Making Sense Of Protests In Thailand: Monarchy Vs. Neo-Liberal Democracy?

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Above: Protesters demonstrate outside the national police headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, November 28, 2013. Press TV

“The current conflicts are not between the right and the left but instead are between a broad spectrum of conservatives…”

We have found it difficult to make sense of the political conflict in Thailand as the reporting has been sparse and unclear. Below are two articles that help understand what is occurring.  The article in ROAR describes the conflict as a group akin to the Tea Party/Guy Fawkes seeking to oust the current government and the return to a completely religious and monarchical rule and are very close to the military. The current protests are led by a former elected official of the opposition party, Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy premier.

The second article from Associated Press puts the conflict in context to a rich-poor divide, with the incumbent party having a lot of support from poor Thais.  The current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, she is the sister of an ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who has not set foot in Thailand since 2008 when the billionaire fled to Dubai. Thaksin was later convicted on charges of corruption and criticism of the royal family.  His party is the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais, TRT) was ousted in 2006. They oppose monarchy and military (Thailand has had repeated military coups) intervening in government and favor a pro-business economic policy. His sister was elected by a landslide on 2011.  Today, Yingluck remains in power, implementing pro-business reforms while dealing with a political culture which remains heavily influenced by the military, the aristocracy, and above all, the monarchy. An amnesty proposal set forth Yingluck set off protests against the government.

The ROAR article concludes, “The current conflicts are not between the right and the left but instead are between a broad spectrum of conservatives who have become tools in the hands of those fighting for authoritarian rule. Sadly, regardless of how many innocent people are killed in the coming weeks, months, and years, Thailand will remain an undemocratic country lacking social justice until it allows people to openly criticize its powerful institutions — government, military and monarchy.”

KZ

Thailand’s royalist protesters rise up against democracy

By Anonymous
ROAR, December 4, 2013

The ongoing protests in Thailand are only the latest in a long line of uprisings that have invariably kept the various factions of the right in power.

This article was submitted by an anonymous contributor.

Thailand, Monk puts on gogglesDespite being one of the most historically significant sites of Thailand’s modern history, the large congregation of yellow and white buildings along the Chao Praya River in Bangkok which make up the Thammasat University would not strike the casual observer as anything particularly interesting. Nonetheless, the events which transpired here between 1973 and 1976 not only led to the creation of Thailand’s current pseudo-parliamentary democracy, but also give testimony to how those in power have used violence and intimidation as a means of keeping the country socially and politically conservative.

Between 1968 and 1973, hundreds of thousands of students, supported by workers, businesspeople and many ordinary citizens, took part in protests against the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn. On October 14, 1973, police opened fire on a large student demonstration. As the military sent troops, tanks and helicopters to Thammasat University, students reportedly commandeered buses and fire trucks in order to use them as battering rams against the tanks. Students fleeing the university campus were shot by military troops while students who remained inside were fired upon by helicopters. It was this atrocity and the following popular outrage which led King Bhumibol to oust the dictator Thanom and replace him with Sanya Dharmasakti, the head chancellor of Thammasat University, as the new Prime Minister of the country.

Under this new government, the political scene remained unstable, as the installment of communist regimes in neighboring Vietnam and Laos — in addition to large general strikes at home — fed fears of the ruling elite that left-wing activists were setting the stage for a communist takeover. These fears were exacerbated by the conservative media controlled by elements within the military. In response, the military started to train tens of thousands of right-wing militias in advanced military drills and combat skills. Subsequently, the royal family invited the former dictator Thanom back from his exile in Singapore, in preparation for a military coup against the government which they saw as being too weak on leftist agitators.Thailand student massacre

Student Massacre

On October 5, 1976, students and trade unionists occupied Thammasat University to protest against Thanom’s return to the country. The conservative media at the time falsely claimed that the protesters had hanged an effigy of the royal prince, sparking outrage amongst the militias which enjoyed the backing of the royalty. Early the next morning, onOctober 6, the university was surrounded by thousands of military, police, and militia members. The gates to the occupied university were broken down and the ensuing massacre which followed has been described as a “wild outbreak of kicking, clubbing, shooting, and lynching.” Students were hung, tortured and raped, bodies were burned, and those who jumped into the river, trying to escape, were shot by naval vassals. Following the three-hour long carnage, where over a hundred students were reportedly killed, the military ousted the government to ‘protect the monarchy’, effectively putting the country under martial law.

Military forces harass students outside of Thammasat University, 1976

Military forces harass students outside of Thammasat University, 1976

The aftermath of the massacre forced leftist activists underground as the new royally appointed reactionary Prime Minister Tanin Kraivichien rounded up thousands of suspected leftists, censored the media and made joining a communist organization punishable by death. Even today, decades after the transition to a pseudo-parliamentary democracy, the government still imprisons those who criticize the country’s most undemocratic institution, the monarchy. As a result, the political arena lacks any sort of true egalitarian representation and instead fluctuates from moderate right to extreme right.

Thaksin’s Rise and Fall

In 2001, after years of dictatorship, Thaksin Shinawatra, a business tycoon who made his fortune in the telecommunication industry, was elected Prime Minister of Thailand. His political party, the populist Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais, TRTparty, attempted to address the country’s rampant economic poverty with regulated capitalism. The reforms implemented by Thaksin, when compared to the previous line of ultra-conservative dictators, made him seem like the most progressive politician on the scene, despite his pro-business, authoritarian agenda. Thaksin’s war on drugs led directly to the extrajudicial killings of over 2.500 people in just a few months. He signed major free-trade agreements with numerous nations, meanwhile prosecuting journalists who criticized his policies.

Yellow Shirts attack police lines in the 2008 protests

Yellow Shirts attack police lines in the 2008 protests

In 2006, Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by yet another military coup and went into a self-imposed exile in Dubai. He was later convicted on charges of corruption and criticism of the royal family. The military installed one of the King’s Privy Counselors as Prime Minister, but real power remained with the junta until general democratic elections were held at the end of 2007. In opposition against the coup, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) was formed by Thaksin supporters and others who disapproved of the monarchy’s and the military’s meddling into the democratic process. The UDD are generally referred to as the ‘Red Shirts’.

The general elections of 2007 were won by the People’s Power Party (PPP), which had become a refuge for a great number of former Thai Rak Thai MPs after their party had been abolished in May of that year. In reaction to the PPP’s victory, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), commonly known as the ‘Yellow Shirts’, launched massive street protests in the first months of 2008, eventually culminating in the overthrow of the government and the dissolution of the PPP.

Red Shirts Rise Up

2010 clashes between Red Shirts and security forces

2010 clashes between Red Shirts and security forces

Four years of high tension, bombings, and protests followed the coup: in 2010 more than one million Red Shirt protesters took over major locations throughout the capital and occupied them for up to three months. The protests were met with incredible violence as the military used teargas and live ammunition on the crowds. Dissidents were either assassinated or arrested. Major clashes broke out between Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, and at the end of the three months eighty civilians and six soldiers were dead.

Under immense pressure from the international community and out of fear of more protests, the ruling institutions held elections the following year. While Thaksin remained in self-imposed exile in Dubai, his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister by a landslide. Today, Yingluck remains in power, implementing pro-business reforms while attempting to navigate the political landscape, which remains heavily influenced by the military, the aristocracy, and above all, the monarchy.

Thailand’s Tea Party Revolutionaries

V for Thailand protest earlier this year

V for Thailand protest earlier this year

In May 2013, a small neo-reactionary party was formed calling itself the “V for Thailand” movement. Very similar to the Tea Party in the US — in the sense that their main objective was to push the mainstream Yellow Shirts further right — the new party called for the ousting of the current government, which they considered to be heavily controlled behind the screens by Thaksin, and the return to a completely religious and monarchical rule. What seemed so contradictory and yet at the same time so fitting was the party’s appropriation of Anonymous’ Guy Fawkes mask as their symbol. This was truly an embrace of the historical Guy Fawkes (a religious zealot who advocated a return to religious tyranny) and yet at the same time a strategic appropriation of Anonymous’ David versus Goliath reputation.

In August this year, Yingluck introduced a highly controversial amnesty bill, which would apply to offences committed in the aftermath of Thaksin’s ousting from power in 2006. The bill passed the lower house, but was rejected by the Senate in November. The bill, if passed, would effectively dissolve Thaksin’s criminal record and release all political prisoners involved in the 2010 violence. It would also dissolve any criminal charges brought upon government and military officials who were behind the 2010 wanton shootings and assassinations of protesters.

Suthep’s ultra-nationalist and royalist agenda

On August 3, 2013 the outraged Yellow Shirts held a small rally and occupied a major park in Bangkok. The encampment was designed to call upon images of the global revolutions of the last several years. Out of fear of instigating further tensions, the government went out of their way to leave the encampment alone for several months, but as the amnesty bill was revised and reintroduced to the senate, the Yellow Shirts — led by the former deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban of the Democratic Party — strategically allied with other groups critical of the amnesty bill. This increase in support only furthered the resurgence of factional tensions. Only a couple thousand protesters showed up at the August 3 rally at Lumpini Park but on November 25, over a 100.000 protesters met for arally in the center of the city.

Thai protestors in front of Prime Minister Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party headquarters

Thai protestors in front of Prime Minister Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party headquarters

Bowing to the increasing pressure, Yingluck agreed to scrap the amnesty bill, but it was already too late as protest leaders declared that only her resignation and the dissolution of the “Thaksin regime” would lead to peace. In response, an arrest warrant was issued for the protest leader Suthep, fueling the already palpable tensions. Suthep declared to a crowd of thousands that he was not going to jail and his supporters should peacefully storm all the government ministries and provincial halls in the country.

The government, in an attempt to avoid conflict that could lead to a military-monarchy coup, allowed protesters to occupy ministry and provincial hall buildings. This hands off approach seems to have done little in quelling the protests and only reinvigorated Suthep, whose stated goals now exists of overthrowing Yingluck’s government, elevating the role of the monarchy and abandoning electoral democracy in favor of a government run by “figures of integrity and moral authority”. Suthep’s uncompromised support for the monarchy has fed speculations of him being in favor of an absolute monarchy. Some regard Suthep’s continued call for protests and his encouragement of the protesters to storm government buildings as an attempt to force the military to intervene, dismantle the government and abolish parliamentary democracy.

Since the 1973 and 1976 massacres of leftist students and trade unionists at Thammasat University, Thailand’s left has either gone underground or into exile abroad. The current conflicts are not between the right and the left but instead are between a broad spectrum of conservatives who have become tools in the hands of those fighting for authoritarian rule. Sadly, regardless of how many innocent people are killed in the coming weeks, months, and years, Thailand will remain an undemocratic country lacking social justice until it allows people to openly criticize its powerful institutions — government, military and monarchy.

Video: Footage of protests captured by drones

Sunday November 24 gathering of 100,000s in Bangkok

Sunday November 24 gathering of 100,000s in Bangkok

Long-Standing Divide Between Rich And Poor Fuels Thai Conflict

Associated Press, December 4, 2013

BANGKOK – Both the protesters on the streets of Bangkok and the Thai government pleading for them to go home say they’re on the side of democracy, but that is not what their increasingly dangerous conflict is about. This is a fight about power, and who ought to have it.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra

The unrest that has brought the capital to the brink of catastrophe this week has laid bare a societal schism pitting the majority rural poor against an urban-based elite establishment. It is a divide that has led to upheaval several times in recent years, sometimes death, even though the man at the center of it, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has not set foot in Thailand since 2008.

Thaksin is despised by millions who consider him to be a corrupt threat to the traditional status quo, but supported by millions more who welcome the populist policies that benefit them.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, helped set the stage for Thailand’s latest protests by backing an amnesty bill that would have wiped out a graft conviction that keeps Thaksin in self-imposed exile. Now his political foes are trying to use that public anger to seize control.

Suthep Thaugsuban, an opposition politician who resigned from parliament to lead the protests, says he won’t stop until power is “in the people’s hands,” but his plan sounds anything but democratic. He’s calling for an unelected “people’s council” to replace a government that won in a landslide at the polls just two years ago.

 Anti-government protesters shield themselves against a water cannon sprayed by police in Bangkok on Monday. | AP

Anti-government protesters shield themselves against a water cannon sprayed by police in Bangkok on Monday. | AP

And the way his supporters have gone about it has not been entirely peaceful. They have called for Yingluck’s overthrow and on Tuesday swarmed into the Thai prime minister’s office compound as police stood by and watched. The protesters have burst into Thailand’s army headquarters and urged the military to “take a stand,” and threatened to overrun television stations that do not broadcast their message.

Thailand has endured 18 successful or attempted military coups since the 1930s, but so far the army has remained neutral.

Yingluck said Monday she will do everything she can “to bring peace back to the Thai people,” but said there is no way the government could meet Suthep’s demand under the constitution. Suthep has said Yingluck’s resignation and new elections would not be enough.

Thailand protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy premier leading the protest movement, talks to anti-government protesters at outside Government complex in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013. Protesters vowing to topple Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took to the streets for a fourth straight day on Wednesday, declaring they would take over "every ministry" of the government. The brash threat is the biggest challenge yet to the embattled premier's administration, raising fears of fresh political violence in the Southeast Asian nation. Late Tuesday, police issued an arrest warrant for Suthep.(AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn)

Thailand protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy premier leading the protest movement, talks to anti-government protesters at outside Government complex in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013. Protesters vowing to topple Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took to the streets for a fourth straight day on Wednesday, declaring they would take over “every ministry” of the government. The brash threat is the biggest challenge yet to the embattled premier’s administration, raising fears of fresh political violence in the Southeast Asian nation. Late Tuesday, police issued an arrest warrant for Suthep.(AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn)

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn’s Institute of Security and International Studies, said the two sides “believe in different versions of democracy.”

“It is a fight for the soul of the nation, for the future of the country,” he said. One side wants “to be heard” while the protesters “want the kind of legitimacy that stems from moral authority. Their feeling is . . . if the elected majority represents the will of the corrupt, it’s not going to work.”

The unrest already may have weakened Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy. Thailand is a lucrative manufacturing hub whose factories produce everything from computer hard drives to cars that feed a global supply chain. The country is one of the world’s leading rice exporters. Its beaches with sapphire-blue water are among the world’s most popular tourist destinations, but the government has said protests are driving tourists away.

The latest unrest began last month, after Yingluck’s ruling Pheu Thai party tried to ram the controversial amnesty bill through. Even many traditional Thaksin supporters disliked it because it also would have pardoned top opposition leaders.

Thailand protesters march toward Finance Ministry on November 25, 2013. Reuters Chaiwat Subprasom

Thailand protesters march toward Finance Ministry on November 25, 2013. Reuters Chaiwat Subprasom

The bill failed to pass parliament’s upper house, and emboldened protesters drew 100,000 people to a mass rally in Bangkok on Nov. 24. Over the week that followed, demonstrators seized the Finance Ministry and part of a sprawling government office complex that includes the Constitutional Court. They also massed outside half a dozen other government ministries, taking over offices and prompting the evacuation of civil servants — some of whom had eagerly waved them inside.The conflict escalated dramatically this weekend, and blood spilled for the first time. At least three people were killed when anti-government demonstrators clashed with pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” activists near a stadium where a pro-government rally was being held.

The protests have failed to dislodge the government so far, but it remains possible that Thailand’s history will repeat itself.

Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has not set foot in Thailand since 2008. An amnesty proposal set forth by his sister, the current prime minister, set off protests against the government.

Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has not set foot in Thailand since 2008. An amnesty proposal set forth by his sister, the current prime minister, set off protests against the government.

The army deposed Thaksin in a 2006 coup. Controversial court rulings that critics labeled “judicial coups” forced the resignation of two Thaksin-allied prime ministers who followed. One of them was Thaksin’s brother-in-law, who saw his own office at Government House occupied by protesters for three months in 2008.

The opposition Democrat Party took over, and in 2009, pro-Thaksin protesters overran a regional summit, forcing heads of state to be hastily evacuated by helicopter from a hotel rooftop. The next year, Red Shirts occupied Bangkok’s glitziest shopping district for weeks in a standoff that ended with parts of the city in flames. More than 90 people died, many of them protesters gunned down in an army crackdown ordered by Suthep, who was deputy prime minister at the time.

The Democrats, who have not won a national election in more than 20 years, were soundly beaten by Pheu Thai and Yingluck in 2011. Protesters claim her ascent was only made possible with Thaksin money.

“You can’t call this a democracy,” said Sombat Benjasirimongkol, a demonstrator who stood outside a police compound this week. “This government is a dictatorship that came to power by buying votes. Yingluck’s supporters are poor. They are uneducated. And they are easily bought.”

An anti-government protester throws back a tear gas canister fired by riot police in Bangkok, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. Police in Thailand fought off mobs of rock-throwing protesters armed with petrol bombs who tried to battle their way into the government's heavily-fortified headquarters Sunday, as gunshots rang out in Bangkok and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra fled a police complex during the sharpest escalation yet of the country's latest crisis. (AP Photo/Wason Wanitchakorn)

An anti-government protester throws back a tear gas canister fired by riot police in Bangkok, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. Police in Thailand fought off mobs of rock-throwing protesters armed with petrol bombs who tried to battle their way into the government’s heavily-fortified headquarters Sunday, as gunshots rang out in Bangkok and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra fled a police complex during the sharpest escalation yet of the country’s latest crisis. (AP Photo/Wason Wanitchakorn)

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, said such claims form a pretext that Thaksin’s opponents are using in an attempt to seize power.

The anti-government protest movement is simply “a minority that is refusing to play the game of electoral politics. They cannot compete with Thaksin, they cannot win elections. So they come up with this discourse of village people being so uneducated they don’t know how to vote,” Pavin said. “But the reality is, these people (Thaksin supporters) are not stupid. They are politically conscious. They have become awakened.”

Even if the Shinawatra clan can claim electoral legitimacy, the conflict between the two sides is not black and white.

Thaksin, a billionaire who made his fortune in telecommunications during Thailand’s late ’80s-early ’90s boom years, was accused of manipulating government policies to benefit his business empire. His critics charged he was arrogant and intolerant of the press; at one point he went so far as to have cronies try to buy controlling shares in two influential daily newspapers that had criticized him.

During his five years in office, Thaksin also came under fire for his ham-handed handling of a Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand, and a particularly brutal “war on drugs” that left 2,300 people dead in 2003. Human rights groups complained that police were turned loose to kill drug dealers as well as users at will.

Nevertheless, Thaksin remains hugely popular in Thailand’s rural north and northeast and among many of Bangkok’s working class for populist policies including subsidized housing and nearly free health care.

Opponents dismiss Yingluck as Thaksin’s puppet, though for most of her administration she has trod a more careful path than her brother, building a fragile detente with the army and managing to keep a lid on the nation’s divisions. But she was damaged by the amnesty bill, by a court ruling rejecting her party’s attempts to boost its power in the Senate, and by controversial policies including a rice-buying scheme that the International Monetary Fund has criticized.

Suthep said recently that his supporters “feel that if the country continues on this path, it will fall into pieces. . . . So they come out today to fight for their country and for their children’s future.”

But Suthep’s tactics and his demands have riled even some of his own backers. Democrat lawmaker Korn Chatikavanij, a former finance minister, asked last week: “How will this so-called people’s government happen? I still can’t quite imagine.”