Thailand on the brink

Protesters seize a bulldozer in an attempt to plow through police barricades outside Government House last month. (WNV/Mark Fenn)

Protesters seize a bulldozer in an attempt to plow through police barricades outside Government House last month. (WNV/Mark Fenn)

Thailand is no stranger to political turmoil but the current unrest looks set to be a protracted and especially bitter affair, raising the very real possibility of civil war.

The stage seems set for a showdown between anti-government forces, backed by powerful vested interests, and a flawed but democratically elected government that enjoys mass support, especially in its rural heartlands.

The conflict is being waged between rival factions of the elite, but also on class, ethnic and regional fronts. Predicting the future in Thai politics is futile, but more mass protests and bloodshed on the streets seem inevitable.

Over the past two months, tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of the capital Bangkok to demand less democracy, and the overthrow of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government.

They claim it is illegitimate and controlled by Yingluck’s brother Thaksin, who was overthrown as prime minister in a 2006 military coup. He lives in exile in Dubai to avoid a two-year jail term for abuse of power.

The protesters are backed by the ineffectual and misnamed Democrat Party, which has abdicated its role as a responsible opposition and announced that it will boycott snap elections called for Feb. 2. In the knowledge that it is likely to lose once again, it has, in effect, turned its back on democracy.

“The opposition has been unable to compete in the game of electoral politics and thus chose to play mob politics and provoke violence to overthrow the government,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at the University of Kyoto’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

The protest leaders portray the government “as an evil regime to legitimize their own unreasonable demands and behavior,” he added.

The protesters are drawn from Bangkok’s middle class and wealthy elite, and from opposition strongholds in the south of the country. Their constant refrain is that poor rural Thais — those who voted for the government — are ignorant, ill-informed and sell their votes to the highest bidder.

Frustrated at the inability of the Democrats to win elections, they say the country is not ready for democracy. This hate-filled rhetoric has contributed to an atmosphere where many Thais are now seriously debating the merits of universal suffrage and one-man-one-vote.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban — a former Democrat deputy prime minister facing murder charges for his role in a 2010 crackdown on anti-government demonstrations — now finds himself on the other side of the barricades.

He has called for the overthrow of the current government, the suspension of electoral democracy, and rule by an appointed council of “good people” — prompting some commentators to describe his goals as essentially fascist.

A rabble-rousing demagogue with a shady background tainted by allegations of corruption, Suthep is hailed as a hero by supporters for his promises to defend the monarchy, tackle graft and clean up government.

Although a warrant has been issued for his arrest on an insurrection charge, he rails daily against the “Thaksin regime” from the protest stages. He has vowed to sabotage the election and stop it taking place until legal, political and bureaucratic “reforms” are implemented, though his proposals are vague.

Protesters clashed with police as they tried to storm a stadium where election preparations were taking place on Dec. 26, and blocked candidate registration in eight southern provinces. Three people — a policeman and two protesters — were shot dead at the end of December. The gunmen have not been identified, but both sides have hinted at the involvement of a “third hand,” or agents provocateurs.

Meanwhile, in the north and northeast of Thailand — the government’s support base — millions of loyal “red shirt” voters are seething with anger over what they see as yet another attempt by the Bangkok elite to bring down a government they have voted into power.

Social changes

The current protests were sparked in November, when the government clumsily tried to push through an amnesty bill that would have pardoned thousands of people convicted of politically related crimes between 2003 and last year.

This would have paved the way for the return of Thaksin, a deeply polarizing figure who is loved by his supporters and loathed by his enemies.

Human Rights Watch has described Thaksin as “a human rights abuser of the worst kind,” and he has been beset by allegations of corruption and nepotism. Yet he commands fierce loyalty in parts of the country for introducing policies that benefited the rural poor.

The policeman-turned-telecoms tycoon, who first swept to power in the 2001 general election, proved an astute politician. He took advantage of broad social changes, appealing to increasingly affluent and better-educated rural voters, especially in the poor northeastern region which had long been neglected by rulers in Bangkok.

His government introduced a number of well-received policies, including heavily subsidized healthcare, village grants and micro-credit for small businesses, which opponents decried as “populist” measures designed to buy support.

But his brash manner and willingness to upset the status quo made Thaksin many enemies among the Bangkok elite, which revolves around the palace, big business and the senior echelons of the military.

They saw him as a threat to the monarchy and their traditional power and privilege. In 2006, following mass street protests similar to the current ones, the army ousted Thaksin in a coup that was welcomed by many in the capital.

And yet, despite the best efforts of the elite, the Democrats and a politicized judiciary, the people of Thailand continue to elect Thaksin-backed parties into government. In various guises, they have now won the past five general elections, thanks mainly to their strong support in the north and northeast.

The staunchly royalist, nationalist Democrats continue to fare well in Bangkok and the south of the country. But they haven’t won a general election since 1992, although they headed a coalition government from 2008-2011 following a controversial court decision that dissolved a ruling Thaksin-backed party. Now they appear to have given up trying.

Climate of fear

The unspoken backdrop to all this is the coming royal succession. The current king, who is revered by many as semi-divine, but is 86 years old and ailing.

King Bhumibol has reigned since 1946, making him the world’s longest-serving head of state. His designated heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, faces an uphill task to accrue the “moral authority and sacred power enjoyed by his father,” said Pavin.

Most Thais have known nothing other than Bhumibol’s rule, and as the inevitable approaches, parts of society — especially those that have benefited from close links to the palace — are gripped by acute end-of-reign anxiety.

This has combined with long-standing fear and prejudice against the “ignorant, uneducated” rural masses to produce the fiery, and often deeply offensive, anti-government rhetoric seen on the protest stages.

“Faced with the trauma of looming succession, many elite and middle-class Thais have taken refuge in superstition and a cult of idealized royalty,” said Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a British journalist who is currently writing a book on the subject. “They have become dangerously fanatical. Fear has curdled into craziness and hate.”

Marshall lives abroad to avoid charges under Thailand’s strict lese majeste law, which prohibits criticism of royal family members and has had a chilling effect on freedom of speech in the so-called Land of Smiles.

Any criticism of the monarchy is taboo, and journalists based in Thailand — including this one — must practice self-censorship to avoid the very real threat of imprisonment.

“The lese majeste law prevents Thai journalists from critically taking into account the prominent role of the monarchy institution in Thai society. Our analyses are thus constrained and diminished,” said Pravit Rojanaphruk, one of the few Thai journalists who have dared to speak out on the issue.

Both the Democrats and the ruling Pheu Thai party have used the law as a tool to smear opponents, and tens of thousands of websites deemed critical of the monarchy have been blocked. Last month, a Thai man was jailed on several counts including an unprecedented one of “attempting to commit the crime of lese-majeste” after content deemed insulting to the royal family was found on his computer.

It is against this background of fear and loathing that the current turmoil on the streets of Bangkok must be seen, as rival factions jockey for power.

‘Second-class citizens’

The ongoing protests in Bangkok highlight the longstanding mistrust between the wealthy capital and the regions — especially the populous northeast, which is known as Isaan and is home to 20 million people. Most of these are ethnic Lao and speak a Lao dialect, though their ties to neighboring Laos have diminished over time.

Isaan provides many of the capital’s construction workers, taxi drivers, waitresses and other service sector staff, but they are viewed by many Bangkok residents as second-class citizens, poorer and less educated.

Many of the protesters openly dismiss them with contempt. “These people are very low in mentality. They don’t understand things,” a 63-year-old businessman said at a rally near Government House. He favored the suspension of elections “until the people reach my standard.”

These condescending attitudes are reflected in the mass media, where, “Isaan people are relegated to the sphere of comedy, slapstick, and farce, the traditional sphere of servants,” noted Cornell University’s Professor Benedict Anderson.

Yet these outdated, offensive views are themselves the product of ignorance among a smug and insular Bangkok middle class that is fearful for its future.

Isaan has seen impressive economic growth, and educational levels have shot up in recent years. Several studies have refuted the allegations of vote-buying that are commonly used to justify claims the government is illegitimate.

“The upcountry electorate is richer, better educated, and more experienced at elections than ever before,” said Chris Baker, a British analyst, who — with his wife — has written a biography of Thaksin.

“In truth, the problem is not that upcountry voters don’t know how to use their vote, and that the result is distorted by patronage and vote-buying,” he said. “The problem is that they have learned to use the vote only too well. Over five national polls, they have chosen very consistently and very rationally.”

Coming crisis?

The coming days and weeks are crucial to determining the future of Thailand. Suthep has vowed to “seize Bangkok,” urging his supporters to shut down the city on Jan. 13.

“Wait for our signal and bring your clothes and food with you because we’ll fight for months until we achieve victory,” he told protesters. “As for my brothers and sisters in Bangkok, we will not leave an inch of this capital city for the people of the Thaksin regime to stay in and take advantage of the people.”

He has told television stations to broadcast live announcements by the protest leaders, and threatened to cut electricity and water to government offices and the homes of ministers.

The protest leaders appear to welcome the prospect of more violence and instability, believing this would provide a pretext for the military to step in and stage a coup.

On Dec. 27, Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha refused to rule out that possibility, to the dismay of the government’s supporters. Yingluck has spent the past couple of years assiduously courting the army that overthrew her brother, but appears to have lost its confidence.

The military is a key power broker in a country that has seen 18 coups or attempted coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. But it is also divided, with many “watermelon” troops — green on the outside, red on the inside — in the ranks. Analysts say some senior commanders may also side with the government in the event of an attempted coup.

Other possibilities are that the country’s election commissioners — in charge of organizing the Feb. 2 polls — will step down, or that the courts will bring down the government in what would amount to a judicial coup. Thailand’s anti-corruption agency will soon decide whether to file charges against Pheu Thai MPs who proposed amendments to the military-approved 2007 constitution. And with protesters still blocking candidate registration in some southern provinces, it is uncertain whether a government could be formed even if the election takes places.

The government and its supporters have so far acted with commendable restraint, even allowing the protesters to occupy key buildings in a bid to avoid confrontation.

“We are in control,” government national security advisor Sean Boonpracong said on Dec. 29. “The government is functioning until there is a new government, and we are in charge of maintaining security.”

But anger is growing daily in red-shirt communities. They remember well the events of May 2010, when then-premier Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep allegedly authorized troops to use live fire to clear red-shirt protesters occupying central Bangkok. More than 80 civilians died and around 2,000 were injured in the violence that followed. Many angrily compare the actions of the army then with its conciliatory approach to the current crop of middle-class protesters.

“They are very angry,” said Jaran Ditapichai, a red shirt leader and parliamentary candidate for the Pheu Thai party. He noted that many are talking openly about the possibility of the northern and northeastern provinces seceding from Bangkok — a move he believes would be impossible.

Jaran stressed that he was hoping for a peaceful solution, and said red shirts in the provinces are rallying with the slogan “yes to the general election, no to civil war.” But in the event of a military coup, he said, the red shirts would “stand up and fight” to defend the government. Other red shirt leaders have vowed to mobilize supporters to “keep Bangkok open” during Suthep’s promised siege.

Whatever happens next, Thailand’s political turmoil looks set to continue for some time, and the elites that have wielded power for so long are unlikely to give it up without a fight.

“What we are witnessing is a desperate last-ditch battle by Thailand’s old feudal elite to hang on to their ancient power and privilege and prevent the county moving forward into the 21st century,” said MacGregor Marshall. “It is an impossible, quixotic struggle, and they are losing — hence their desperation, which makes them dangerous. The country is maturing, and the struggles we are seeing are the growing pains of an emerging democracy.”

This article has been written in a political and legal climate that has a deleterious effect on freedom of the press and obliges journalists to practice self-censorship.

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