BANGKOK—Despite the ousting of Yingluck Shinawatra from her position as prime minister by Thailand’s highest court mid last week, the South East Asian nation’s protracted political crisis continues with no resolution in sight.
Following Wednesday’s dismissal of Yingluck and nine of her Pheu Thai Party cabinet ministers, for the inappropriate transfer of a senior security official in 2011, mass anti-government protests returned to Bangkok’s streets and demonstrators occupied several television stations for two nights.
This all came on the heels of Yingluck also being indicted by the National Anti-Corruption Commission on Thursday over her government’s controversial rice-pledging scheme that paid farmers above the market price for their produce.
In the same week, Surachai Liangboonlertchai was elected as the new head of Thailand’s officially non-partisan Senate. Surachai, however, is believed to be sympathetic to the anti-government protestors – known as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee(PRDC) – and their cause to rid the country of the influence of Yingluck’s divisive billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Thai premier who lives in exile to avoid criminal charges.
Led by an ex-Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban, the PRDC are supported by ultra royalists, middle-class Bangkokians, southerners and anyone else who despises the Shinawatras, who they say are overly corrupt and are disrespectful to the country’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
No Knockout Blow
David Streckfuss, an independent American scholar based in Thailand, said last week’s developments emboldened the PRDC to believe that it is making progress in its bid to oust what they call the “Thaksin regime”.
“This has made the PRDC become more aggressive and demanding and continuing to make assumptions that something significant happened and that the balance of power has shifted somehow,” Streckfuss said.
However he added that the court’s ruling failed to deliver a knockout blow that the PRDC were seeking and that the caretaker government remains in place with Yingluck being replaced by another pro-Thaksin politician, Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan.
As part of their broader street campaign, the PRDC has in the past six months occupied numerous government buildings and key parts of the nation’s capital. Over twenty people have died in violence related to the protests.
Saksith Saiyasombut, a writer and Thai political commentator based in Hamburg, Germany, said that the focus of Suthep and the anti-Thaksin forces remains the same as it has since the protest first began late last year.
“[They want to eradicate] everything that’s even remotely associated with Thaksin and Yingluck and to establish an unelected administration that wants to implement ‘reforms’,” said Saksith.
He said that Suthep and the PRDC had yet to explain what those reforms are but were probably about stifling the powers of an elected government even more.
“That is, if and when there’ll eventually be another election,” he added.
The PRDC effectively disrupted elections held in February to the point that the country’s Electoral Commission ruled the poll invalid, leaving the Pheu Thai Party with the limited powers of a caretaker government until a new election can reinstall their mandate.
The Pheu Thai Party has called for elections to be held on July 20 and if it proceeds, it’s widely accepted that they’d be voted back into power by their supporters in the populous north and north-east of the country.
However most commentators say it is unlikely that the election will occur anytime soon because of the ongoing protests and the threat of violence.
Suthep has recently called on the new senate leader, Thailand’s courts and the Election Commission to select a neutral interim prime minister who would oversee an interim “people’s government” to manage reforms before any election would be held.
Dr. Paul Chambers, from the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University said there could be a compromise between the elites of both sides to put in place a prime minister who is equally acceptable.
However he said the most probably outcome is that the PRDC and its backers will manage to have their own choice of prime minister placed into power. A scenario, he said, would infuriate the government’s supporters, the red shirts.
“This will create a lot of anger if that happens; you will see red shirts on the streets and perhaps clashes with Suthep’s forces and then the possibility of a military coup,” said Chambers.
In a show of support for the government, thousands of red shirts held their own mass rally on Bangkok’s outskirts over the weekend. One of their leaders Jatuporn Prompan told the crowd that Suthep’s plans were threatening to lead the country into a civil war, reported the Bangkok Post.
The red shirts were involved in the most violent episode of this protracted crisis when they clashed with the military in Bangkok four years ago.
The red shirts were then pressuring the unelected Democrat party-led government to call an election. Ninety-two people were killed, mostly red shirts. Eventually a general election was called and a year later Yingluck, then a political novice, was voted into power.
Chambers said that the red shirts are currently avoiding clashing with the PRDC because it could result in the army coming out to conduct a coup.
A scenario, he said, that Suthep would welcome.
“I don’t think Suthep cares if there is violence, and for him, if the military comes in well then it helps legitimize Suthep’s point in the beginning that the red shirts are the bad guy,” he said.
Since 1932, Thailand has had 18 military coups. The last one occurred in 2006 which ousted Thaksin and his government from power.
However both Chambers and Strefcuss say that the military – which is in itself politically divided – wants to avoid a coup.
“If the military steps in, then they will regret it one day. I don’t think they dare and yet it doesn’t look like election will ever be allowed to go through. But on the other hand they (the forces behind the PRDC) will never be able to get rid of this caretaker government,” said Streckfuss.
“It’s a real stalemate.”
Thailand Suffers Wave of Attacks
Suspected Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand launched a series of more than 30 attacks on Sunday (May 11), including shootings, bombings and arson, police said, killing one person and injuring more than 10. Thailand is predominantly Buddhist but parts of the south, in particular the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, are majority Muslim and decades-old resistance to central government rule resurfaced violently in 2004. (Reuters)