The situation in Thailand is becoming more tense as time progresses. The crisis began in October 2013, when the Yingluck administration tried to pass an amnesty bill that would have applied to all offences committed during and after the 2006 military coup that overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The bill was met with strong disapproval from the opposition, as it would have cleared Thaksin of all charges and would have thus allowed him to return to Thailand and hold political office. Under the leadership of MP Suthep Thaugsuban, anti-government protesters took to the streets to voice their discontent regarding the bill and the government more generally.
While the bill was withdrawn by the Yingluck administration following the Senate’s vote against it, the protests continued. What started as an opposition movement against the amnesty bill developed into a protest against the Yingluck administration and the Pheu Thai Party. Protesters are heavily supported by Southern voters, the Bangkok middle class, and the ultra-royalist elite. Suthep, along with eight other MPs, resigned in order to lead the protests.
The opposition stepped up pressure on the government by occupying several government buildings in November 2013, including the headquarters of the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Special Investigations. This led to clashes with Pheu Thai supporters, which left four protesters dead and hundreds wounded. Such escalation led Suthep to call for the “final battle”, a march towards the Government house that was intended to ramp up pressure on the Yingluck administration. The call was backed by the Democrat Party, whose 153 remaining MPs collectively resigned from their parliamentary posts in December 2013. Yingluck subsequently asked the King to dissolve Parliament and initiate new elections, hoping it would ease political tensions. However, her cabinet did not resign, which served as an excuse for the opposition to carry on with the protests. The opposition is demanding the immediate resignation of Yingluck and her cabinet, and the appointment of a non-elected People’s Council for 12 to 18 months to conduct necessary political reforms.
As a result of those demands, the Democrat Party decided to boycott the 2014 elections. Suthep subsequently announced on December 28, 2013 his intent to shut down Bangkok with mass protests, in an effort to further add pressure on the Yingluck administration. In response, Yingluck declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas on January 21, 2014.
The current political situation is symptomatic of a bigger problem: the lack of democratic culture in Thailand. Thaksin Shinawatra is the only Prime Minister in modern Thai history to have survived an entire term in office. All of the others were either overthrown by the military or forced to resign under pressure from below. Suthep is trying to perpetuate this tradition by attempting to seize power in a non-democratic way, knowing that there is little chance he would be able to do so via elections: the Democrat Party has not won an election since 1992 and only gathered 35% of the vote in the 2011 election, while the Pheu Thai Party received 48% of the votes. Given current demographics, Thailand is structurally a pro-Pheu Thai country, as the rural poor of the North outnumber people living in Southern Thailand and Bangkok.
However, there is currently a window of opportunity to win an election against the Pheu Thai Party. The Shinawatra family gained widespread approval from rural populations by implementing a lucrative rice-buying program in 2011, in which the Thai government guarantees the purchase of all the rice produced in Thailand at above-market price, to increase agricultural income. However, as a consequence of the rice scheme, rice exports to China and the U.S. have more than halvedand Thai rice prices soared, making it more expensive than rice from Vietnam and India. As a result, farms are forced to downsize, leading to discontent in rural areas, the core of the Pheu Thai voter base. In addition, the increased price of rice multiplied the potential for corruption, leading Yingluck to be probed by the Thai anti-corruption commission over alleged corrupt practices related to the rice scheme.
Rather than dedicating his energy to leading the Bangkok protests, Suthep could be leading a very powerful campaign aimed at those who suffered from the rice-buying scheme. Doing so would help claw back votes from the Pheu Thai base and enable him to remake the Democrat Party. Instead, Suthep has chosen to stay in Bangkok to lead anti-government protests, consolidating the perception of the Democratic Party as being the party of the elites. He has also opted to perpetuate the Thai “tradition” of ousting leaders in non-democratic ways by attempting to have the military involved in the political stalemate by blocking Bangkok .
Despite Suthep’s high popularity in Bangkok and Southern Thailand and corruption allegations against Yingluck, his methods are undemocratic. As long as opposition parties resort to such extreme methods to express discontent towards the government, Thailand will remain a failed democracy.
Florian Decludt is a M.A. Candidate in International Affairs with a concentration in Security & Development at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He previously studied and worked overseas in France, Australia, the Dominican Republic and Singapore. His areas of focus are maritime security and Southeast Asian & Pacific Affairs.
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