In The News

The Bangkok Shutdown and Thailand’s Battle for Democracy

January 15, 2014

As anti-government protests shut down Thailand’s capital this week, In Asia editor Alma Freeman spoke with The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand and Bangkok resident, Kim McQuay, about the situation on the ground.

The anti-government demonstrations and pro-government assemblies staged in November and December 2013 ended quietly and relatively peacefully. Why are the demonstrators back on the streets again this week and how is the situation different this time?

The anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban ratcheted up its protest strategy with the launch of a “Bangkok Shutdown” campaign on January 13. This latest protest initiative has struck a different course from the November-December demonstrations. Fueled by outrage with the Pheu Thai government’s controversial amnesty bill and its stealth effort to change the composition of the Senate as prescribed in the Constitution, the earlier protests set symbolic objectives that included occupying the Government House and various ministries and public agencies. When the government surprised PDRC by stepping out of the way of demonstrators and allowing them to occupy their targets, the PDRC temporarily lost momentum. With the Bangkok shutdown movement, it has reverted to the tried-and-tested vexation strategy of occupying key intersections and disrupting traffic. The shutdown aims to embarrass the government and to press for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and abandon the election scheduled for February 2. Mr. Suthep has declared that the shutdown will continue until the prime minister steps down, while Ms. Yingluck has declared that she will serve out her term and that the election will proceed as scheduled. In earlier street protests of this kind, demonstrators showed remarkable stamina and patience in occupying neighborhoods, blocking traffic, and disrupting commerce for weeks at a time. Three days into the shutdown campaign, protest leaders have made some sinister physical threats against senior government officials and their families that are starkly at odds with a protest movement that claims to be peaceful and broadly supported.

What is the mood like at the demonstration sites?

Bangkok Shutdown

Demonstrators at a protest site in central Bangkok. Photo/Arpaporn Winijkulchai

In the inimitable Thai style, PDRC demonstrators have created a festive atmosphere in erecting traffic barriers, stages, loudspeakers, and vast tented camps at seven key intersections around Bangkok. Each protest site has canteens that turn out thousands of meals a day, while some have emergency medical facilities. A core group of hardened demonstrators maintains the barriers and the overnight shifts, while crowds of smart-dressed executives, office workers, and shopkeepers join the demonstrations at midday and after work, snapping photographs on their smart phones. Shrill whistles remain the ear-splitting mode of anti-government expression, with their piercing sound carrying for hundreds of meters through the canyons of downtown Bangkok.

Many international observers are baffled by the fact that opponents of a government elected by a sweeping majority of Thai voters are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. What distinguishes democracy in Thailand?

The short and blunt answer is that Thai democracy has been remarkably flexible in accommodating principles and practices that are decidedly out of synch with convention. The longer and more nuanced answer grapples to account for the history and context of Thai politics.

The present political tensions are the latest flashpoint in a bitter political contest waged between rival political elites for more than a decade, with democracy, good governance, and economic growth potential effectively held hostage to the tensions. The contest pits an entrenched elite establishment whose traditional political influence and authority were shaken over a decade ago by a new political elite led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr. Thaksin’s campaign rhetoric and populist policies appealed to a population of rural farmers, urban wage earners, and elements of the Bangkok middle class whose members were previously accorded little voice or influence in Thai politics. Many of those who viscerally detest Mr. Thaksin, his family dynasty, and the Pheu Thai-led government were heavily invested in an earlier reform process that yielded the milestone 1997 Constitution and established systems of institutional checks and balances that were consistent with the realities of contemporary Thailand and the failure of traditional institutions of governance to keep pace with transformative social change. Mr. Thaksin’s opponents point to the methodical efforts of his corruption-plagued administration to undo the constitutional safeguards and marginalize the agencies created to check political excess and advance governance standards during the tenure of an elected government, but have themselves missed few opportunities to place members of their own political class in key constitutional posts. In contrast to this opposition perspective, the Pheu Thai party holds an alternative and equally viable view of democracy rooted in the sanctity of the ballot and the popular mandate reflected in its five electoral victories, several of which were denied by authoritarian interventions and remarkable legal maneuverings.

The battleground of Thai politics admits both versions of democracy, with political tensions exacerbated by the absence of reform measures that could effectively accommodate, check, and contain the competing views. One side claims a moral stewardship authority that transcends elections that it cannot win at the polls, asserting its right with little inclination to engage, comprehend, or earn the confidence and trust of the rural and wage-earning population in its entirety, or to assume a good faith opposition role. The other side claims a succession of electoral mandates, with little inclination to abandon its winner-take-all approach, to conduct law and policy making and other affairs of state more transparently, to pursue necessary reforms, or to respect and maintain legal and institutional checks and balances.

Why are this week’s political demonstrations dominated by the anti-government PDRC and where are the pro-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) “Red-Shirt” protesters?

To their credit, the Red Shirts have so far stuck with the strategy set during the November and December political tensions, avoiding Bangkok and averting the risk of violence if the two sides were to meet in the streets. The Red Shirts have convened counter-demonstration rallies in their traditional regional strongholds of the North and Northeast, calling on their members to retire their signature color and to don white shirts as a gesture of resistance to military intervention of the kind seen in earlier street conflicts. Red-Shirt leaders have also hinted in recent days that they will take necessary action to resist or respond to a coup. With the tragic final days of the May 2010 political crisis in Bangkok looming large in memory, one hopes that the Red Shirt and PDRC demonstrators will maintain their physical separation.

What are the prospects of a peaceful political resolution and reform agenda being reached?

While many observers and stakeholders – including respected senior public officials and representatives of the business community – have urged political actors to pursue a compromise solution that would end the Bangkok shutdown and define a practical reform agenda to which all political sides would ideally commit as a prelude to a fully contested election, the two sides appear to be poles apart at this juncture. At several points in recent weeks, the respective political factions have missed opportunities to claim moral victory with their symbolic goals achieved and step down from the protest stage; to take their knocks for badly calculated legislative follies; to embrace reform options that would little compromise their political futures; or to forge unprecedented political alliances. With these earlier opportunities lost and the lines of political division drawn more sharply by the day, the prospect of a compromise arrangement that would defuse tensions and set Thailand on course to democratic reform and a fully contested election seems remote at best, yet hope persists.

Thailand has experienced a number of coups d’états in recent decades. Are the present political demonstrations likely to end with military intervention?

There is considerable speculation on the possibility of a military intervention similar to those taken in previous political crises, with observers hinting at a variety of potential scenarios. Among the most sinister possibilities, some believe that the PDRC demonstrators are determined to provoke security personnel to respond with lethal force, triggering a domino spread of violence and a rapid military response to contain it. Others suggest that the government, feeling its back against the wall, could negotiate a pre-emptive military intervention that would leave it with greater influence over a reform agenda that it could hope for in a non-negotiated coup. Another view holds that the senior military leadership, conscious of the divided political loyalties that are rumored to exist within the armed forces, and the prospect of a Red-Shirt response to a military intervention that removed the Pheu Thai government from power, is inclined to stick with the mediation role that has earned it respect and avoid the liabilities of intervention. While no one wants another tragedy of violence in the streets of Bangkok, military intervention would arguably set the country back a decade, placing a temporary brake on the tough but inevitable course of political change, compromise, and reform that Thailand is bound to travel – including the right and obligation of the voting public at large to scrutinize politics and contesting political actors and make independent choices through the ballot on what it is prepared to bless, tolerate, or condemn.

2 comments on this post:

  1. Rabbi Dr. Kesselman:

    Response to Kim McQuay’s article (continued)

    The political effect of the rice subsidy program was immediate; all the rural poor farming communities of the North and North-West districts of Thailand voted for the Red Shirt government (for simplicity the actual political party names are omitted)..The Yellow Shirts (mostly the economically better-off Thais), can not possibly win a democratic election, especially after this disruption of life here. They can only hope that their disruptions will not be broken-up by the police force (notoriously corrupt), and they hope that eventually they can cause the Thai military to repeat its takeover of 2006. The Thai military has internal dissensions on this conflict at all levels and therefore we have the present stalemate.

    There are parallels to this conflict in many places globally, perhaps in the USA as well. The real underlying issue is that power over everyone is increasingly held in the hands of fewer people, and progressively less by the public in what are supposed to be democracies. Modern technology is two-edged in this; it makes individual people less able to resist any abuses by centralized power bases (governmental or corporate), but much of what’s going on to get out instantly on the internet. When government no longer needs to care what informed people think, democracy is over.

    The USA explanation would require me to write a book.

  2. Kim Mcquay’s article is well written and explains some of the short-term government control problems here in Thailand. It does not, however, go thoroughly enough or far enough into the larger picture.

    Most of us here agree with the Red Shirt (pro-government) position that elections must be free and honored by all parties and the disruption of traffic and public offices is bad for everyone. The problem with this simplistic approach is that the present government has used its power to remove all checks and balances by appealing to the very large portion of the Thai public which is very poor and will vote for anyone who gives them something, without regard to the effect it may have on Thailand as a whole. In some ways the lessons of this conflict may give insights into the political debates in the USA, my home country.

    The anti-government movement claims, with good evidence, that this government is bankrupting the nation’s treasury with irresponsible hand-outs to their political constituency. Simply stated, they are using public money to buy votes for themselves. This government’s rice subsidy program is the largest and easiest to understand example. They passed legislation requiring the government to buy millions of tones (tons) of rice at 40% above market value. They then tried to conceal this financial “raid” by not selling the rice to avoid having the government’s books reveal the true cost of this allegedly corrupt, irresponsible and self-serving program. (continued)

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