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What is really behind the Thai political protests?

Thailand’s ruling Pheu Thai government seems to be in its death throes and is being picked at by an army of enemies. One would be forgiven for thinking that the government’s chances for survival are slim. Meanwhile, political violence is a growing threat on the streets of Bangkok, and rumors of yet another military coup abound. How has Thailand arrived at this dangerous crossroads?

Thailand’s key opposition Democrat Party first spotted an opportunity to undermine Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra after her botched attempt, in October 2013, to enact a controversial amnesty bill that would have pardoned former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, for corruption charges that were laid against him in 2008.

Yingluck shelved the bill in November, but protesters are demanding more. Under extreme pressure, Yingluck dissolved parliament, calling for snap polls to be held on Feb. 2.

Leading the protests is Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat Party parliamentarian who was deputy prime minister in the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration. Suthep is not satisfied with Yingluck’s political concessions. He has accused her government of being the source of political corruption and says it deserves to be eliminated.

Suthep wants the government to be replaced with a “people’s council.” He has hand-picked the members of this assembly, most of whom are closely allied to Thailand’s old, anti-democratic establishment. The Democrat Party supports Suthep and has stated that it will boycott the February elections. As of mid-January, Suthep and his followers had “shut down” Bangkok, an act designed to create a situation of ungovernability so as to invite military intervention.

But is the Yingluck-Thaksin regime the worst that Thailand has had? A great deal of recent research suggests that the Yingluck-Thaksin political clans have been no more corrupt than Suthep’s own party. Government corruption in Thailand seems omnipresent. Suthep, however, saw the current situation as an opportunity to legitimize the behavior and rationale of his anti-government forces.

The crisis here unveils many ugly realities in Thai politics. The Democrat Party has never been able to compete with Thaksin in the game of electoral politics. It last won a national majority in 1992, whereas Thaksin and his proxies have dominated electoral votes since 2011. Unwilling to revise its policy platform to attract a wider electorate, the Democrat Party has chosen to work with the army and to represent the conservatives as well as the royalists in Bangkok to belittle electoral democracy.

The protests have been allowed to continue because of tacit support from the old power networks in Thailand: the military, big business and many bureaucrats. While the army has not yet directly intervened, other independent institutions have tried to oust the government in their own ways: The Election Commission just announced that the planned February elections must be postponed to prevent violence. The Constitutional Court has searched for existing legal loopholes to outlaw the Yingluck government. The Human Rights Commission launched a series of attacks against Yingluck for her government’s supposed maltreatment of protesters.

The concerted efforts to overthrow the elected Yingluck government show a reverse trend in the Thai political story. In the 1990s, Bangkok residents played a significant role in promoting democracy and opposing the militarization of politics. People in rural provinces were often condemned for being easily manipulated by scrupulous politicians.

Today, Thailand is a different place. The rich and the powerful in Bangkok now call for less democracy. Rural residents, meanwhile, are fighting for more political representation through electoral politics. Their voices have been strengthened in the past decade thanks partly to Thaksin’s policy of grassroots empowerment.

Why do Bangkokians yearn for anything but democracy? This shift is deeply connected to the political crisis that has been building in Thailand since 2006. The eminent position of the monarchy has long been at the heart of Thai political life. The palace has been controlling politics with the military’s backing since the middle of the Cold War. But the magic of the Thai monarchy is diminishing due to King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s many years of self-politicization as well as his deteriorating health.

The upcoming royal succession will place the unpopular Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn on the throne. Members of the old power fear the day when Bhumibol will no longer be the force to protect their power interests. The protests in Bangkok reflect their anxiety over losing control as much as they do their antagonism vis-à-vis Thaksin, Yingluck and their supporters.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and a democracy activist in Thailand. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 17, 2014, on page 7.

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