Thailand’s Protests Spur Talk of Dividing the Country

Thailand’s Protests Spur Talk of Dividing the Country

With the political confrontation between Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and anti-government protesters intensifying, pro-government supporters are considering an alternative resolution to the four-month crisis: Splitting the country in two. "Some pro-government leaders have called for the country to be divided, along north-south political lines," Reuters reported on Feb. 26. The chatter from Yingluck-backers comes as the prime minister faces renewed pressure to step down. "I never thought that this idea would be taken seriously," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. "But it seems that a number of people have supported the idea of splitting the country into two."

While extremely unlikely, the idea at least has a basis in geography. The anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by former opposition Democrat Party politician Suthep Thaugsuban, is comprised primarily of southerners and urban elites, while Yingluck’s base, known as "Red Shirts," are mostly poor, rural voters from the country’s northern regions. 

Many Red Shirts believe the anti-government protesters are "using street protests, thuggery, armed militants, obstruction of election, judicial intervention, and a threat of military coup to cripple and eventually oust their elected government," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. As a result, the Red Shirts "are thinking about splitting the country," he said.

The murmurings of secession come amid escalating street fighting. Attacks on protest sites in Bangkok and eastern Thailand last weekend killed five people, including four children. The violence, carried out by unidentified armed assailants, came just a few days after clashes between police and protesters in the capital left four dead and at least 60 injured. After four months of relatively peaceful protests, both the movement’s leaders and pro-government groups have signaled a new willingness to use force to achieve their goals.

At the same time, the protesters’ efforts have been bolstered by a series of decisions by the country’s judiciary. On Feb. 19, the Civil Court affirmed a previous ruling by the Constitutional Court that, despite evidence to the contrary, the protesters were unarmed and peaceful, limiting the government’s ability to contain the demonstrations. On Thursday, Yingluck will face graft charges that could force her resignation. 

To be sure, the likelihood of any real move to secede is infinitesimal. The rhetoric seems to be more tactics than strategy, emboldening pro-government supporters to mobilize in support of the elected leadership. But whether the country actually splits in two or not, the divide is very real.