Thailand: Reformers Demand A Brief Dictatorship

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December 20, 2013: The royalist and nationalist politicians and parties (yellow shirts) that lost the national elections in 2011 have spent December on the streets trying to overthrow the government by force. A year ago 12,000 royalist (“yellow shirt”) demonstrators assembled in the capital, but were confronted by 17,000 police. The demonstration was considered a failure. Since November 24 th the yellow shirts have been on the streets in large number again, assembling about up to 160,000 people in the capital. But after all that only a few thousand yellow shirt demonstrators are left and the protest leaders are trying to get more people to come out and continue the unrest.

While some yellow shirt politicians still believe military takeovers are still a viable option, most do not. The 2011 elections had done more than just remove yet another military government. Those elections made it clear that the trend was clearly against such takeovers. There have been ten such military governments in the last four decades and 18 coups or attempts since 1932. Most Thais are tired of it. Trimming the power and influence of the military has not been easy, and despite the possibility of triggering yet another military takeover “for the good of the country” the military has concluded that they have been losing a lot of the power and popular respect it long enjoyed. Most Thais want the military out of politics for good. This time around the military has refused to take sides and has largely remained neutral. This was mainly because the generals have realized that many of their troops are hostile to the anti-democratic yellow shirts and more military intervention might tear the military apart.  

The government relied on police, persuasion and new elections to deal with the unrest. This may not be sufficient as the royalists demand at least a year of dictatorship to deal with the corruption they see as the heart of the problem. The yellow shirt alliance has always contained a lot of reformers, who have concluded that democracy cannot cure corruption in Thailand and only the yellow shirt coalition of royalists, nationalists and reformers is capable of getting it done, despite the fact that this coalition does not have the votes to gain control of the government. Without the assistance of the military the yellow shirts seem headed for failure again. The use of large demonstrations to disrupt the government and the economy cannot go on indefinitely without violent resistance from the many people impoverished and displaced by these tactics.

This is a revival of a dispute that appeared to end in 2011 after a low-level civil war (90 dead and 2,000 wounded) that has been going on since 2005. The yellow shirts acknowledged that the majority of Thais did not support them and agreed to abide by the results of the July, 2011 election that put a red shirt party into power. The yellow shirts had gained power via a coup in 2006, and held onto it using tainted elections.

The yellow shirts are also on a mission to capture one man they consider most responsible for the debasement of Thai politics and the decline of royalist and military power. For years the yellow shirts have tried to capture and prosecute the populist (red shirt) leader, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The yellow shirts believed that the capture, trial and imprisonment of Shinawatra might break the will of the populists, or convince Shinawatra to switch sides. Then things got worse. In November the prime minister proposed an amnesty law for the many people on both sides who are vulnerable to prosecution for acts committed during the 2005-2011 unrest. The yellow shirts were enraged because they believed this was simply a ploy to gain amnesty for former Thaksin Shinawatra, who could then return to political power in Thailand.

Thaksin Shinawatra has been in exile since 2008. In 2010 the courts moved to seize half of Shinawatra's fortune ($1.4 billion) as a fine for being corrupt. This was an unpopular move, since nearly all Thai politicians are corrupt and people wondered who was going to get the $1.4 billion. The red shirts threatened violence over the seizure, although Shinawatra, from exile in Dubai, urged calm and only non-violent demonstrations. Many yellow shirts believed that Shinawatra was financing the populist violence with this money. The yellow shirts have contempt for the poor and less educated red shirts, and this is returned with resentment and growing anger towards the wealthier and better educated urban population that opposes majority rule. This anger was not diminished by the military government use of force against those demonstrating for fair elections and a restoration of democracy before 2011. Such class warfare is nothing new. There were similar outbreaks in the 1970s and 1990s. But the current one is more widespread and having more of a negative impact on the economy.

There was another yellow shirt demonstration in the capital today, which only attracted about 2,000 people. Yellow shirts are demanding that the February elections (which they believe they will lose) be cancelled but the government sees the vote as the best way to shut down the yellow shirts and insists on holding the elections.

The return of large scale political protests this year could reduce annual tourist income by up to 20 percent. Some countries are already warning their citizens to stay away from Thailand. The tourism industry accounts for five percent of Thai GDP, employing two million people, or seven percent of the workforce.

While political violence in the capital and some other cities was way up in the last two months of 2013, the violence was way down in the Moslem south. There were 160 days with no Islamic terrorist violence at all. The growing effectiveness of the security forces has made it more difficult for the terrorists to carry out bombing attacks or go after teachers and civil servants. Most of the casualties are now soldiers and police followed by Moslem civilians who are being terrorized to halt cooperation with the police. Peace talks with the southern separatists have been stalled since August, in large part because of disagreements between those in the south who will accept more autonomy and the more radical groups who hold out for independence. The unrest in the capital means the talks won’t be resumed until that crises is resolved.

December 17, 2013: The government extended the emergency law for the southern three provinces three more months (December 20th to March 19th.) First declared in 2005, the emergency rule makes it easier to search for and arrest terrorism suspects. It is unpopular, and the government keeps saying that the rules will be lifted "soon." The security forces want the rules to stay until the Islamic terrorism is gone.

December 14, 2013: The army repeated its refusal to take sides in the current yellow shirt uprising and demand for minority rule. The yellow shirts have been applying more and more pressure on the generals to change their minds but the generals don’t want any part of another coup or a civil war.

December 12, 2013: Yellow shirts cut power and water to key government buildings and again demanded that the army intervene. Power and water were restored and the army remained neutral.

December 10, 2013: The prime minister responded to yellow shirt demands that she resign and insisted that the elections would happen despite yellow shirt violence.

December 9, 2013: Yellow shirts gathered over 150,000 demonstrators in front of the prime minister’s office in an effort to intimidate the prime minister into resigning or reversing her decision to call for new elections on February 2nd. The prime minister refused to back down.

December 3, 2013: In the capital the yellow shirt demonstrations abruptly halted in order to observe the king’s birthday. The 86 year old monarch is revered by nearly all Thais but his calls for a peaceful resolution of the current unrest has largely been ignored by the yellow shirts.

In the south five civilians were shot dead in two separate terrorist incidents.

December 1, 2013: A seven hour curfew was declared in the capital.

November 30, 2013: The demonstrations in the capital turned violence, but the police managed to prevent the situation from escalating into chaos. This despite the yellow shirt tactic of swarming into government and military compounds. The troops ejected the demonstrators from their compounds while police managed to do the same in other government compounds.

 

 

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