Thai protesters see last chance to save interests

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Special To The Japan Times

The Thai capital has entered a frozen mode since anti-government forces launched the “shutdown Bangkok” campaign Monday to try to further destabilize the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

Having been on the streets of Bangkok now for more than two months, the protesters have vowed to deracinate from politics the deep-seated influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister and brother of Yingluck. They accuse Thaksin and the Yingluck regime of nurturing a culture of political corruption.

Leading the protesters is Suthep Thaugsuban, former Democrat Party MP and former deputy prime minister in the previous Abhisit Vejjajiva administration. Suthep clearly has a long list of insatiable demands — from rejecting the planned election of Feb. 2 to having Yingluck arrested should she refuse to leave the country for good. The protests have lasted so long apparently because they have gained solid support from various institutions including the monarchy.

In the period leading up to the shutdown of Bangkok, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s youngest daughter, Princess Chulabhorn, came out to symbolically endorse the anti-government mob. Adorning a Thai-flag ribbon on her pigtail, she posted a photo and a message on her Instagram: “Might I be called a traitor now that I decorated my hair with a Thai-flag ribbon? Well, I do love my country too.”

The Thai-flag ribbon has been turned into a symbol of a traitorous act by pro-democracy groups who condemn Suthep for destroying electoral democracy and weakening democratic institutions.

The fact that a member of the royal family has become directly involved in politics seems to guarantee that the current episode of political strife will be enduring. At the heart of the Thai turmoil lies anxiety by the old establishment over the imminent royal transition, which it fears could see Thaksin and his proxies take control of political power.

Well-educated and rich Bangkokians feel compelled to join the street protests as a necessary step toward preserving their political interests since their ultimate patron, King Bhumibol, could pass from the scene anytime.

Thus the common understanding that the Thai monarchy has stayed above politics remains a myth. Royal intervention in politics — from outright support of the many coups in the past to offers of sympathy to anti-Thaksin forces — has powerfully eroded reverence for the monarchy itself. Chulabhorn’s political act does nothing but stir up anti-monarchy sentiments among many Thais.

There have already been scores of deaths and casualties since the protests kicked off late last year. The aim of the protesters might be to escalate political tension by inciting violence, considering their tight time frame for winning this war. Yingluck has said the election would continue without any further postponement. Suthep needs to ensure that the election does not bring back any sense of political normality. A situation of ungovernability is imperative for Suthep’s agenda.

Starting their campaign in the early hours Monday in Bangkok, anti-government protesters blocked key roads and built barricades at busy junctions. Major ministries were occupied to prevent the government from functioning. Many surveillance cameras in the city were destroyed. Bangkok is virtually paralyzed.

Although the number of protesters was less than previously expected, it is too soon to write off their effort to hold Bangkok captive. So far, they have denied a rumor that the two airports in Bangkok — Suvarnabhumi and Donmuang — would be seized. In 2008, the anti-Thaksin demonstrators occupied the two airports for eight days, causing harm to the Thai economy (costing at least $100 million a day in lost shipments and opportunities).

But does not closing down the airports mean that the Thai economy won’t be damaged? Yingluck is said to be concerned about the severe impact of the crisis on the tourism sector, which is expected to suffer losses of $550 million in January with visitor numbers estimated at 2.1 million for the month, short of the 2.5 million target.

And Reuters reported that the baht slid to 32.98 per dollar on Jan. 10, its weakest since February 2010. The benchmark stock index closed down 0.5 percent at 1,224.62 on the same day as investors sold major stocks; earlier it had hit 1,208.60, the lowest since August 2012. It has lost 15 percent since the start of November. Any postponement of the poll, for which a new date of May 4 is sought by the Election Commission, could seriously impact policymaking and expose the government to more attacks and invite military or judicial intervention.

With blessings from the monarchy, it is only a matter of time before the military or the courts strike at Yingluck’s interim premiership. The military has staged 18 coups since 1932; thus there is no denying that a fresh coup is possible.

Still, the military must reconsider this option seriously, bearing in mind the consequences of the last coup (in 2006) and the deadly crackdowns against red shirts in 2010. One more coup could draw angry waves of red shirts into the streets, too. Clashes between different political groups might be unavoidable.

The conflict shows no sign of subsiding. Anti-government protesters tell themselves that this may be their last opportunity to defend their interests in the face of the fast-changing political landscape.

The stakes are high. The chances of the anti-government opposition forces succeeding could be slim because they lack mass support and, more importantly, legitimacy.

But the real loser is, indeed, the Thai nation, which continues to be held hostage by the recent years of unending crisis.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.