and calm. He is really old and even though he is highly respected in the urban areas, the royal family is no longer an unprecedented authority in Thailand politics.
Thus, PM Yingluck Shinawatra’s government will remain a caretaker government while the government and Election Commission wrangle over how to legally hold the needed by-elections.
Thailand isn’t new to internal unrest as political rivals have often tried to sabotage one another by using democratic means.
Notwithstanding the allegations and counter-allegations by the government and the opposition, what appears to be forming a trend in Thailand is a vicious cycle, wherein, despite the existence of civilian rule (through democratic processes), the results are never really accepted by whoever is in opposition. Their persistent inability to win elections has left their supporters disenchanted with electoral politics, and desperate for another avenue of representation. Thus, what ends up happening every time a new government is installed is that it is thrown out, primarily because of the opposition’s unwillingness to accept the result.
Interestingly, it has always been the opposition Democratic Party that is in opposition, as pro-Thaksin parties have won all elections.
Even this time, it is unclear how a stable government would emerge because the opposition is likely to continue its protests. However, this time, the protests have simmered in the country for long, creating a political crisis that has virtually bought the country to stalemate.
In fact, realizing that there is an opportunity in the interim period till the next elections dates come out, opposition party is now reaching out to the Pheu Thai Party’s traditional vote base- the farmers. The democrats are slowly realizing that they cannot run away from elections for too long because that would mean that they are turning a back on democratic processes, rendering their own argument against the government unreasonable. Therefore, they realize that in order to win the elections, they need a support base which, as of now, they lack.
This move, if successful could become the game-changer in Thailand’s political crisis. If Suthep Thaugsuban manages to cash in on the farmer’s angst against the amnesty bill and the government’s failure to pay them for the rice, they could witness a realignment that would marginalize the Thaksin camp.
Thus, Yingluck Shinawatra now risks a backlash from farmers who say her government is months behind on subsidized rice payments. The rice subsidy scheme was a hallmark of her party’s populist platform. Yingluck also faces possible impeachment over the program, which the opposition alleges has benefited the politicians more than rural communities and has plundered the economy as well. The opposition argues that the rice program, which buys from farmers at above-market rates, is a mere form of vote-banking that risk bankrupting the country.
The current government’s ability to pay the farmers has been hampered by its caretaker status, which began once Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament in December 2013. The government now faces limitations on spending and new borrowing, and the protestors have pressured banks not to loan the government money for the rice program.
However, The Democratic Party is disliked in the north and the northeast for authorizing a deadly crackdown on Thaksin supports who were protesting in 2010 against their government, something for which Suthep Thaugsuban faces murder charges.
In addition, some opposition figures from the Democratic Party have suggested that rural people lack sufficient education to vote responsibly, something that is in line with their elitist background of royalists and urban middle-class people.
In this sense, it is highly improbable that the forthcoming elections will bring about any major change in results. The society will continue to remain politically divided and the pressure will continue to build on Yingluck Shinawatra and Suthep Thaugsuban to come forward and find an amicable solution.
The political elite must show maturity while dealing with the ongoing crisis. They must find a middle ground to negotiate a stand-off so that the ongoing crisis doesn’t grip the country indefinitely which could allow external elements to influence the internal atmosphere of the country.
The rule of law must be respected and democracy must be allowed to function without being used as a tool to sabotage each other. Hopefully, the fact that the country’s economy is headed towards a downward spiral could mean that the country would come together and find a long term solution.