“The U.S. Government is concerned about the rising political tension in Thailand and is following the ongoing demonstrations in Bangkok closely,” read an alert issued Monday by the United States embassy in Thailand. “We urge all sides to refrain from violence, exercise restraint, and respect the rule of law. Violence and the seizure of public or private property are not acceptable means of resolving political differences.” More than a dozen countries have issued similar travel warnings for citizens to avoid certain neighborhoods in the capital city of Bangkok where protests are underway.
After three long weeks of protests, anti-government demonstrations — led by the opposition Democrat Party — hit a new level of intensity on Sunday as more than tens of thousands people took to the streets in Bangkok, brandishing portraits of the country’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, and chanting “Get out.” Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister under the previous Democrat-led government, explained to those assembled a course of action. “We will separate into 13 groups to march to 13 locations to express our stance,” he said, according to CNN. “Our protest will not stop until Thaksin’s regime is wiped out.” Their particular demand is for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign because her government is believed to be controlled by the deposed leader, Thaksin Shinawatra.
In addition, an estimated 40,000 pro-government “red shirts,” many of whom live in rural areas outside of Bangkok, gathered on Sunday as well, to show support for Yingluck Shinawatra, who came to power in 2011.
Reports and media coverage of the anti-government demonstrations are sprinkled with references to anti-government demonstrators, yellow shirts, pro-government demonstrators, red shirts, and supporters and opponents of Thaksin Shinawatra. But unless you have been following the demonstrations as they have unfolded, the events that pulled the nation into a political crisis may seem difficult to draw together in a understandable chronology. Here’s is a look at the series of elections, political misdeeds, and protests that set the stage for what was one of Thailand’s largest demonstrations in years.
Who Is Thaksin Shinawatra?
Thaksin, who was a business tycoon and multibillionaire before becoming a politician, founded the populist Thai Rak Thai party in 1998. After becoming prime minister in 2001, he became hugely popular, especially in the north and northeast of the country after enfranchising the rural poor and offering universal health care and micro-loans to villagers. On the back of this massive popularity, he won a second term in 2005 by a landslide; that election saw the highest voter turnout in Thai history. However, a year later, he was removed from power in a bloodless coup orchestrated by the military, which argued he was corrupt. In particular, the country’s Assets Examination Committee argued that he had accumulated “unusual wealth” while in power. However, as the Guardian reported in February 2010, it is likely the military was also increasingly fearful of his growing popularity and power.
In 2008, Thaksin was convicted of a conflict of interest regarding a land deal involving his wife, and he was sentenced in absentia to two years in jail. To avoid serving prison time, Thaksin fled. Now he lives in exile, but critics of — Yingluck Shinawatra — claim she is a puppet of her older brother. According to the Economist, Thaksin “runs the country by videoconference from Dubai.” Naturally, he has remained a deeply polarizing figure since his removal from power.
Why Did Protests Follow the 2006 Coup?
Thai politics devolved into street warfare between 2006 and 2010, and the simple explanation for that discord is the unbridgeable divide between the rural power, who account for a large majority of the country’s voter base, and the elite. Thailand’s voters continued to elect government leaders loyal to Thaksin even after he was deposed, and the Bangkok elite — which includes the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the army, and the royal family and court — found that pattern unacceptable. Even after he was edged out by the military, the Thai electorate voted in a government led by his proxies. After that 2007 election, the opposition managed to find a legal means of installing a government led by the established Democrat Party. But, once again, in 2011, voters elected a Thaksin associate — his sister, Yingluck.
The violence that followed the 2006 culminated in a crackdown against Thaksin supporers by the army in 2010 that left more than 90 dead. Those Thaksin supporters are known as red shirts, while those that support the establishment wore yellow shirts during the protest as yellow is the royal color.
What Set Off the Latest Round of Violence?
A truce followed the 2010 crackdown and “Yingluck trod carefully, making friends with the army and doing nothing to threaten entrenched interests — even enforcing Thailand’s scandalously strict lèse-majesté laws as fiercely as ever,” according to the Economist. But Yingluck did pursue a very populist agenda during her two and a half years in power, and those policies have cost the country a significant sum. As the New York Times reported, the government has had trouble finding enough buyers for the 75 billion baht, or $2.3 billion, in bonds it wanted to sell to finance a program that pays farmers an above-market price for rice.
Perhaps thinking the trust of the elite had been won, Yingluck’s government pushed an amnesty bill through the lower house of parliament. If implemented, the bill would have put to rest thousands of corruption cases as well as exculpated the army from its involvement in the 2010 crackdown and extended a pardon to Thaksin Shinawatra. The current round of protests were sparked by that government-backed amnesty bill. The Thai senate eventually rejected the legislation on November 11, but since the demonstrations have only gained momentum. Suthep has called for the current government to be replaced by a new administration.
In response, Yingluck has called for reconciliation and respect for the law. “The government has instructed police and all security officers to handle the situation gently, based on international practices, so the demonstration won’t be used as a tool by people who want to make changes in a non-democratic way,” she said in a statement posted to her official Facebook page on Saturday.
On Monday, anti-government protesters raided Thailand’s Finance Ministry and entered the grounds of the Foreign Ministry, while Yingluck expanded the application of a security law to cover all of the capital city and some of its surrounding areas. That move gave her the power to “prevent, suppress, eradicate, and overcome” threats to national security. “It is necessary for the government to enforce the law,” she said on national television, as the Times reported. “But I would like to insist that the government will strictly not use any violence against people.”
What Is Next?
Yingluck promised not to push the amnesty bill through if defeated in the Senate, nearly half of whose member are appointed rather than elected, and all 141 senators voted against the measure on November 11. But, according to the Economist, the Democrats have used the fact the amnesty bill is not officially dead as a reason to keep protests going.
But even the pro-Thaksin “red shirts” have reasons to be displeased with Yingluck’s government, although she is likely to win another election. First, her decision to push for a reconciliation that would bring Thaksin back from exit would have him returning home “over dead bodies,” as Kyoto University’s Pavin Chachavalpongpun told the publication. Second, Yingluck had failed to amend the constitution or the lèse-majesté law, and she had been unable to bring those responsible for the 2010 killings to justice.
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