2013 POLITICAL CRISIS AFTER YINGLUCK GOVERNMENT TRIES TO PASS AMNESTY BILL THAT WOULD ALL THAKSIN TO RETURN TO THAILAND

BEGINNING OF THE 2013 POLITICAL CRISIS IN THAILAND

In November 2013, after the ruling Pheu Thai Party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra attempted to pass an amnesty bill---that many saw as an attempt to bring back former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra—protests, sometimes violent, broke out. The opposition demanded that the Yingluck government resign and the Shinawatra family quit Thai politics. Following a mass resignation of opposition Mps in December Yingluck, dissolve parliament and called for new elections, in February 2014. [Source: Wikipedia]

Yingluck said: "At this stage, when there are many people opposed to the government from many groups, the best way is to give back the power to the Thai people and hold an election, so the Thai people will decide." Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban was not satisfied. He said that the protests would continue till their demands were met, including the formation of an unelected "people's council."

Between the end of November 2013 when the protests against Prime Minister Yingluck turned violent and the beginning of the elections in February 2014, ten people were killed and at least 577 were injured.

The Thai general election was held on February 2, 2014, more than a year early owing to Thailand's political crisis, but voting in many constituencies was held in March because of obstructions to voting created by the opposition. Voters elected a new House of Representatives, the lower house of the National Assembly. All 500 seats to the House of Representatives of Thailand were up for grabs. A total of 251 seats was needed for a majority Early general elections were held in early February. Voting was disrupted in 69 of 375 constituencies by the opposition that had called for a boycott. This made a re-run in several stages necessary.

Thai Amnesty Bill Introduced That Would Allow Thaksin to Return to Thailand

In October 2013, an amnesty bill— initially limited to ordinary protesters charged over involvement in past street clashes — was suddenly expanded to include anyone investigated by agencies set up after the 2006 coup. In early November, Thailand's lower house of parliament passed the bill that critics said could allow the return of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. The

BBC reported: The amnesty applies to offences committed during the political turmoil after Mr Thaksin was ousted in a coup. The lower house passed the controversial bill in the middle of the night. The opposition Democrat Party warned that the passage of the bill would trigger street protests. It did not take part in the vote. The bill passed by 310 votes to 0. [Source: BBC November 1, 2013]

Advocates of the bill say it will draw a line under the political turmoil that resulted from the military coup in 2006 that removed Thaksin from power, leaving Thailand bitterly divided. But critics say the amnesty would allow human rights abuses to go unpunished. The opposition believes the bill is aimed at facilitating Mr Thaksin's return, without having to serve a jail sentence. The amnesty bill angered Thaksin’s opponents, who said it could whitewash crimes he allegedly committed in power. Some Thaksin supporters criticized the law for protecting opposition leaders who allowed the army to use live ammunition to disperse protesters in 2010 when their Democrat party held power. "We will continue our fighting in the street until the bill is aborted,” said Democrat Party spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut.”

Thaksin fled into exile to avoid serving a two-year prison term for corruption and abuse of power charges that stemmed from a military-appointed panel for helping his wife buy land from the government. He’s lived in self-imposed exile overseas, and has helped guide policy from abroad since Yingluck led the Pheu Thai party to victory in a 2011 election. [Source: Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Anuchit Nguyen, Bloomberg, November 11, 2013]

According to The Economist: The bill “is mainly cover for granting an amnesty to and restoring the confiscated fortunes of a single individual for whom the bill was originally crafted: Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister’s elder brother. He was ousted in a coup in 2006. In self-imposed exile since 2008, his shadow has hung heavily over Thai politics. When Ms Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party won in a landslide in 2011, she promised to heal deep divisions following Thailand’s worst political violence in decades. Instead, her government has become ever more absorbed in attempts to get Mr Thaksin back without him having to serve the jail terms imposed on him for corruption and abuse of office. Ms Yingluck, indeed, has become merely Mr Thaksin’s proxy as he runs the country from Dubai. She has explored every avenue to get her brother back, including royal pardons, constitutional amendments and five other kinds of reconciliation bill. In forcing through this latest measure, the government badly misjudged the public mood and the strength of the forces arrayed against it. [Source: The Economist, November 9, 2013]

Protests After the Amnesty Bill Passes the Lower House

After the amnesty bill passed the lower house thousands of people joined separate anti-government rallies in Bangkok as the Senate took up and debated the amnesty legislation. Protests against the bill dramatically picked up on November 4, when thousands of largely middle class Bangkokians gathered sporting Thai flag paraphernalia and whistles. [Source: Reuters]

Bloomberg reported: “Deputy Police Chief Vorapong Chiewpreecha said that some demonstrators may use guns and bombs incite violence and blame it on the police. About 10,000 members of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement gathered on Bangkok’s outskirts Nov. 10 to counter protests against the government, the Bangkok Post reported.” [Source: Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Anuchit Nguyen, Bloomberg, November 11, 2013]

Al-Jazeera reported: “Since it was passed by the lower house on November 1, the bill has set off daily demonstrations and raised fears of reviving political turmoil that has convulsed the country since Thaksin was toppled by a coup in 2006. The opposition Democrat Party has harnessed the growing anti-government sentiment. It was holding a anti-amnesty rally on Monday evening - before the expected vote by the senate - which it said could draw tens of thousands to the city's political centre, heightening fears of clashes with police. A Democrat lawmaker Akanat Promphan said the protesters would give the government a "deadline" of 6pm (11:00GMT) to kill the bill before taking further - as yet unspecified - actions. Thousands of police were deployed across Bangkok to keep the peace, including nearly 7,000 officers around the parliament and the prime minister's office. [Source: Al-Jazeera, November 11, 2013]

The Economist reported: “At lunchtime on November 4th thousands of people emptied onto the streets of Bangkok’s business district armed with whistles, placards and apparently inexhaustible supplies of anger. Swiftly bringing Silom Road to a standstill, they were there to protest against an amnesty bill that the government of Yingluck Shinawatra had passed at the dead of night in the lower house of parliament three days earlier. Mr Thaksin’s prospective pardon over charges he claims were politically motivated is what really stoked up the protesters on Silom Road; most were back for another round of mass whistling on November 6th. Many of them have been diehard opponents of Mr Thaksin for the best part of a decade. The protests are further evidence, if any were needed, of how deeply the question of Mr Thaksin continues to poison the well of Thai politics. [Source: The Economist, November 9, 2013 ***]

“Solid resistance was to be expected from the opposition Democrat Party, with its street tactics. The party in effect represents the Bangkok establishment—led by courtiers of the ailing king, Bhumibol Adulyadej—which ousted Mr Thaksin in a military coup. Through a mix of street protests, airport sieges and dubious court rulings the establishment twice saw off subsequent popular governments loyal to Mr Thaksin before installing the Democrat Party in office, under the youngish prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. With mounting street violence, the army and police put down pro-Thaksin protests in 2010 in which dozens died. Having peered into the abyss of civil war, Mr Abhisit conceded the need for another election, the one which Ms Yingluck won. But the return to the streets of anti-Thaksin forces, led among others by Mr Abhisit, brings an uneasy sense of the cycle repeating itself. ***

“The Democrat Party is now leading an occupation of a main boulevard in the government quarter, drawing tens of thousands of people every night to listen to rabble-rousing speeches and girl bands singing patriotic songs. Likewise, the return of some of the “yellow shirts”, those rabid anti-Thaksinites who occupied the newly opened international airport for months in 2008, is hardly a shock.” ***

Thai Senate Rejects Amnesty Bill After a Week of Protests

In mid November 2013, Thailand’s Senate rejected the amnesty bill that would have provided amnesty for Thaksin. Senators voted 141-0 against the draft after more than 10 hours of debate. Bloomberg reported: “Thousands of people joined daily rallies throughout the Thai capital over the past week, arguing that the amnesty law would fail to heal social divisions if it also exonerated politicians including Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and soldiers and political leaders who oversaw a deadly crackdown on demonstrators in 2010. [Source: Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Anuchit Nguyen, Bloomberg, November 11, 2013]

Active opposition to the amnesty bill from former “red shirt” supporters of Thaksin played a part in sinking it.The Economist reported: “Some leaders and foot soldiers of the red-shirt movement are incensed that the bill will let off anyone accused of ordering killings during the crackdown by the police and army three years ago. The proposed impunity for other human-rights abuses and for corruption is also sweeping. The anti-corruption commission says the bill would kill off over 25,000 graft cases. Of these, about 400 cases involve senior politicians; another 670-odd are already at the indictment stage. To many poorer Thais, the bill is a charter for crooks” [Source: The Economist, November 9, 2013 ***]

Although the more-powerful lower house can legally pass legislation without senate approval after a 180-day wait, Yingluck and the government coalition parties have pledged that the bill will not be revived. Andrew R.C. Marshall and Jason Szep of Reuters wrote: “Faced with public outrage, Yingluck quickly ordered the bill to be pulled from the Senate. Her advisors now spin this as proof that she listens to the public and admits her mistakes, and shift the blame for the bill onto Puea Thai and its Mps. "As a political party, we didn't anticipate the very negative feedback from the public," Noppadon Pattama, a Puea Thai strategist who advises both Thaksin and Yingluck, told Reuters. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall and Jason Szep, Reuters, January 30, 2014]

How Thaksin's Meddling Sparked a Crisis for His Prime Minister Sister

Andrew R.C. Marshall and Jason Szep of Reuters wrote: “Yingluck Shinawatra's journey from political nobody to prime minister was breathtakingly swift. Her premiership's descent into crisis has been just as rapid. A political neophyte when she took office in 2011, the 46-year-old former business executive surprised many observers by steadying Thailand after years of often bloody political unrest. Then she leaned over and pushed a button marked "SELF-DESTRUCT".” [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall and Jason Szep, Reuters, January 30, 2014]

Behind Thailand's lurch into its worst crisis in years was a disastrous intervention by Yingluck's billionaire brother Thaksin...Thaksin's meddling turned a bill that would have freed ordinary Thais charged with protest-related crimes into a controversial wider amnesty for politicians such as himself. The passing of the sparked street protests and unrest that have killed 10 people, wounded hundreds and dramatically changed Yingluck's political fortunes and shattered two years of relative calm.

“Self-exiled Thaksin wanted to come home, and would not take no for an answer. The vehicle for his return would be a draft bill that sailed through the Puea Thai-majority parliament last August. It would grant amnesties to protesters - but not leaders - charged and jailed in waves of unrest between 2006 and 2011. Before the bill's second reading, Thaksin's aides told Puea Thai MPs that the former prime minister wanted to radically expand it to absolve leaders on both sides, say senior Puea Thai members. A parliamentary scrutiny committee, also dominated by Puea Thai and its coalition allies, passed a revised draft of the bill on October 18.

The amnesty now extended to murder charges laid against former Democrat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, for ordering the 2010 crackdown. Abhisit led an unelected government for nearly three years after a pro-Thaksin administration was removed from office by the courts in 2008. It also quashed hundreds of corruption cases and nullified the two-year jail sentence against Thaksin, allowing the return of $1.4 billion of his seized wealth - and a ticket back to Thailand. Yingluck had reservations about the blanket amnesty, particularly about dropping the charges against Abhisit and Suthep, said her chief of staff Suranand Vejjajiva. "But in the end the MPs agreed, 'Let's push this through'," he said.

The revised bill electrified Thaksin's opponents and split his supporters. Leaders of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), a pro-government red shirt group, soon made public their anger with the party, seeing the new bill's forgiveness of Abhisit and Suthep as a denial of justice for slain protesters. At the same time, small protests by Thaksin's opponents began gathering steam. More than half of Puea Thai MPs disagreed with the bill, but few dared to speak up, said a senior Puea Thai MP who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The way they put it, if you want to help Thaksin, support the bill. If you don't support the bill, you don't want to help Thaksin." But Suranand denied the MPs were coerced. "No one put a gun to their head and said, 'You have to vote'," he said. Even so, many Puea Thai insiders feared Thaksin and his sister were blind to the growing crisis, underestimating the ability of his enemies to exploit public anger against the bill, said the senior party member. At 4 a.m. on November 1, a buzzer rang through the hall of Thailand's House of Representatives. After 19 hours and the abstention of the Democrats, bleary-eyed MPs unanimously passed the amnesty bill.

Anti-Thaksin Protesters Gain Momentum after the Amnesty Bill Defeat

Andrew R.C. Marshall and Jason Szep of Reuters wrote: “The aborted bill provided Yingluck's long-dormant enemies with the ammunition they needed. On November 12, Suthep resigned from parliament along with eight other Democrat MPs. The protests began their evolution into an uprising against, first, the "Thaksin regime", and then Thailand's system of electoral democracy itself. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall and Jason Szep, Reuters, January 30, 2014]

"Once they were participating in the rallies against Thaksin, people who were against the bill became people against the system," the Puea Thai MP told Reuters. "They got their critical mass and snowball effect." Jatuporn Prompan, a UDD leader and senior Puea Thai member, said he could see that Suthep and other establishment figures had long been planning a fresh uprising. He warned party leaders that the amnesty bill was just the trigger they needed. "Suthep Thaugsuban and his team took two years to prepare for this to happen," Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the UDD and senior Puea Thai member, told Reuters. "He was preparing with the support of a network of elite bureaucrats."

The protests unleashed by the aborted bill have added to a perfect storm of crisis for Yingluck, who has been a caretaker prime minister - with limited powers - since dissolving parliament on December 9 to call a snap election. Thailand's anti-corruption commission has launched an impeachment investigation into her role as head of a wasteful and opaque rice-pledging scheme. Farmers waiting payment under the multi-billion-dollar scheme are blocking provincial highways in protest.

Thousands of protesters occupied major intersections in an attempt to "shut down" Bangkok. Protesters wanted the election postponed until parliament is replaced by an unelected "people's council" to reform Thai politics. They also demand Yingluck's resignation and the exile of the entire Shinawatra clan. Yingluck refused to go and stood by the amnesty bill. "She sees it as: If you can forgive everyone, and everyone accepts that forgiveness, then you can reset everything and move on," he said. "Of course, it didn't turn out that way."

Anti-Thaksin Protest After the Amnesty Bill Defeat

“This amnesty bill is still not dead, even though the Senate is voting to block the bill,” Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister with the opposition Democrat party, told supporters in Bangkok. “The lower house can still bring back the law for approval again.” Suthep called for a general strike by workers and urged people to join rallies to oust the government.

Associated Press reported: “The main opposition Democrat Party called for civil disobedience and a nationwide strike in what is seen as a campaign to bring down the government led by Thaksin's sister, prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Democrat Party lawmakers called for a three-day strike by businesses and schools to allow people to join the protests; a withholding of taxes that allegedly are swallowed up by corruption; the display of the national flag; and the blowing of whistles, which have become a tool of protest, near government leaders. [Source: Associated Press, November 12, 2013]

“Democrat MP and former deputy prime minisiter Suthep Thaugsuban, along with eight other party lawmakers, said they were resigning their parliamentary seats to lead the anti-government campaign. The resignations are a legal shield for the party, which could face dissolution if its MPs were found guilty of trying to unlawfully unseat a constitutional government. "If Mr Thaksin and other leaders had not been added to the amnesty bill coverage, the majority of the people would have agreed to give amnesty to the ordinary people affected [in the conflict]," said Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a law professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University. [Ibid]

Todd Pitman of Associated Press wrote: “Emboldened protesters drew 100,000 people to a mass rally in Bangkok on November 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. [Source: Todd Pitman, Associated Press, December 2, 2013]

Yingluck Survives No Confidence Vote as Opposition Questions it Leader Suthep Thaugsuban

In late November 2013, Yingluck survived a no confidence vote. Reuters reported: Yingluck “easily survived a no-confidence vote amid the biggest anti-government protests since deadly political unrest three years ago. Yingluck needed more than half, or 246 votes, out of the 492 votes in the lower house to prevail in the no-confidence vote. She won 297 votes, with 134 votes against her. Her Puea Thai Party and coalition partners dominate the lower house with 299 seats and comfortably survived the three-day debate during which the opposition grilled Yingluck on a 3.5 billion baht ($108 million) water management scheme and financially troubled government rice intervention scheme. [Source: Reuters, November 27, 2013]

Suthep Thaugsuban, the firebrand politician who resigned from the opposition Democrat Party to lead the protests, says he won't stop until power is "in the people's hands." Todd Pitman of Associated Press wrote: “His plan sounds anything but democratic. He's calling for an unelected "people's council" to replace a government that won a landslide victory at the polls. And the way his supporters have gone about it has not been entirely peaceful. They have called for Yingluck's overthrow from the occupied halls of seized government offices. They burst through the gates of Thailand's army headquarters and urged the military to "take a stand." And since the weekend, they have tried to battle their way into the prime minister's office with slingshots and burning Molotov cocktails, and threatened to overrun television stations that do not broadcast their message. [Source: Todd Pitman, December 2, 2013]

According to the Washington Post Suthep has his own history of corruption scandals. A former deputy prime minister, Suthep, 64, also faces murder charges for green-lighting a deadly military crackdown on Thaksin supporters in 2010.

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “Suthep Thaungsuban has rejected talks and vowed to continue his campaign to "uproot Thaksinism". But his hardline tactics could be alienating moderate supporters, while his quirky political vision perplexes even his natural allies in the Democrat Party. Suthep's idea for a "people's parliament" to replace Yingluck's administration, for example, was rejected by Korn Chatikavanij, a senior Democrat member and former finance minister. "I have no idea what Suthep means by a 'people's parliament'," Korn told Reuters. "We think the best way to find a solution to all of this is for the government to resign and dissolve parliament." [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, November 29, 2013 ^^]

At this stage Yingluck said she would not dissolve parliament and call a snap election. “While she appeared fraught at the end of the two-day confidence debate, the former business executive has since regained her trademark composure and seems determined to outlast the protests. Yingluck's confidence could derive in part from assiduously cultivated relations with the monarchy and the military, which, along with the courts, have intervened to break past political deadlocks.” ^^

Military and Monarchy Stand on the Sidelines as Protests Heat Up

"If there is no other choice, if we can't do this peacefully, I welcome military intervention," protester and retired farmer Satien Piankird told Reuters. Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “This year, however, the military has remained aloof and shown no sign of wanting to leave barracks, even after 1,000 protesters broke into its Bangkok headquarters. The military might act if there is bloodshed between protesters and police, or if protesters cause widespread damage to property, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies. "But it would be a limited intervention," he says. "The military would be dealing with a specific (security) issue rather coming out to side with anti-government forces to overthrow the Yingluck government." [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, November 29, 2013 ^^]

“Retired farmer Satien and other protesters have called for King Bhumibol to appoint an interim government to replace Yingluck's. But the aging and widely revered monarch has not commented on the current unrest. He is at his seaside palace in Hua Hin, about 190 kilometers (118 miles) south of Bangkok, after a long spell in hospital in the capital. His son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, expressed concern about the political unrest and urged people to settle their differences peacefully. The appeal was issued through Bangkok police chief Kamronwit Thoopkrachang, a staunch Thaksin ally. ^^

“Yingluck has also been careful to maintain relations with the palace. In a highly symbolic meeting in August, Yingluck visited the Bangkok residence of retired General Prem Tinsulanonda on his 94th birthday. Prem, the president of the king's Privy Council, is accused by many Thaksin loyalists of masterminding the 2006 coup. Afterwards Prem urged the armed forces to support Yingluck. ^^

“More likely than a royal or military intervention is a legal challenge. Past decisions by Thailand's courts have ended the rule of two Thaksin-backed prime ministers and dissolved two previous incarnations of the Puea Thai Party. On November 20, the Constitutional Court ruled that government efforts to amend the constitution were illegal but stopped short of dissolving Puea Thai. But Yingluck and her party still face a threat from Thailand's usually slow-moving National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). It is considering a petition from protesters to investigate 312 MPs and senators for backing a constitutional amendment that would have changed the make-up of the Senate. The Constitutional Court said on November 20 that government plans to change the constitution were illegal, paving the way for the NACC to suspend 312 politicians and eviscerate Puea Thai. But any NACC decision to disband Yingluck's party could spark a confrontation with pro-Thaksin red shirts, tens of thousands of whom are gathering at a stadium in eastern Bangkok.” ^^

Anti-Thaksin Protesters Storm Army Headquarters and Take Over Government Offices

In late November 2013, anti-Thaksin protesters stormed the grounds of the national army headquarters, asking the military to support their increasingly aggressive campaign to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They also took over several government administration offices. Thanyarat Doksone and Jocelyn Gecker of Associated Press wrote: “ The army insisted it will not take sides in the dispute. In a letter addressed to the army chief, the protesters stopped short of calling for a coup but urged military leaders to "take a stand" in Thailand's spiraling political crisis and state which side they are on. The crowd of 1,200 people stayed on the sprawling lawn of the Royal Thai Army compound for two hours before filing out peacefully. Army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha responded with a call for the protests to be democratic and law-abiding. "Don't try to make the army take sides because the army considers that all of us are fellow Thais, so the government, state authorities and people from every sector must jointly seek a peaceful solution as soon as possible," Prayuth said in a statement. [Source: Thanyarat Doksone and Jocelyn Gecker, Associated Press, November 29, 2013 *+*]

“Yingluck has proposed talks but the protesters have rejected them. The incursion on the army's turf was a bold act heavy with symbolism in a country that has experienced 18 successful or attempted military coups since the 1930s. Protest organizers told followers to seize all state ministries, state telecommunications agencies and other state enterprises, police headquarters and the zoo. The targets also include the prime minister's offices. In 2008, anti-Thaksin demonstrators occupied those offices for three months to back their demands that his allies step down. *+*

“For the past week, thousands of anti-government protesters have marched in Bangkok in a bid to unseat Yingluck, whom they accuse of serving as a proxy for her billionaire brother. Leaders of the protests say their goal is not just to force Yingluck out of office but to rid the country of Thaksin's influence in politics. Protesters branched out to several spots, Friday, with another crowd staging a rally outside the headquarters of Yingluck's ruling Pheu Thai party, where hundreds of riot police stood guard to prevent them from entering. A separate crowd of more than 1,000 people marched through central Bangkok to the U.S. Embassy. Opposition lawmaker Korn Chatikavanij, a former finance minister, delivered a letter to an official there denouncing Yingluck's leadership as illegitimate, in response to a statement from Washington that expressed concern about the protests. *+*

“Explaining how a crowd of unarmed civilians was able to break into the army compound, Gen. Prayuth said: "The army did not want to use any force and we didn't view the protesters as enemies or opponents. They are actually Thais who have different political opinions." But he added, "In any case, security measures will be tightened from now on." The army compound is next to the United Nations' Asia-Pacific headquarters in Bangkok. *+*

“Yingluck has been reluctant to use force against the opposition-led protesters for fear of escalating the crisis and sparking bloodshed. Security forces have done little to stop protesters who have spent the week seizing government buildings and camping out at several of them in an effort to force a government shutdown while asking civil servants to join their rally. Crowd sizes peaked a few days earlier at over 100,000 and then dwindled days to tens of thousands, but organizers have kept each day dramatic by targeting new and different seats of power. Crowds of protesters have occupied the Finance Ministry and others have remained holed up at a sprawling government complex that houses the Department of Special Investigation, the country's equivalent of the FBI. Demonstrators also cut power at Bangkok's police headquarters and asked police to join their side.” *+*

Long-running Societal Divide Fuels Thai Conflict

Todd Pitman of Associated Press wrote: “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. [Source: Todd Pitman, Associated Press, December 2, 2013 \+/]

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 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." \+/

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 ham-fisted 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 police were turned loose to kill drug dealers and 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 polices 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 told The Associated Press 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." Thailand's political tensions have played out against a backdrop over fears about the future of its monarchy. Thaksin's critics have accused him of disrespecting ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej and trying to gain influence with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the throne. \+/

Three People are Killed as Protesters Clash with Red Shirts and Attempt 'People's Coup'

In early December 2103, Todd Pitman of Associated Press wrote: “The conflict escalated dramatically 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. Outside Yingluck's office at the now heavily fortified Government House, masked mobs launched repeated bids to storm rings of concrete barriers. The police used force there for the first time, unleashing volleys of rubber bullets and tear gas. [Source: Todd Pitman, Associated Press, December 2, 2013]

The worst violence occurred when a group of protesters opened fire at a pro-government rally, killing at least four people and injuring dozens more. Around 70,000 supporters of PM Yingluck had gathered in the Ramkamhaeng area of Bangkok.

Simon Roughneen and Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Riot police fired tear gas at anti-government protesters armed with petrol bombs trying to force their way into the prime minister’s complex and police headquarters, intensifying Thailand’s political crisis and raising fears of extended instability in the Southeast Asian nation. For most part, protests remained peaceful. But on Saturday, the seventh day of protests, clashes between pro- and anti-government supporters turned violent around Ramkhamhaeng University, with at least three people killed overnight and dozens injured, according to police. Witnesses reported more shots the next day near the university and an adjoining stadium that’s been a base for government supporters. [Source: Simon Roughneen and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2013 ==]

“We can't take any more of this corrupt government,” said Adi Ngo, a fifthysomething protester, as demonstrators nearby tried to breach concrete barriers and razor-wire-lined police barriers around Thailand's seat of government. “This government doesn’t obey the law.” Anti-government leaders declared "victory day" in what they’ve termed a “people's coup,” urging their supporters to take over 10 government offices, six television stations, police headquarters and the prime minister's offices in a bid to undermine the government. The protest movement, which fell well short of its "coup" objective, wants to overthrow the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Sunday was the first day the police used significant force against demonstrators. “The use of tear gas is part of our procedures," said Piya Utayo, a national police spokesman, on television. ==

Protesters descended on at least three television networks calling on them to broadcast their views and not those of the government. A government-run station, Thai Public Broadcasting Service, continued with its regular programming even as it attempted to negotiate with protesters. Continued unrest has led foreign governments to issue travel advisories. Bangkok airports have also advised passengers to allow extra time when catching flights given protracted traffic jams. And several of Bangkok’s largest and poshest shopping centers were forced to close. The prime minister also reportedly fled a police compound and postponed a planned press conference when several dozen protesters attempted to get into her heavily guarded offices. Yingluck’s whereabouts were not immediately known. As she retreated from sight, her critics suggested this showed how weak she was. “The fact that Yingluck is nowhere to be seen is proof that she is now a lame duck Prime Minister,” anti-government protesters said in a tweet. ==

The day saw cat-and-mouse skirmishes between protesters and police in different parts of the city. At one such face-off near the ornate Marble Temple, police let off volleys of tear gas at demonstrators who had commandeered a police truck and were driving it provocatively in front of police lines. As tension mounted, protesters jeered at the police, calling them “lizards” and “buffalo,” with police responding in kind. Elsewhere, in front of police headquarters, demonstrators lambasted officers for their ties to Thaksin, a former policeman. Outside, someone had replaced the “royal” in the “Royal Thai Police Headquarters” plaque with “Thaksin,” suggesting the former prime minister and his sister weren’t fully loyal to the Thai King. As darkness fell, several government ministers advised Thais to stay off Bangkok streets until dawn to avoid trouble. ==

Thai Protesters Reach Prime Minister’s Office as King Appeals for Calm

A few days later Thai police removed fortified barriers blocking anti-government protesters from entering the prime minister’s office. And this juncture at least three people have died and 230 were injured in a week of protests. Reuters reported: “Police cleared the barbed wire barriers protecting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s office from the onslaught of anti-government protesters. Footage from Thai television showed the protesters milling around outside the Government House waving flags. Some of them even took their photograph with policemen. Prime Minister Yingluck was moved to a secret location after activists stormed the police sports club where she had been staying. [Source: Reuters, December 3, 2013]

“The Thai police’s change of strategy seeks to defuse rising tensions following a week of protests. City Police Chief Kamronvit Thoopkrachang told Reuters that riot officers have been ordered to stand down. "In every area where there has been confrontation, we have now ordered all police to withdraw. It is government policy to avoid confrontation," Kamronvit told Reuters. “Today, we won't use tear gas, no confrontation, we will let them in if they want.” Earlier police clashed with protestors attempting to break through the barricades to Government House. Officers used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to repel the activists, who threw rocks at police.” [Ibid]

Two days later, Thailand’s king used his annual birthday speech to call for stability but made no direct reference to the crisis. Grant Peck of Associated Press wrote: “Violence and street battles between anti-government protesters and police were put on hold as both sides observed a truce to mark the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Crowds dressed in the royal color of yellow lined the roads in the seaside town of Hua Hin to catch a glimpse of the world's longest reigning monarch. They shouted "Long live the king!" as his motorcade drove slowly to Klai Kangwon Palace, which literally means "Far From Worries." Onlookers wept as the king spoke, taking great effort and pausing for long stretches during his brief 5-minute speech. He thanked the people for coming together "in good will" to wish him well. [Source: Grant Peck, Associated Press, December 5, 2013 <^>]

"Our country has long experienced happiness because we have been united in performing our duties and working together for the good of the whole country," the king said. He wore a ceremonial golden robe and sat on a throne before an audience that included Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Cabinet ministers, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and his three sisters, and the leaders of the armed forces. "All Thais should consider this very much and focus on doing their duties ... which are the security and stability of the country," he said. Many people were hopeful the king would step in — as he has done in the past — to ease the current standoff, which results from years of enmity between supporters and opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. However, the king is a less vigorous figure than he used to be. His infrequent public appearances are poignant, since he is visibly infirm with age and uses a wheelchair. <^>

“After the speech, it was clear that the king's words had done little to heal the country's bitter divide. At Democracy Monument in Bangkok, one of the main anti-government rally sites, hundreds of people gathered to show respect for the king, but when images of Yingluck appeared on giant screens the crowd booed and many shouted obscenities. At the protest headquarters, the movement's leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, said the truce would end. "Today is a day that Thai people nationwide believe is an auspicious day," Suthep said after watching the king's speech. "Tomorrow the people's movement will continue to eradicate the Thaksin regime from Thailand." <^>

Yingluck Calls for Elections as 200,000 Protestors to End Deadly Thai Protest

In mid December 2013, after the “People’s Coup” protests, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament and called for fresh elections—in early February 2014—as more than 200,000 protesters converged on Government House in Bangkok to push for her ouster. “The government doesn’t want the country and the Thai people to suffer more losses,” Yingluck said in a speech broadcast on state television. “Returning power to voters is in line with the parliamentary democracy. We want all of you to see the importance of the election.” [Source: Anuchit Nguyen and Supunnabul Suwannakij, Bloomberg, December 9, 2013]

Protest leaders said Yingluck’s move won’t halt their push to install an unelected council to help rid Thailand of the political influence of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, whose allies have won every election since his ouster in a 2006 coup. “Yingluck and her ministers are still acting and have the power.” Satit Wonghnongtaey, one of the group’s leaders, told supporters at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, according to a live broadcast on Bluesky Television, which is affiliated with the opposition Democrat party. “We want the government to quit their acting posts and form a parliament of the people.”

Opposition lawmakers quit parliament en masse to join the protests, and may decline to contest an election that must be held within 45 to 60 days, according to Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University. A military-appointed court disbanded Thaksin’s party for violating election laws after the Democrats boycotted a national poll in 2006. “The Democrats have used this ploy before and can use it again,” Chambers said in a phone interview with Bloomberg Television. “They can say ‘look, we just won’t participate in the election’ and basically run democracy into the ground.”

Suthep Thaugsuban, the former Democrat party lawmaker who is leading the protests, said demonstrators would stay overnight at Government House. The police estimated the crowd at about 205,000 as of 3 p.m. “I skipped school to join the rally,” said Tewarat Supunnjam, 17, as he joined people marching though Bangkok’s biggest shopping district. “This government violated people’s trust over the amnesty bill and constitutional changes. It’s also mismanaged economic policies.”The demonstrators accuse parties linked to Thaksin of vote-buying and Yingluck’s administration of corruption and economic mismanagement. They have called for an appointed committee of “good people” to implement political reforms before handing power to a new, elected government.

Three days later Reuters reported: “A small group of Thai anti-govt protesters climbed over the walls into the grounds of the prime minister's office but quickly left after they moved aside internal barricades, a Reuters reporter said. The protesters said they wanted the police to withdraw from Government House. Riot police in the area held their positions and there was no confrontation. The protesters left after a few minutes. [Source: Reuters, December 12, 2013]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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