Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Thai cycle of instability looks hard to break

Former crackdown chief now leads protests

by Todd Pitman


Just before the start of an anti-government rally that paralyzed the heart of Bangkok four years ago, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban issued a stern message to demonstrators then converging on the city en masse.

“If they violate the laws, such as blocking roads and intruding into government offices,” he warned on March 12, 2010, “we will have to disperse” them.

Over two months later, after a week of steadily increasing violence, Suthep followed through on that threat. He ordered a crackdown that saw the army rip through the protesters’ tire-and-bamboo-barricaded encampments and fire M-16s into crowds of fleeing protesters.

In 2011, Suthep’s party was soundly defeated in elections.

Today, he is leading a protest movement that has itself blocked roads and broken into government offices — an extraordinary role reversal that underscores not only the cyclical nature of Thai politics, but the total lack of progress toward bridging a political divide that has plagued the country for nearly a decade.

Suthep says his movement is aimed at routing out corruption that he claims is endemic within Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration. Just like the so-called Red Shirts who seized downtown Bangkok in 2010, he is demanding the resignation of the country’s government. And just like the Red Shirts, his supporters are trying to achieve that by shutting down parts of capital.

Among the places his supporters occupy is the place the Red Shirts made their last stand four years ago: Ratchaprasong, the country’s glitziest intersection, where, just like the Red Shirts, protesters are camping in the middle of the road, in front of a huge stage complete with a giant video screen.

“Sadly, we are back at this impossible intersection again,” Atiya Achakulwisut, a contributing editor at the English-language daily Bangkok Post, wrote in a recent opinion piece. And Thailand, once more, “is caught again in a dangerous game of political brinksmanship.”

In 2010, the game ended with nearly 100 dead and more than 2,000 wounded. Scores of shops in Ratchaprasong, lined with luxury hotels and glass shopping malls, went up in a wave of arson attacks.

“Do we want to go down that road again?” Atiya asked.

Tragically, Thailand already has. Political violence since November has claimed nine lives across Bangkok and left more than 550 people wounded.

From here, the road back to stability seems long indeed.

Tensions were rekindled last fall after a disastrous attempt by Yingluck’s party to ram through a controversial amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to return from self-imposed exile. He had been toppled in a 2006 coup that has touched off years of societal division. He was sentenced in absentia to prison in 2008 for corruption. Critics allege he uses his sister as a puppet and runs the country from abroad.

Last month, Yingluck dissolved the lower house of parliament and called Feb. 2 elections in hopes of easing tensions, but that did not satisfy protesters, who say corruption ensures her party will win. The main opposition party has boycotted the vote.

Suthep is demanding political reform, Yingluck’s resignation and the installation of a nonelected council of “good people” to govern before any ballot is held.

Even if the poll does go forward, parliament is unlikely to achieve the quorum it requires to convene because protesters have blocked candidate registration in several provinces. That means a caretaker government will remain in place until at least some of those provinces hold elections.

Yingluck has proposed a plan for reform with another round of elections in a year, but Suthep has rejected that and refuses to negotiate. Yingluck dares not order a police crackdown for fear of triggering a military coup.

The result: deadlock.

There is growing anxiety that the army, which has staged 11 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, will step in again. Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has said he does not want to take sides, but he has also said the military will act if there is no other solution.

In 2010, the government had the army’s firepower behind it. Today, the army is widely seen as sympathetic to the protest movement, while the police are seen as backing Yingluck.

Many believe a so-called judicial coup will remove Yingluck. After Thaksin was ousted in 2006, controversial court rulings forced two pro-Thaksin premiers to step down.

Analysts say the courts and the country’s independent oversight agencies all tilt heavily against the Shinawatras’ political machine, and Yingluck is facing several cases that could end with her or her party being banished from governing because of alleged corruption or violations of the constitution.

But if Suthep, the army or the courts succeed in installing a new government, that is only likely to trigger a new cycle of unrest.

“We’ve been through this so many times, it’s become ridiculous,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “If one side takes power, the other side will oppose it.”

Thailand’s political rivals have become “much more radicalized, much more polarized” in the last decade, Sunai said. “We need to begin by understanding there are differences, by trying to figure out how we can live together,” but “nobody is talking.”