BANGKOK – Anti-government protesters are planning to shut down Thailand’s capital Monday by blocking traffic at key intersections, providing a fitting metaphor for the country’s politics: no way forward, no backing out.
“Crisis Deepens,” read a large headline in the Bangkok Post newspaper. “Poll boycott draws nation into uncharted territory.”
That was Feb. 28, 2006, when then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was seeking to defuse protests against his rule by calling early elections, and the opposition Democrat Party refused to take part. In September that year, the army deposed Thaksin in a coup.
Eight years later, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — billionaire Thaksin’s sister — has called early elections to defuse anti-government protests, and the opposition Democrat Party is again boycotting the polls.
The protesters planning to tie up traffic in Bangkok on Monday are demanding that Yingluck and her caretaker government step down and freeze elections for up to two years, during which time an interim “People’s Council” — which they apparently will appoint — would implement reforms to fight corruption and put an end to money politics.
Tensions are high. At their height, the protests have drawn more than 150,000 people accusing Yingluck’s government of corruption and urging her to step down. The demonstrators have engaged in running street battles with police, cut off water and electricity to national police headquarters, and forcibly occupied the compounds of several other government agencies. Several drive-by shootings have taken place near their main encampment, the latest one leaving seven protesters injured Saturday morning.
Eight people, including a policeman, have been killed and dozens injured in street violence in recent weeks, and the government has voiced fears of more bloodshed.
“That is what they are trying to do — to create violence during the shutdown,” Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told reporters.
The demonstrators’ slogan is “Reform before election,” but their agenda really is “Stop Thaksin, again.” It reflects the reality that Yingluck is acting as a stand-in for her brother, who is calling the shots from exile, where he fled in 2008 to avoid a jail term for a corruption conviction.
The political crisis could play out several ways.
One scenario is a military coup. The protesters — headed by the so-called People’s Democratic Reform Committee — clearly hope to trigger enough chaos to force the army to take over to restore order.
The military is noted for having staged about a dozen successful coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. As recently as Tuesday, army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha refused to rule out the possibility of another.
The 2006 coup against Thaksin was a bloodless one, but it was followed up by an inept interim government and triggered the violent polarization that has dogged Thai politics ever since.
Another possibility for the current crisis is a so-called judicial coup. Several cases are pending in the courts and the country’s independent oversight agencies — all tilting heavily against the Shinawatras’ political machine — that could see Yingluck’s party thrown out of office and its members barred from politics. The key bodies are stacked with figures who were opposed to Thaksin and appointed by the unelected government after the 2006 coup.
In a situation where the government has an overwhelming electoral mandate, the court is “the last fortress of the establishment and the authoritarians,” said Thamrongsak Lertpetchanan, a political scientist at Rangsit University.
In another scenario, the Feb. 2 elections will take place as scheduled. But if candidates who were blocked from registering by protesters are unable to run, seats in their constituencies will be empty, making it impossible to meet a quorum in parliament.
If parliament is not convened, a caretaker government will remain in place, unable to initiate laws or treaties, pass a budget or carry out most functions of government. Such a crisis will increase pressure for it to be replaced, by force or even royal intervention under vague clauses of the constitution that have never been invoked.
Some analysts don’t even see the elections being held.
“I don’t think the election is going to take place because those who are in the judiciary are mostly siding against the Yingluck government,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand.
He said Yingluck is likely to face increasing legal moves in connection with the failed Senate reform bill as well as allegations of corruption in her government’s rice subsidy program. “These decisions are going to be giving a lot of legitimacy to the demonstrators as they wreak havoc across Bangkok and parts of the south,” Chambers said.
The 2006 coup sparked years of sometimes violent struggle for political power between Thaksin’s supporters and opponents, hitting its nadir in 2010 when an army crackdown on pro-Thaksin demonstrators led to the deaths of 90 people.
The so-called Red Shirts who came out then on Thaksin’s behalf proved their mettle in Bangkok’s streets, and their leaders are promising that they will resist a new coup, raising the prospect of fresh violence.
Thaksin commands overwhelming support in Thailand’s less well-off rural areas, where voters are grateful for his populist programs, such as virtually free health care. Pro-Thaksin parties have easily won every national election since 2001.
“These people will come out to support us,” Tovichakchaikul told foreign journalists Friday.
He said they are avoiding confrontations in the hope that the situation will calm down, but that if anything happens to the government, they will rise up.
Corruption and accusations of abuse of power by Thaksin, the stubbornness of a ruling class dismayed that democracy may force it to share power, and questions over the royal succession after ailing 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies have all been cited as causes of Thailand’s long-running political crisis.
But the immediate trigger for the latest protests was an ill-advised move late last year by ruling party lawmakers who tried to push through a bill under the guise of a reconciliation measure offering a legal amnesty for political offenders. The last-minute inclusion of Thaksin, a polarizing figure, led to public outrage and the bill was voted down.
Criticism of Thaksin runs deep because of personal animosity. While in office, he often treated critics with contempt, and some of the most vitriolic denunciations of him come from people he bullied or intimidated.
Others claim that Thailand’s traditional ruling elite, who closely associate themselves with the monarchy, oppose Thaksin because they resent losing influence to a popularly elected leader.
They are uneasy about what will happen when the king dies, and whether Thaksin could influence the succession.
“It’s about the royal transition that would shift the entire political landscape, which has long been dominated by the establishment but has come loose at the seams because Thaksin — even after he has gone — his legacy is still here and these people here fear that once their beloved king passed from the scene everything will be crashing down,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
Short- and long-term solutions to the crisis remain elusive, since both sides call for political reforms but differ on the goal and the way to get there.
Further violence and bloodshed in Bangkok could have a major impact on the economy, especially investment, a worry already reflected in a downturn of the stock market and a weakening of the local currency, said Anusorn Thammachai, dean of the economic faculty at Rangsit University.
Thai stocks and the baht currency have already fallen sharply on concerns that the latest turmoil will scare off tourists and investors.
But, Anusorn added, if the situation leads to reform giving birth to more transparent and better political and economic systems, then the current crisis is perhaps a price Thailand needs to pay.
For now, a dark mood prevails.
“The signals are clear and ominous. We are at the edge of a precipice staring into a dark abyss,” read a front-page editorial in Friday’s Bangkok Post, warning that “a coup is no solution.”
“With the political divide that has engulfed the country over the past decade, the consequences of a coup this time would be worse than the vicious cycle we have experienced in the past,” the editorial read. “This time a coup would be the spark sending the country into turmoil.”