- 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.
Don’t be fooled by the tens of thousands of protesters in the streets. Massive demonstrations that have blossomed in the streets of Thailand this week have very little to do with democracy.
Instead, those protesters hope to oust the current government and replace it with an unelected "People’s Council." They would probably settle for a military coup as well.
Dubbed "Shutdown Bangkok," anti-government protesters, led by former opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban, have made it their goal to bring the country’s capital to a standstill. Demonstrators have clogged the major intersections of Thailand’s capital city, and Bangkok has seen sporadic violence, including an explosion at the house of a former prime minister.
On Wednesday, protest leaders boycotted a proposed meeting to discuss postponing the Feb. 2 elections. The snub underscores the fundamental crisis of this standoff: the movement, orchestrated by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), has no interest in democratic reform. The partisans on the streets do not have sufficient popular support to win at the polls, and are, as a result, seeking to delegitimize the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra through blunt force.
With the PDRC planning to stay on the streets for a month and the prime minister unwilling to resign, the future of Thai politics likely lies in the hands of the army.
The latest demonstrations are an extension of the same partisan deadlock that has paralyzed Thai politics for years — one that centers around the deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Though Thaksin, the brother of Yingluck Shinawatra, the current prime minister, fled Thailand in 2008 amid corruption charges, he still wields significant influence in Thai politics. His high levels of popular support, particularly among rural poor in the country’s north, swept his sister into power in 2011. Despite living in exile, he is thought to be key in determining her administration’s policies. Yet he is equally maligned among Thailand’s opposition Democratic Party supporters, upper and middle-class Bangkok elites, and southerners who have accused him of widespread corruption and vote buying. Fundamentally it is a fight about demographics. Yingluck mobilized a majority voting bloc that threatens the traditional power of moneyed elites.
In 2010, Thaksin supporters, dubbed Red Shirts, massed in the streets, eventually clashing with security forces. The crackdown left 90 people dead. With the current protests at a stalemate, a remix of the bloody 2010 confrontations may be exactly what Suthep is hoping for. Sow enough discord in the streets, and the army may step in and oust the government.
The open secret of the current demonstrations is that elections are not the end game. For weeks, anti-government protesters have called for the implementation of an unelected "People’s Council." But with Yingluck standing firm in her commitment to stay in office through the election period, Suthep’s last best hope for delegitimizing her administration may be the mobilization of her supporters.
After initial calls went out for Shutdown Bangkok in early January, Red Shirt leaders said they were ready to combat any effort to undermine the elected government. While Red Shirts have rallied in support of the Yingluck administration in provinces across the country, so far they have kept their distance from the capital.
But if they march on the capital, Bangkok could become the scene of some very ugly street battles. And that may be the opposition protesters’ last, best hope to get the army to intervene on their behalf. If the current government proves that it cannot control the situation on the streets, that could give the army license to intervene. In other words, by mobilizing, the Red Shirts may very well be walking into a trap.
To understand what the future has in store for Thailand, keep a close eye on what the Red Shirts do in coming days.