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Thailand on the Brink—Again

by Joshua Kurlantzick
November 26, 2013

Anti-government protesters wave flags while standing in heavy rain outside the Interior Ministry in Bangkok on November 26, 2013. Nearly 3,000 flag-waving anti-government protesters massed in front of Thailand's Interior Ministry on Tuesday, a day after they stormed compounds of two other ministries. (Kerek Wongsa/Courtesy Reuters) Anti-government protesters wave flags while standing in heavy rain outside the Interior Ministry in Bangkok on November 26, 2013. Nearly 3,000 flag-waving anti-government protesters massed in front of Thailand's Interior Ministry on Tuesday, a day after they stormed compounds of two other ministries. (Kerek Wongsa/Courtesy Reuters)

Today marks the second day of  Bangkok protestors’ occupation of several of Thailand’s major ministries. Although so far there has been minimal violence, by Thai standards, demonstrators yesterday physically attacked one of the finest photojournalists in Thailand, Nick Nostitz, in a particularly galling and sad move, and they also threatened to attack other onlookers and reporters.

But more broadly, the occupation of ministries, abetted by several former senior members of the Democrat Party, is a clear escalation of the demonstrations.  (Can one imagine the U.S. government or another democracy in Europe allowing protesters to just take over major ministries?) These protests started out as demonstrations against the proposed amnesty law, but that bill has now been withdrawn. The real purpose of the protests, to get rid of the government and—they hope—the Shinawatra family from politics, has now been revealed. The occupation also is the next step in a tried-and-true game that has played itself out over and over again in Thailand over the past decade; the tactics clearly resemble those of yellow shirt protesters back in 2008, when they occupied Bangkok’s major airport and paralyzed commerce in and out of the city. Yellow shirt protesters want to paralyze policymaking, and paralyze Bangkok and—by extension—all of Thailand, since Bangkok is so dominant over every aspect of Thailand’s economy and politics. The demonstrators hope to draw the government, which already made a huge mistake by trying to ram through the amnesty bill, into making another mistake like using unnecessary force to clear demonstrations and thus looking like an authoritarian regime. Indeed, protesters constantly refer to the “Thaksin regime,” although most academics and other analysts would only apply the word “regime” to an unelected government, whether or not that elected government was venal or ineffective.

The protests have a real chance of working, at least in the short-term; in the long-term the demonstrators still have no vision for how to move Thailand toward a liberal democracy in which both the will of voters (even, yes, poor people who vote!) and the rule of law are upheld. The protest-as-paralysis strategy worked in the late 2000s against the previous iteration of Puea Thai, undermining the government’s legitimacy and ultimately paving the way for the Democrat-led coalition to take over Parliament, albeit without winning any elections.

Perhaps the Yingluck administration will find some way out of this tight situation, perhaps by using the leverage it has gained with the military to keep the army out of it, calling a new election and winning it, and not using anything more than nonviolent crowd control while simultaneously negotiating an end to the ministry occupation. But I doubt it. I doubt that this situation will de-escalate peacefully and without the intervention of other actors. The past decade shows that Thailand’s leaders currently are incapable of de-escalating once these types of street protests cross a certain line. Like Nicholas Farrelly at New Mandala, I suspect that, even if the Thai government holds for a short period of time, Thailand is headed for another extraconstitutional intervention—a coup, a major judicial intervention, or something else.

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  • Posted by Mariussa

    I think the article is spot-on to emphasize that the current government was elected by popular vote. A large majority of the electorate still support it, despite a rising and vocal opposition. As it happened before with the Thaksin government, the Yingluck cabinet is accused of being “populist” and corrupt. But fact is that this populism is supported by the many left-behinds in the rural areas. This majority lost their elected representatives with the last coup. If the military or judicial elite wants to stop this majority again from expressing their political will, there would be a high chance that a violent conflict erupts. If the aged King would die soon, a major moral force to keep the system stable and working will be gone.

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