VIOLENCE AND UNCERTAINTY AFTER THE 2014 ELECTIONS IN THAILAND

VIOLENCE CONTINUES AFTER 2014 ELECTIONS

Violent protests continued after the February 2 elections. In late February Reuters reported: Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the target of anti-government protesters who have blocked parts of Bangkok for weeks, has left the city and is staying 150 kilometers away, her office said, without specifying the location. The protests, punctuated by occasional gunfire and bomb blasts, including one which killed a woman and a young brother and sister. [Source: Reuters, February 24, 2014]

Yingluck’s ability to combat the protests has been limited by a court ruling that removed her power to enforce a state of emergency imposed in late January. The Civil Court ruled Feb. 19 that the government couldn’t use measures allowed under a state of emergency to combat the protests, saying the demonstrations had been peaceful. The ruling came a day after five people were killed at a protest site in Bangkok’s historic district near Government House. Yingluck said the court’s decision compromised the government’s ability to maintain law and order. “No one respects the rules,” she told reporters today. “How can we make it peaceful? It’s time for us to talk and face each other.”

AFP reported: In “another legal setback to Yingluck, a Thai Civil Court ordered the government not to use force against peaceful protests, limiting the authorities' scope to deal with opposition rallies that have descended into violence on several occasions. Authorities announced they would swiftly appeal the decision, saying it has crippled their ability to keep order and uphold the law. "Protesters can lay seige to government offices and obstruct elections as the public has seen," Tarit Pengdith, of the agency in charge of the security response to the crisis, said in a televised address on Thursday. "That's not right," he said, adding their work "has been stopped" by the court ruling. [Source: AFP, February 20, 2014]

Sixteen people have been killed, both protesters and policemen, and hundreds injured in gunfire and grenade blasts linked to demonstrations. New York-based Human Rights Watch accused both sides of using live ammunition in clashes on Tuesday in Bangkok's historic district in which five people were killed and dozens wounded. "Excessive force by the police and violence by groups on both sides of the political divide needs to stop to prevent this situation from escalating out of control," HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement. The government has said security forces used only rubber bullets and not live ammunition.

Red Shirts During the Anti-Yingluck Protests

The Red Shirts mostly kept a low profile during the political unrest, but as Yingluck faced what her supporters feel are unfair court rulings compromising her ability to govern, there hung the threat they would take to the streets again. The courts are widely seen as being biased against Yingluck and Thaksin’s political machine.

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post, “Thaksin’s defenders have stayed away from the main protest sites, fearful of bloodshed, but they’ve found other ways to provoke. Kwanchai Sarakum, 62, who runs a pro-Thaksin radio station in the north, decided in early January to raise 500,000 baht ($15,000) as a bounty for Suthep’s arrest and printed up “wanted” posters — the kind of stunt pulled from a Western movie. The offer, though, was real: Kwanchai planned to give the sum to any officer who put the protest leader in handcuffs. He raised the money in two weeks. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, March 1, 2014 +++]

“But on Jan. 22, while Kwanchai sat on his front porch, a Toyota pickup truck rolled down the street. Gunmen sprayed more than 40 bullets, snapping the bones in Kwanchai’s right arm and injuring his leg. If the attack showed the threat of violence posed by the political crisis, it also demonstrated the real power of the former prime minister. Thaksin called the local police and ordered them to investigate, Kwanchai’s friends say. +++

“And so two weeks after the shooting, more than a dozen police returned to the scene of the crime, brandishing a wiry 39-year-old who said he had been hired by people in the south. The alleged gunman, holding an unloaded weapon, showed how he had popped up from the back of the truck and fired off the rounds. Thaksin-friendly media had been tipped off to the show and did live stand-up in front of Kwanchai’s house. A trailer-sized banner on Kwanchai’s property served as the backdrop. It read: “I give my world to Thaksin, my only boss.” +++

Four People Killed in Clashes Between Police and Anti-Government Protestors in Bangkok

In mid February, about two weeks after the election, gun battles broke out between Thai police and anti-government protesters, leaving four people dead and dozens wounded. Athit Perawongmetha and Damir Sagolj of Reuters wrote: “The clashes were some of most intense between protesters and security forces since the campaign to unseat Yingluck began in November. The military, which has said it would intervene if police are unable to control security in the capital, has not publicly commented on the violence. [Source: Athit Perawongmetha and Damir Sagolj, Reuters, February 18, 2014]

“Reuters witnesses heard gunfire and saw police firing weapons in the Phan Fa Bridge area in the old quarter of the city. Police said they had come under fire from a sniper on a rooftop and M-79 grenades were also fired. A policeman was killed by a gunshot and several were wounded by a grenade, security officials said. The Erawan Medical Centre, which monitors hospitals, said on its website that three protesters had also been killed by gunfire. The centre said 64 people had been wounded but did not say how many were police and how many were civilians. Police said they had arrested 183 people at two protest sites at the Energy Ministry, which had been cleared of protesters, and Phan Fa Bridge, and were detaining them for violating a state of emergency declared last month.

“Security officials said earlier that 15,000 officers were involved in the operation, "Peace for Bangkok Mission", to reclaim protest sites around central Bangkok's Government House and other government offices in the north of the capital. Yingluck has been forced to abandon her offices in Government House by the protesters, led by a former deputy premier, Suthep Thaugsuban, who have also blocked major intersections since mid-January. Suthep told supporters at an evening rally in Bangkok's central business district that protesters would gather outside Yingluck's temporary offices at a Defence Ministry facility in north Bangkok. "We are not afraid anymore. Tomorrow we will go to the Defence Ministry office... we will chase them (Yingluck and her ministers) out. No matter where Yingluck is, we will follow."

Trouble started with clouds of teargas near Government House and soon police were crouching behind riot shields as officers clashed with protesters. It was not clear who had fired the teargas and the authorities blamed protesters. By the afternoon, police had largely withdrawn from protest sites and the streets were quiet. There has been no move against the biggest protest sites in the city's commercial and shopping districts.

The fatalities brought to 15 the number of people killed in sporadic violence between protesters, security forces and government supporters since the demonstrations began. Hundreds have been hurt.

Bangkok Blast Kills Three at Protest Zone in Retail District

Three people were killed, including a six-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother, after an explosion ripped through an anti-government protest site in Bangkok’s main shopping district. Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Anuchit Nguyen of Bloomberg wrote: “At least 21 people were injured in the blast near the CentralWorld shopping mall in Rajdamri Road about 5 p.m. local time, the Bangkok Emergency Medical Service said on its website. The death toll from four months of political unrest rose to 21 today, after a policeman who was shot in the head during a clash with protesters on Feb. 18 died in the hospital. [Source: Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Anuchit Nguyen, Bloomberg, February 24, 2014]

Demonstrators led by former opposition party powerbroker Suthep Thaugsuban have refused to negotiate with the government, saying protests that began Oct. 31 won’t end until an unelected council is put in place to reform what they say is a corrupt political system. Thailand’s military has resisted calls to intervene, and Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha said today that differences should be resolved peacefully. “If there are more losses, the country will collapse and no one will win,” Prayuth said in a televised address, adding that the military “doesn’t want to use force or weapons to fight with other Thai people who have different views.”

The police didn’t intervene today when demonstrators entered the compounds of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a pro-government television station controlled by Thaksin’s family. Yingluck’s ability to combat the protests has been limited by a court ruling last week that removed her power to enforce a state of emergency. “Since the court decision, protesters have begun to close down state agencies again,” Tharit Pengdit, the director-general of the Department of Special Investigation, told reporters. “We couldn’t do anything.”

Suthep blamed Yingluck and Thaksin’s “minions” for the explosion in Bangkok, while Chalerm Yoobamrung, the government minister overseeing the response to the protests, said the attacks aim to “bring down the government.” “These are the actions of people who are cornered,” Suthep told supporters in a speech. “They can’t use officials against us, so they use bad guys to kill us. I can’t believe an elected government would do something so cruel and inhuman.”

A dwindling number of demonstrators have blockaded key intersections in central Bangkok since early January. Some sites have been largely peaceful, with nightly entertainment and speeches attracting families and tourists, while violent clashes have broken out at protest zones near Government House and a complex of government offices in Bangkok’s north.

The blast outside a Big C Supercenter Pcl branch killed a 40-year-old woman in addition to the two children, according to the Bangkok EMS. A five-year-old girl was killed a day earlier in a blast near a protest site in eastern Trat province. The United Nations Children’s Fund said the demonstration sites sites should become “child-free zones.” The fund “condemns the violence that resulted in these tragic and senseless deaths and injuries to children,” it said in a statement on its website today. “These incidents underscore the urgent need to keep children out of harm’s way.”

Thai Political Crisis Violence Spreads Beyond Bangkok

In late February 2014, Associated Press reported: “Gunmen in a pickup truck attacked an anti-government protest in Thailand’s east, killing at least one, an 8-year-old girl, and wounding dozens, as violence in the country’s three-month-old political crisis spread outside Bangkok, officials said. The attack took place Saturday night in Trat Province, about 300 kilometers east of Bangkok, where about 500 protesters demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra were holding a rally near food stalls where people were dining. [Source: Associated Press, February 24, 2014]

Thai media reported that as many as three people were killed and several others are in critical condition, but National Security Council chief Lt. Gen. Paradorn Pattanathuabutr so far confirmed one fatality—an 8-year-old girl. Police Lt. Thanabhum Newanit said unidentified assailants in a pickup shot into the crowd and two explosive devices went off. It was not clear if the protest group, which uses armed guards, fought back. He and other officials said that about three dozen people were hurt.

Before the shooting in Trat violence had been mostly confined to Bangkok. The night before six people were hurt when unknown attackers threw a grenade into a protest crowd in Bangkok. Both sides in the ongoing political dispute have blamed the other for instigating violence. “At this point we do not know who was behind the attack, but there are several factors to take into account in the investigation,” Paradorn said. He added that the protesters in Trat have been rallying for a long time, “so they might have caused disturbance to others. And that area is controlled by groups that are affiliated with the anti-government side,” he said.

Thai Opposition Protesters to End Bangkok ‘Shutdown’

In early March 2014, anti-government protesters seeking to force the prime minister from office abandoned most of their rally sites in Bangkok, effectively ending their self-styled “shutdown” of Bangkok. AFP reported: The move follows increasingly frequent gunfire and grenade attacks targeting the protest sites, mostly at night. Attendance at the demonstrations has fallen sharply in recent weeks, with most sites nearly deserted for much of the day and a few thousand people joining the rallies in the evenings. [Source: AFP, March 1, 2014]

While the scaling back of the protests is a relief for the embattled premier, she also faces negligence charges linked to a flagship rice subsidy program that her critics say is riddled with corruption. If found guilty, she could be removed from office and face a five-year ban from politics.

The demonstrators have occupied several key intersections in the heart of the capital for more than a month, camping out alongside upscale shopping malls and luxury hotels. Civilian protest guards — many wearing body armor — have searched cars and pedestrians at roadblocks made from tires and sandbags, to the annoyance of some residents.

Tthe demonstrators consolidate into one base in Lumpini Park, their leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, announced on stage. He said the move aimed to ease traffic congestion caused by the rallies. “I feel for the Bangkok residents who joined hands to fight” alongside the protesters, Suthep said. But he said the struggle to topple the government and end the political domination of Yingluck’s billionaire family would go on. “I will speed up to reach the end game as soon as possible . . . within March,” Suthep said.

Violence linked to the rallies has left 23 people dead and hundreds wounded in recent weeks. Four children were among those killed in two grenade and gun attacks on opposition rallies in Bangkok and eastern Thailand last weekend, drawing widespread condemnation. The demonstrators have besieged a number of major state buildings, including the government headquarters, forcing Yingluck to work from various temporary offices. Yingluck indicated she would be ready to talk if protesters agree to end their rallies. The unrest has caused a drop in tourist arrivals to Bangkok — usually one of the world’s most visited cities — in a blow to the kingdom’s struggling economy.

Thai Democracy Threatened by the 2013-2014

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post, “Thailand has long stood apart in Southeast Asia, never communist, never colonized, and it has developed a turbulent brand of democracy — one often interrupted by bloodless coups. But the latest turmoil is particularly worrying because Thailand’s revered king, long seen as a guarantor of relative order, now appears too old to intervene. The fear is not so much a coup but the division of the country. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, March 1, 2014 +++]

“There’s no mediator,” said Suphachai Jaismut, a deputy secretary general of a small Thai political party that has in the past formed coalitions both with Thaksin and his opponents. Suphachai nodded at a portrait of King Bhumiphol Adulyadej, 86, who has ruled for the past six decades. “It’s a street fight,” Suphachai said. +++

“That street fight has left the country paralyzed. Protesters say that Thaksin, in between rounds of golf, runs the country as a puppet master from his home in Dubai, using his sister — the current prime minister — as a proxy. So opposed are the protesters to Thaksin, they interfered with an election last month that would have presumably returned his sister to power. Until the election is completed — and there’s no guarantee it will be — the sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is a mere caretaker. She is unable to sign off on government projects. Thailand is without a legislature. +++

Thaksin avoids Thailand, where he faces a two-year jail sentence for graft, and instead trots around the world, often to Hong Kong and Cambodia. Suthep, the anti-government leader, said in an interview that government officials and police chiefs who want high-level appointments must pay a visit to Thaksin. “We have come to the point where we want to get rid of Al Capone,” said Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister and ambassador to the United States. +++

“At its height, the protest movement drew 200,000 people, but it dwindled in recent weeks amid the violence. In early March, protesters retreated from their blocked-off Bangkok intersections and assembled at a park normally filled with joggers and sunbathers. The protest movement “blocked seven intersections for several months, and it did not produce a result,” Somkiat Onwimon, a former member of Congress who has spoken at some of the protests, said Saturday. “So Suthep might have thought all this was going to be in vain.” +++

“The protests often had the trappings of a party — noisemakers, colorful T-shirts, free plates of curry — but demonstrators shared a sense of anxiety. They were bureaucrats, middle-class urbanites, even the wealthy, people used to having the ear of politicians. And now they feared they’d lost it. But the weary demonstrators say this is not just about losing privileges. Thailand squanders about 35 percent of its government spending on graft — more than twice what it did before Thaksin came to power, according to the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The country’s most important institutions, once weak but nonpartisan, have all taken sides, some packed with Thaksin loyalists, others full of traditional civil servants. The courts, for instance, tend to go against Thaksin. The police strongly support him; Thaksin was once an officer. +++

“For all their concerns about corruption and autocratic government, though, the protesters have managed to squander their international support. They have asked not just for the withdrawal of the amnesty bill but also the dissolution of an elected government. When Yingluck agreed to hold new elections, the protesters, knowing their favored Democratic Party couldn’t win, cordoned off polling stations. “There’s no moral high ground at all,” said Sunai Phasuk, a Bangkok-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. +++

“Thailand’s stalemate will probably be broken not with an uprising but rather a judicial decision that either paves the way for completing the elections or ousts Yingluck. Given the leanings of Thailand’s courts, Yingluck is vulnerable, facing a corruption probe for an ill-conceived rice-buying scheme. The violence could soar, Thais fear, when either side gains a clear upper hand. If Yingluck is forced from power, rural northerners could welcome her to that region as the rightful prime minister. “Should there be any coup, we should divide the country,” said Cherdchai Tontisirin, who represented the northern city of Khon Kaen in parliament until January. “We’re well prepared for that.” +++

Impeachment Proceedings Over Yingluck’s Rice Pledging Scheme

In January 2014,Thailand's anti-graft commission launched an impeachment investigation into Yingluck's role in her government’s rice subsidy program. Opponents say the multi-billion-dollar scheme is riddled with corruption and benefits landowners and local politicians more than poorer rice growers. If found guilty she could face a five-year ban from politics. It is unclear how long the commission will take to reach a conclusion. If the panel decides that Yingluck is guilty, the case will be referred to the partially elected upper house of parliament for an impeachment vote.

FoxNews.com reported: Yingluck “is facing new legal troubles after the National Anti-Corruption Commission announced that it had found grounds to investigate allegations that Yingluck was criminally negligent in her handling of what the government has described as a deal to export surplus rice to China. The commission has already determined that there are grounds to press charges against her former commerce minister and more than a dozen other officials. If found guilty, Yingluck would be forced to resign. Yingluck's supporters fear the move is part of a legal push by opponents to oust her. After her brother Thaksin was toppled in 2006, court rulings forced two other pro-Thaksin heads of government from power. [Source: FoxNews.com, Associated Press, January 17, 2014]

The rice pledging scheme is one of several populist policies the ruling Pheu Thai party campaigned on before winning the 2011 vote that brought Yingluck to office. Under the policy, the government buys rice at above-market prices from rice farmers, mostly in the north and northeast, and attempts to sell it to other countries. Critics say the government has been deliberately opaque in its transactions and warn the policy will bring the country to the brink of financial ruin.

"Although she knew that many people had warned about corruption in the scheme, she still continued with it. That shows her intention to cause losses to the government so we have unanimously agreed to charge her," Vicha Mahakhun, a member of the commission, said in a statement. Yingluck headed up the rice-policy committee but has said that she delegated many tasks to ministers. [Source: Athit Perawongmetha and Damir Sagolj, Reuters, February 18, 2014]

In mid February 2014, Yingluck protested her innocence after an anti-corruption panel filed charges of neglect of duty. AFP reported: “Yingluck questioned why the investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) into an expensive rice subsidy scheme had apparently been fast-tracked."I reaffirm that I am innocent of the accusations by the NACC," Yingluck said on her official Facebook page. "Even though I am accused of criminal charges and face removal (from office), which were the wishes of people who want to overthrow the government, I am willing to cooperate to establish the facts," she added. [Source: AFP, February 20, 2014]

The NACC said Yingluck ignored warnings that the rice scheme was fostering corruption and causing financial losses. Yingluck urged the panel not to rush to deliver a ruling "which may be criticised by society as benefiting people who want to overthrow the government," noting that similar complaints against the previous administration were still under investigation. Her critics say the controversial scheme encouraged corruption, drained the public coffers and left the country with a mountain of unsold stock. They accuse her billionaire family of using taxpayers' money to buy the loyalty of rural voters through such populist policies. Yingluck said she was simply trying to improve the lives of farmers.

Prime Minister Yingluck skipped her anti-graft hearing in late February. AFP reported: Yingluck, who has protested her innocence, will not personally attend the appointment to acknowledge allegations linked to her government’s flagship rice farm subsidy scheme, her office said. “She assigned her lawyers to represent her,” Yingluck’s deputy secretary Thawat Boonfuang told AFP. Yingluck flew to her political stronghold in northern Thailand on Wednesday where she is expected to spend several days inspecting government-backed projects. The prime minister’s critics welcome the graft probe as a long-overdue attempt to hold the government to account, but to her supporters it is part of an attempted power grab.

“These are elaborate plans to overthrow the government without actually staging a physical coup,” said Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-educated lawyer and political commentator. Dozens of pro-Yingluck lawmakers in the Senate, the upper house, face possible political bans over a failed attempt to amend the constitution to make the Senate fully elected. Without a ruling party after protesters disrupted a February 2 election, a power vacuum could emerge, leaving the remaining unelected senators to appoint a new prime minister, according to legal experts. Rice Farmers Besiege Thai PM'S Office as Protesters Surround Government HQ

While Thailand's anti-graft commission was launching it impeachment investigation into Yingluck's role in her government’s rice subsidy program, Hundreds of unpaid Thai rice farmers gathered around the temporary office of the prime minister, threatening to storm the building if the premier did not come out and address their concerns. Amy Sawitta Lefevre of Reuters wrote: “The escalation of the protest by farmers, who have not been paid for crops sold to the government under a state rice-buying scheme, came as thousands of demonstrators seeking to unseat the prime minister surrounded the government's headquarters. Live television pictures showed farmers climbing over barbed wire fences and barriers at the Defence Ministry compound in north Bangkok where Yingluck has set up temporary offices. They pushed back a line of riot police, who retreated from confrontation, but did not enter the building. [Source: Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Reuters, February 17, 2014]

"The prime minister is well-off but we are not. How are we going to feed our children? I want her to think about us," said one protesting farmer. "Farmers are tough people, they wouldn't normally speak out but they are at the end of their tether," she added. The farmers have mostly kept apart from a broader anti-government protest movement, about 10,000 of whose members surrounded the prime minister's main Government House offices in central Bangkok.

"We will use quick-dry cement to close the gates of Government House so that the cabinet cannot go in to work," Nittitorn Lamrue, leader of the Network of Students and People for Thailand's Reform, a group aligned with the main protest group, told reporters. Protesters moved concrete barriers to block entrances of Government House and poured cement over the barriers in what they said was a "symbolic gesture" to show the building was closed. Yingluck has been forced to work from the temporary offices since January.

A few days later, Pairat Temphairojana and Panarat Thepgumpanat of Reuters wrote: “Thai farmers, angry at not being paid under a rice subsidy scheme, called off a protest tractor drive to Bangkok's main airport after an assurance they would get their money. The farmers had said they wanted to make a symbolic protest, with no plans to block air traffic as in 2008, when protesters forced Bangkok's two main airports to close. [Source: Pairat Temphairojana and Panarat Thepgumpanat, February 21, 2014]

Former member of parliament Chada Thaiseth, speaking for the farmers gathered in Ayutthaya province, said they had been assured of payment. "The government will make payment next week. The farmers will head back now and will see whether the government will pay as promised," he told Reuters. "If it isn't delivered, we will return." He said payments would be made via the state-owned Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives from next week.The government said it would sell bonds to pay for the rice, but that it would take seven or eight weeks for the sale to start, a move likely to prompt criticism that it is acting beyond its remit.

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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