The Bigger Picture in Thailand's Protests

7 MINS READDec 3, 2013 | 10:15 GMT
The Bigger Picture in Thailand's Protests
(LAM YIK FE/Getty Images)
Anti-government protesters remove a barricade in Bangkok on Dec. 2.

The rapid escalation of anti-government protests in Thailand is a reminder of the many fault lines beneath the country's deeply polarized political landscape. Even if the unrest manages to unseat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's popular government, the same political and economic problems that have repeatedly troubled the country could return under the next government. At a time when Thailand is attempting to change its regional role, its fragile political situation continues to threaten its relevance in the increasingly important region of Southeast Asia.

The massive, weekslong protests in Thailand quickly descended from relatively peaceful to violent over the weekend. After protesters had occupied several state ministries and key business districts for four days, violence erupted in the suburbs of Bangkok on the evening of Nov. 30 between protesters and the Red Shirts — supporters of the prime minister and her brother, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — who had mobilized outside of Bangkok to protect the government. Fighting intensified after anti-government protesters damaged vehicles believed to contain the Red Shirts as they streamed into Bangkok.

Later that night there was more bloodshed in the Ramkhamhaeng area when gunfire from an unknown gunman incited clashes between some 70,000 Red Shirts who were holding a pro-government rally inside Rajamangala Stadium and Ramkhamhaeng University students who had gathered nearby in opposition to the government. Four people were killed and at least 57 were injured in the fighting.

Violence continued Dec. 1 despite the withdrawal of the Red Shirt protesters. Some 30,000 anti-government protesters remained in the streets, forcing their way into more government buildings, including TV stations, the prime minister's office and the police headquarters. Termed a "people's coup," the movement fell short of its objective after police stepped up their efforts, using tear gas and water cannons, leaving dozens more injured, and imposing a seven-hour curfew throughout the capital city and outlying regions. The protesters vowed to continue their march into the metropolitan police bureau on Dec. 3.

Smaller numbers of anti-government protesters similarly tried to besiege the provincial halls in other provinces. Notably, the protests have shown signs of spreading into a few southern provinces that are traditional opposition strongholds, including Krabi, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Chumphon and Yala. They have also spread into other provinces that generally support the Pheu Thai party, including Samut Prakan and the northernmost Chiang Rai.

The strengthening momentum of the protests convinced protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a resigned lawmaker from the Democrat Party, to issue a two-day ultimatum (set to expire late Dec. 3) for Yingluck to resign. But instead of demanding the dissolution of parliament or early elections in which the ruling Pheu Thai party's popularity could work against the opposition, Suthep called for the creation of an unelected People's Council. So far, Yingluck has been defiant, but Suthep's campaign also created uneasiness among many, including the opposition camp. However, the escalating pressure combined with the strengthening street protests could mean that a new political crisis, which has from time to time resulted in military coups, may not be far off.

The Root of the Protests

The foundation for the ongoing protests was laid after the Pheu Thai party's repeated attempts to push forward several constitutional amendments, including the recent one that would make the Senate a fully elected body in order to push forward Pheu Thai's political agenda and a controversial amnesty bill. A key component of the government's proposal for what it claimed to be a national reconciliation, the amnesty bill is widely said to be an effort to bring Thaksin back into the country from exile and to strengthen Pheu Thai's hold on power. Thousands of protesters took to the streets when the bill passed the lower house in late October, leading the ruling party to withdraw the bill. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court rejected the constitutional amendment in mid-November.

Instead of quelling what were relatively limited protests, the opposition decided to capitalize on the reaction against the government and fomented massive demonstrations. The focus of the protests shifted from blocking the bills to ending "Thaksin's regime."

Although the protests have momentum, the opposition's immediate goal of bringing down the government will face two major challenges in the next couple of days. First, it is important for the opposition to bring the military on board if it is to oust the sitting government. Protests and violence have been a centerpiece of the country's political dynamic since the 2006 coup against the Thaksin-led government, and the judiciary, military and monarchy have repeatedly intervened. An open military intervention would be the last resort if violence reaches an extreme, particularly considering the ruling party's widespread popularity and moderate progress in a rapprochement with the royalist-allied military. Despite its past interventions, the military may be more willing to tolerate a range of political reversals without directly jeopardizing its own power and prestige.

In the meantime, the opposition's second challenge will be trying to keep the protests strong. The king's birthday weekend from Dec. 5 to Dec. 8 — traditionally a time for celebration and a time when political moves are seen as disrespectful — is expected to dampen the enthusiasm for protests.  

Even before the current crisis, Thai politics have been deeply polarized. The geographic, social and economic problems that have repeatedly brought the country to an impasse have not gone away, and the issue of royal succession always simmers beneath the surface.

What formed the backbone of Thailand's contemporary political history — the antagonistic regional divisions between Bangkok and the northern regions — was manifested by the rise of the populist Thaksin in the late 1990s. Thaksin's massive popularity among the rural poor — especially those in the north and northeast, which together make up more than half the country's population — and his attempts to manipulate political institutions in his favor were seen as a direct threat to the traditional political establishment in Bangkok, whose power rests on the military, civil bureaucracy and the royal families.

Thai politics since the 2006 coup have repeatedly been consumed by the struggles between Thaksin's proxy parties and anti-Thaksin forces. These struggles have directly led to several rounds of political crisis and the end of three successive governments. The popularity of Thaksin's sister, Yingluck, and her campaign for national reconciliation had brought relative stability to the country for the past two years. However, facing the threat of lost influence, the traditional establishment has not wasted time in bringing pressure against Yingluck's government.

Beneath the political roots, there has been a growing economic challenge during Yingluck's two years in office. Thailand has made remarkable progress with sustained economic development, but economic growth and public services have been largely concentrated in the central region and Bangkok, while the vast majority of the population working in agriculture and informal sectors has little access to social welfare. Such inequality has exacerbated social tensions and increased the public demand for inefficient populist policies. 

Moreover, with Thailand's exports, which accounted for 60 percent of the country's economy, faltering amid the global recession and China's slower growth, the need to harness the rural population grew. Lower exports also were an opportunity for the opposition to point to Yingluck's many inefficient populist policies and her controversial political agenda. Falling exports have strained the state budget, which was already beset by a failing rice subsidy and massive infrastructure investment. Now the country is facing a growing credit bubble and long-lasting economic slowdown, which will only worsen with the political crisis.

Struggling for Relevance

As an important security ally of the United States, Thailand was likely to play a major leadership role in the region at a time of renewed U.S. engagement in Asia. However, Bangkok's political uncertainties and concerns about the civilian-military balance appear to have hampered the U.S.-Thai relationship and have forced Washington to look for other partners, such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore, and to develop better relations with less traditional partners such as Vietnam.

With the United States now placing less emphasis on its relationship with Thailand, the country is accelerating its pursuit of more vibrant ties with China, which perceives Bangkok as a strategic pillar in its expanded outreach in Southeast Asia and as a potential corridor as it builds up its maritime sphere. Under Yingluck's government, China has discussed building a high-speed rail line from Bangkok to Nong Khai as well as various investment pacts. But the latest disruption also reminded Beijing that its strategy could again be threatened if the current government cannot retain power.

While all this is going on, Thailand is faced with the strategic opening of Myanmar, Thailand's historical rival to the west, and growing competition with Cambodia in the east. With the rest of the region prepared to capture the benefits of its newfound significance, Thailand may find itself being left behind.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this analysis misstated the importance of the constitutional amendment regarding the senate and the magnitude of military interventions since 2006.

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