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In Bangkok, the political temperature is rising

City braces as a major confrontation looms

  • Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok
  • Thailand
  • January 6, 2014
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Bangkok is bubbling. Will it blow? It’s looking increasingly possible.

Outbreaks of protest and disturbances have plagued Bangkok for months. Most observers have admitted uncertainty over their outcome. But now there is a date with fate.

The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the main group behind the demonstrations and its leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, have set January 13 as the day to shut down Bangkok, in a major bid to force caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and to prevent a planned general election in February.

As expressed in the Thai Constitution, when an election is called, it is the king who allows parliament to be dissolved and issues a decree for the new election.

So, legally, it is the king’s will that an election take place, but that is just what the protesters want to thwart. Such an abandonment of loyalty to the king is an unprecedented development in Thailand, though the protesters claim to be more loyal to the king than the government is.

They have set deadlines and given ultimatums many times before. But this time they appear determined to bring the capital to a grinding halt. There is talk of clogging the city with trucks and busses rammed into each other to prevent movement. What follows from that may well be chaos and violence.

The police and the army were notably absent from demonstrations in November and December, allowing crowds of up to 150,000 to gather, blow their whistles unsupervised and even at times enter government buildings. However, in the last two weeks, military leaders have become more outspoken, signaling their concerns over the widening split in Thai society and what their role could be in trying to keep the peace.

Recurrent issues keep the crisis alive. The protesters mostly reflect the view of Bangkok's middle class and elite – the political old guard, who claim to be most loyal to the king. Their party of choice, the main opposition Democrat Party, has not won an election since 1992.

The parties headed by Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister deposed in 2006, and his sister Yingluck have won the last five elections. But the Bangkok elite claim that the present government is illegitimate. It is indeed an open secret that Thaksin runs it by remote control from his self-imposed exile in Dubai.

Thaksin is loathed by the Bangkok elite who see him as a grubby and corrupt ex-policeman whose political power was bought with bribes from his immense wealth; wealth which increased substantially while he was in power.

Perhaps the last straw came late last year when Yingluck tried to force a bill through parliament, which would have given him an amnesty to return to Thailand and reclaim his confiscated assets. That was what brought the protesters out in massive numbers.

This forced Yingluck to dissolve parliament and call a February election. But there is every chance that her Pheu Thai Party would win it. In fact the last time the Democrat opposition held power, from 2008 – 2011, it was not voted in. The country's courts expelled Thaksin and his government from parliament and the Democrats formed a government without having to go to the polls.

Not wanting another Pheu Thai victory, Suthep and the protesters have proposed the installation of a sort of aristocratic government of the good and the worthy to make sweeping political reforms before another election can take place. How it is to be selected, by whom and for how long is not clear.

Meanhile, Bangkok is a booming city with a strengthening stock market and some robust industrial output. Rural Thailand too has seen an increase in prosperity, educational opportunities, health services, industries and benefits from tourism.

More than 80% of the Thai population lives in rural areas and it is there, especially in the north of the country – the Democrats' rural power base being in the south -- that the power of the Shinawatra family and their political allies has been overwhelming.

For example, rice, the country’s staple food and one of its leading exports, is bought by the government from the farmers at a guaranteed fixed price, irrespective of the international price it can be sold at. The policy has been condemned as dangerous and unworkable by bodies such as the IMF. But happy farmers are always going to vote for governments like Thaksin’s and his sister’s that bring rewards and subsidies like this.

One possibility in the current crisis – much precedented in Thai politics – is military intervention to remove the caretaker government. That may well occur in the next 10 days.

If that sort of chaos doesn’t happen, another probably will. The disturbances and protests sponsored by the Bangkok elite will continue until Thaksin and his family are driven out.

Either way, in spite of this being the cool season in Thailand, it will be a hot time in Bangkok for a while yet.

Fr Michael Kelly is the executive director of ucanews.com

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