- By Jake Scobey-ThalJake Scobey-Thal is assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy. Previously, he worked as a freelance reporter in Myanmar and as the Asia Associate for Human Rights Watch. His articles have appeared in The Nation, Next City magazine, and Salon among others. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is done giving ground.
On Monday, after weeks of mass demonstrations in Bangkok calling for her resignation, the prime minister dissolved Parliament and announced early elections to be held in February. Yet despite the concessions, demonstrations continued, with protest leaders demanding Yingluck cede power within 24 hours to a "people’s council," an ambiguous governing body made up of appointed "good people." Yingluck ignored the ultimatum, reaffirming that she would not step down and pleaded with protesters to clear the streets and participate in elections. But those pleas have fallen on deaf ears, and on Thursday, the country’s aggressive protest movement went so far as to cut power to Yingluck’s office.
And therein lies the truth about Thailand’s popular demonstrations: The end game for the protests was never a more responsive political process. The rallies, which were organized by opposition Democrat Party leaders and drew thousands out to the streets to oppose what they describe as the corruption of the Yingluck government, have almost nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with seizing power by any means necessary.
The political stalemate is only the latest confrontation between Thailand’s Democratic Party, led by former Prime Minster Abhisit Vejjajiva, and those loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In August 2008, two years after being deposed in a 2006 military coup, Thaksin left Thailand while facing corruption charges — he was later found guilty in absentia and sentenced to two years in jail.
His flight and the dissolution of the pro-Thaksin People Power Party by the Constitutional Court laid the groundwork for violent clashes between his supporters, known as Red Shirts, and security forces in 2010. Mass demonstrations forced the governing Democratic Party coalition, led by Vejjajiva, to dissolve parliament and call early elections. The next year, Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, became Thailand’s first female Prime Minister after her Pheu Thai Party, which succeeded the People Power Party, won the majority of parliamentary seats in the 2011 elections. While Yingluck may have the title, Thaksin is thought to be highly influential in determining the policies of her administration. A New York Times profile from earlier this year of the exiled Thaksin described him as governing the country by Skype.
Political affiliations in Thailand are largely defined by demographics. Thaksin, a billionaire turned politician, is an unlikely populist hero, yet he enjoys widespread support from poor, rural communities in the country’s north. In contrast, Democrat voters tend to be upper and middle-class urban elites and southerners. And it is these demographics that explain the fundamental crisis facing Vejjajiva’s party: They don’t have a viable constituency to win at the polls.
The demonstrations seem to be following a familiar script: A Thaksin-supported administration has been voted in only to be challenged by institutions backed by political elites. We saw it in 2006 when the military took power in a coup d’état. We saw it in 2008 when the Constitutional Court disbanded Thaksin’s People Power Power. And we are seeing it again now in Bangkok’s energetic protesters.
The Democrat Party has not won an election in almost 20 years. And after Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party trounced them in the 2011 elections, it’s not surprising that Democrat Party leaders are less than bullish on the prospect of another vote. "We cannot beat them," Theptai Seanapong, a Democrat member of parliament, told the New York Times. "It doesn’t matter if we raise our hands and feet in parliamentary votes, we will never win."
"This is an anti-democratic movement that wants to remove an elected government," Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies told Foreign Policy. "Their aim is to make it ungovernable and hope for military intervention. Because the Democrat Party can’t win in an election."
With protesters still massing in the streets and Yingluck unwilling to cede power to an unelected governing body, many are questioning whether the military will indeed intervene. There is certainly precedent for it. The country has seen 18 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. While protest leaders have consistently called for the generals to pick sides, so far the military has been careful to keep its distance.
"The military learned important lessons from the 2006 coup and deadly crackdown on protesters in 2010," Pavin said. "They will be cautious after being condemned previously by the international community.
But the military isn’t solely worried about the response from international actors, according to Pavin. "If the military initiated a coup, Red Shirts would come out in full force to defend the government." The Red Shirts have already signaled their willingness to mass in support of the Yingluck administration — on Wednesday, one of the movement’s leaders announced Red Shirt supporters would rally in provinces surrounding Bangkok if anti-government protesters kept up their demands for a "People’s Council."
The generals did little to clear up their intentions on Thursday. After first rebuffing protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban’s request for a meeting, the armed forces issued a statement late in the day saying they had invited Suthep to join military leaders at a seminar on Saturday. The goal of the seminar, according to the statement, was "to find a way out for Thailand."
While the military seems content to appear to play the mediator, some believe they have taken a more active role behind the scenes. According to an op-ed in the Bangkok Post Thursday, many Pheu Thai loyalists believe Suthep has the discreet backing of the military. The piece cites rumors that Suthep already met with top generals two days ago.
"I do think it’s possible that the military is behind this," Pavin told FP.
Even if the military stays on the sidelines, the prospects for a viable political settlement seem bleak. Yingluck has made it clear that she will not step down. And given the electoral math, opposition leaders won’t accept a new vote. "The dissolving of parliament is not our aim," Suthep told Reuters.
So for now, anti-government protesters will stay on the streets, waiting to see if Thailand’s military will hand them the government that they cannot take at the ballot box.