BANGKOK—Thailand’s top general, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has said that the country’s military is prepared to take action if the political situation in Bangkok turns violent.
“Whenever conflicts become violent and insoluble, the military will have to solve them. We will do our best to take care of the nation and use the right methods,” Gen. Prayuth said on Wednesday according to the Bangkok Post.
Prayuth said that there are some groups who use violence to create further unrest in the Thai capital, which has seen mass anti-government demonstrations since November.
The crisis escalated early last week when anti-government protesters took control of seven key intersections in this city of over 8 million people in their bid to topple the government of embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Police have taken no action to evict the protesters—who are made up of royalists, middle-class Bangkok residents, and southerners—from the once busy intersections, which now look more like festivals with stages, tents, street markets, and marquees.
Army on the Side Lines
The army has done its best so far to remain neutral during the crisis, preferring to sit on the sidelines and do its best to ignore rumors that it is preparing another coup. Since 1932, the military has performed 18 coups or attempted coups. The last was in 2006 against former populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who is Yingluck’s older brother.
Prayuth’s comments Wednesday were the first sign that the army could take action to resolve the current political crisis, which has resulted in nine related deaths and hundreds of injuries.
A protester was killed last Friday in one of two recent grenade attacks in broad daylight by unidentified parties against anti-government protesters. Dozens were injured. There have been other similar bomb attacks and shootings against the protesters recently but these occurred during the night. Kwanchai Praipana, a fiery pro-government red shirt leader was wounded, shot by an unknown gunman at his house in the northeast of the country Wednesday.
Both the government and the protesters blame each other for the attacks.
State of Emergency
Prayuth’s comments came a day after Yingluck announced that Bangkok and surrounding areas would be under a 60-day emergency decree.
Writer and Thai political commentator Saksith Saiyasombut said that Yingluck’s caretaker government has taken a very adamant nonconfrontational approach toward the protest movement.
“The state of emergency declaration was the first proactive move by her Cabinet in a while. However, it seems to have only emboldened the protest leaders,” said Saksith.
The leadership of the anti-government protesters has stated that it is ignoring the state of emergency decree and will continue protesting against Yingluck’s government and her decision to hold snap elections scheduled for Feb. 2.
The protesters said the elections are a farce and that reform of the Thai political system needs to occur before true democracy can be practiced in the country. They want Yingluck to step aside so an unelected interim government can carry out reforms before any voting is allowed.
The main opposition, the Democrat party—that has boycotted the Feb. 2 election—is backing the protest movement, which is led by Suthep Thaugsuban who until recently was a prominent Democrat party member. Suthep is a controversial figure seen by many as being tainted by corruption himself.
While Suthep and other protest leaders give speeches from stages at the occupied intersections, one of the protesters, a 43-year-old office worker, was unsure if the protests were going to be effective enough to force the government from office.
“I just want this cycle to end: the protests, the coups, the corruption, but it will take time,” said Napuds, who’s real name was omitted at the interviewee’s request because of security concerns.
“A government needs to listen to the voices of the minority as well, and this illegitimate government does not do that and it’s self serving. That is why I protest,” she said.
Napuds has protested against pro-Thaksin governments before when she took part in mass rallies in 2006 and 2008, which were organized by the royalist Yellow Shirt Movement. She joined this current round of protests when it first began as a popular expression against a government amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand from self-imposed exile and be cleared of corruption charges.
Niramon, a 26-year-old photographer who has been covering the protests, said she agreed that Thai politics needed reform but believed that the elections should go ahead. Niramon’s real name was omitted at the interviewee’s request because of security concerns.
“It is up to the people to decide who should be in charge of reforms and if governments do not comply, it is up to the people to vote them out,” Niramon said adding that she was against an interim council who she said would tamper with the election process.
Niramon was concerned about the rhetoric coming from some of the protest leaders, which she said only created further divisions in Thai society.
“As long as stage leaders keep preaching xenophobia, class hatred, and nationalism on stage, there will always be very little trust between both sides,” she said.
“My greatest concern is that there will be violence on Election Day if protesters are convinced that blocking polling booths will further their cause because red shirts and neutral voters will not hesitate to defend their right to vote.”
Some commentators said that the election early next month may not be held. One of the five members of the country’s Election Commission has publicly expressed doubt about the timing of the elections.
The prime minister has other headaches also, largely in the form of corruption investigations into her government’s controversial rice-pledging scheme, which could possibly dissolve her Pheu Thai party.
Then there is other, not so public, political power grabbing behind the scenes between the Bangkok elites who are the traditional ruling class and those loyal to Thaksin.
Despite such doubts, political parties are having campaign banners out on Bangkok’s streets and advance booths for voting are expected to open this weekend.
If held, the elections are certain to favor the Yingluck government, which is popular with rural voters in the north and northeast of the country.
Political commentator Saksith, however, said that it’s very difficult to see in which direction Thailand’s political situation is moving.
“Almost any political prediction could be made redundant by the next day. The current political situation is at an impasse with no room for compromise,” Saksith said.