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Thailand’s street politics turns violent yet again

In recent days, royalist demonstrators have hit the streets in Thailand, seeking to oust another elected government. Violence has again rocked the capital of Bangkok, where some 100 people have been injured…

The ongoing anti-government street protests in Thailand are aiming to regain the capacity to direct change and maintain political control. EPA/Narong Sangnak

In recent days, royalist demonstrators have hit the streets in Thailand, seeking to oust another elected government. Violence has again rocked the capital of Bangkok, where some 100 people have been injured.

Since exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra won a landslide re-election in February 2005, Thailand has seen two rounds of royalist, yellow-shirted street demonstrations, a boycotted election, a military coup, a new constitution, two elections, the judicial dissolving of several pro-Thaksin political parties, two episodes of pro-Thaksin red shirt demonstrations and six prime ministers.

Theories abound as to what has caused so much political confrontation and violence. Some say royal succession – the king turns 86 this week – drives it. Others point to intra-elite or class conflict.

These factors cannot be discounted. Yet the basis of the conflict is a fundamental political and social shift that threatens the arrangement of power that was established in the 1950s and made strong by Cold War alliances. The military, monarchy and other hierarchical institutions, allied with a rapidly developing capitalist class, were at the centre of this arrangement of power and status. While the system sagged as the Cold War ended, it was reinvigorated by sometimes bloody military interventions and a resurgent monarchy.

Authoritarian and semi-democratic regimes ensured political stability and the economy boomed. Economic growth over four decades meant subaltern demands for reform were moderated. It was the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis and the subsequent rise of Thaksin that challenged the status quo.

Thaksin came to prominence just as electoral politics was being revamped under elite guidance. His approach to politics was novel: he developed an electoral platform that appealed to voters, especially in rural areas. His first election in 2001 was a landslide. His 2005 re-election victory was even bigger and showed how popular his policies were with the electorate.

Others, however, were less enthusiastic as they saw huge political popularity and power accruing to an elected politician. Voting for a leader and party that promised and delivered was seen as a challenge to the keystones of conservative political stability and the political and economic order: the monarchy and military. The support for electoral politics was a threat to elite domination.

The street politics of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the 2006 coup were the first bids to eradicate the threat posed by Thaksin and electoral politics. However, what became clear was that old tactics of coup, intimidation and establishing a weak parliament were no longer acceptable for many Thais. This rejection is seen in the fact that every election since 2000 has produced a pro-Thaksin government.

While the leaders of today’s demonstrations are demanding an end to the so-called Thaksin regime, they are actually seeking a way to regain their capacity to direct change and maintain political control. These leaders are drawn from the Democrat Party. Formed as a royalist party, it remains the elites' preferred political party. The Democrat Party has led coalition governments in the past, but since 1975 has averaged just over 20% of the popular vote. As views have polarised in recent years, its vote has been higher, but it has never won a parliamentary majority.

The party’s repeated electoral failures have seen it taken over by a leadership that supports extreme politics. Its leaders share a hatred of Thaksin and supported PAD’s demonstrations in 2005 and 2008. Since losing the 2011 election, it has embraced disruptive actions in parliament and, increasingly, street demonstrations. Over the past few months, party boss Suthep Thaugsuban has used his organising skills to energise street protests.

More than 100 people have been injured in the latest round of protests in Thailand. EPA/Barbara Walton

Ironically, it was Suthep, as then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s minister responsible for security, who ordered the 2010 crackdown on red shirt protesters who were calling for an election. He allowed live fire zones and the use of military snipers in that violence.

As a result, Suthep’s sudden embrace of non-violence in the current round of demonstrations smacks of opportunism. However, to date it is the government that has exercised restraint in the face of considerable provocation.

Suthep’s core demand is that power be turned over to an unelected “people’s council” that will cleanse Thai politics, eradicating the Thaksin regime. Like his PAD predecessors – many now with him – he rejects representative politics. His “new politics” is vague but abounds in the rhetoric of people’s participation, anti-corruption and virtue.

Such oratory can be attractive. The elite sees a chance to re-establish its dominance. Many in the middle class, especially in Bangkok, identify the government’s policies as corrupt and consider their taxes misused. Of course, the Democrat Party also has a core of supporters, especially from Suthep’s region in the relatively well-off parts of the south.

Yet the fact remains that the majority of Thais have repeatedly rejected the Democrat Party at the polls. In its most recent period in power, the Democrat Party did a deal with the military that avoided another coup and saw the judiciary intervene to deliver government in late 2008. Over the following two-and-a-half years, the Democrat Party presided over substantial repression and censorship.

The current demonstrators can only succeed with another dose of military, judicial or palace support. If they receive it, and Suthep seizes power, the political reality will be considerably more authoritarian than his populist rhetoric suggests. A political “cleansing” and dismantling the Thaksin regime suggests a chilling despotism rather than a new politics.

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8 Comments sorted by

  1. John Cottee

    Digital Media Designer

    While this seems to be a fairly accurate analysis of the present conflict, and indeed Suthep is a worry, I think you are letting Thaksin off a bit lightly. True, he has an enormous following and was responsible for some good initiatives, but his success was helped enormously by his enormous wealth and control of most of the media while he was in power. Think Berlusconi. The street politics of the yellow shirts began because his critic Sondhi was denied a platform in main stream media and took his criticisms to public meetings out of frustration with the iron grip Thaksin had on the media. And lets face it, he was not beyond corruption and he is out of the country because he is a fugitive from justice.

    1. Michael Wilson

      English Instructor

      In reply to John Cottee

      He isn't letting Thaksin off, he is simply focusing on the Democrats and their thuggish leader, king of the palm oil scammers.

      This constant need to remind us how bad Thaksin is is little more than the centerpiece of the propaganda campaign undertaken these past 8 years to undermine democracy in Thailand.

      And, yes... Thaksin is bad. He also happens to be the people;s choice. So live with it.

    2. Kevin Hewison

      Sir Walter Murdoch Professor of Politics and International Studies and Director, Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University

      In reply to John Cottee

      Calls for "balance" in a very short article are misplaced when I have written plenty that was critical of Thaksin over a very long period of time. These articles are all readily available by simply searching for my name in Google.

    3. Michael Wilson

      English Instructor

      In reply to Kevin Hewison

      As anyone with experience of Thai political discussion on the internet knows, any article not mentioning the various evils perpetrated on the otherwise "balanced" Thai state by Thaksin will be called pro-Thaksin by those whose idea of "balanced" is somewhat skewed. Jai yen, indeed!

    4. Adrian Ashenden


      In reply to John Cottee

      We can talk about personalities until the cows come home, but the basic problem will still remain - Thailand is really 3 countries artificially welded together. The far south is fighting to be a separate islamic state, the centre/south is ethnically Tai and Chinese, the north/northeast is Lanna/Lao; historically, all these people had very little to do with each other unless fighting over land. They always had different languages and, of course, monarchs too.
      So now they're thrown together and…

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    5. Adrian Ashenden


      In reply to Michael Wilson

      Well, we surely can’t accuse you of having half-held views, can we Michael? A round table, a couple of glasses of something decent, and I'd expect an edifying and enjoyable conversation with you. A number of points firmly put, but
      overlooking the long and surprisingly acrimonious history of the various tribal peoples involved, and their predisposition to fight, is to ignore what I believe is an underlying part of the problem. So, I’m sorry if I expressed myself poorly enough to leave you with…

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    6. Michael Wilson

      English Instructor

      In reply to Adrian Ashenden

      Ah... the old "30 years... 30 years" gambit, never heard that one before.

      Adrian, regardless of how long you have been upcountry with a glass of something decent, you did say:

      "Looking a little further back (and this is hinted at in Matthew's piece) brings us to what I believe underpins the whole messy business - ethnicity."

      I disagreed.

      The southern folk who provide the main body of the Democrat vote and many of their protest bodies are not the Malay Muslims. No one denies the existence…

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