Thousands of protesters are occupying the streets of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, in an attempt to shut down the city to disrupt elections next month and oust the country’s prime minister.
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While the demonstrations thus far have been reasonably peaceful, some observers fear that as this action continues, protesters could become increasingly strident and clashes with police could result in violence.
Here’s a look at what the demonstrations are about.
Who are the protesters?
The demonstrators occupying the streets of Bangkok are part of a broad movement critical of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Jan. 13 was the first day of a planned month-long action to protest Yingluck’s government.
The protesters are largely made up of urbanites and university students. They are led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister and Democrat Party MP who heads the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).
In a bid to ease the conflict, Yingluck has called elections for Feb. 2, which protesters say the PM is almost certain to win. The official opposition, the Democrat Party, is boycotting the vote, while the PDRC is attempting to disrupt it.
What are the protesters’ concerns?
The demonstrators claim that the government is corrupt. While the main object of their scorn is Yingluck, they’re even more scornful of her billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra. A businessman who made his fortune in the telecom industry, Thaksin served as Thai PM from 2001 to 2006. During his tenure, he faced numerous allegations, including corruption and conflict of interest; international agencies also criticized his human rights record. Thaksin was toppled in a military coup in 2006.
Thaksin is living in exile after the Supreme Court in 2008 sentenced him to two years in prison for corruption. But he still carries political influence in Thailand; anti-government activists argue that Yingluck is merely a puppet for her brother.
Demonstrations began late last year, after the lower house of parliament passed a version of a bill that would provide amnesty to political and military leaders, making it possible for Thaksin to return to Thailand. This angered many Thais, and public anger grew even after the government nullified the bill.
What are demonstrators proposing?
Suthep has said that the PDRC wants to replace Yingluck’s government with a non-elected “people's council” that would introduce reforms to clear out corruption and any vestiges of Thaksin’s influence in Thai government.
How many people support the current government?
While the anti-government protests have drawn hundreds of thousands of citizens, there are still millions of Thais, many of them rural and poor, who support the Shinawatra clan. The majority of these voters live in the country’s highly populated north.
Thaksin supporters, also known as “red shirts,” are in favour of the Feb. 2 election, and are planning to hold pro-government rallies this week.
What are the chances of a coup?
According to many Thai experts, the likelihood that Yingluck will be forcibly deposed is becoming greater.
“The end game, I think, is going to be a coup,” analyst Joshua Kurlantzick wrote Jan. 10 in a blog post for the Council on Foreign Relations. “I did not think so a month ago, but it seems highly likely now.”
The country’s military has been circumspect about the possibility — without discounting it entirely. In December, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the country’s powerful chief of the military, told reporters, the "door [to a coup] is neither open nor closed ... it will be determined by the situation."
Thailand is especially prone to government overthrows — historians estimate there have been 11 military coups since 1932 (as well as seven aborted coups).
In an interview in the Washington Post, political scientist Jay Ulfelder said that coups typically occur “in countries that are relatively poor and have political regimes that mix features of autocracy and democracy.” This is a fairly apt description of Thailand.
Over the decades, the country has shown flashes of democracy, but it also has an entrenched regard for its military and its king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. Revered by Thai citizens, Bhumibol has often played a complicating role in government affairs, writes Paul Handley in Foreign Policy magazine.
“In every political crisis, Bhumibol has fallen back on the army to help repress the power of elected politicians and restrain the development of parliamentary democracy.”