Thai protests: Coup talk in the air as opposition shuts down Bangkok

They look part refugee camp, part Woodstock. The problem now is that the protesters gripping Thailand's capital show no sign of packing up their tents and going home, Peter Hadfield writes from Bangkok.

Tanks and soldiers in position, but military leaders downplaying intervention

They look part refugee camp, part Woodstock, but the protest rallies that took over seven crucial intersections in Bangkok on Monday pretty much succeeded in their aim of shutting the city down for the day.

Many businesses stayed closed, and drivers either avoided the city centre or faced gridlock.

The problem now is that the protesters show no sign of packing up their tents and going home. They are staying, they say, until the government of Yingluck Shinawatra steps down.

"We are peaceful protesters, we have no weapons," says Dr. Aurapan Weerawong, a speaker at one of the rallies. So the only thing we can do is civil disobedience."

Led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister in the opposition Democratic Party, the protesters argue that the government has to go because it is corrupt and only wins elections by giving bribes to the uneducated rural poor.

They see Prime Minister Yingluck as little more than a puppet for her disgraced and exiled brother Thaksin, who was ousted as prime minister after a military coup in 2006.

If he returns to Thailand he faces charges of graft and corruption. And it was the introduction of a bill that would have given him amnesty that sparked the recent round of protests.

Even when the bill was defeated in Thailand's upper house last November, the protest momentum continued.

Red shirts – yellow shirts

The protesters also complain that Yingluck's government gains electoral support in the countryside by doling out generous subsidies to rice farmers. And it is no coincidence that the pro-government support is strongest in Thailand's rice bowl, in the north and east.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra wants an election on Feb. 2 to clear the air. (Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters)

So while yellow-shirted anti-government protesters from the metropolitan area and the south took over the capital on Monday, their pro-government red-shirted counterparts staged their own less well-publicized rallies.

The fear is that the two sides could clash, as they have in the past, particularly in the 2008-2010 confrontations, with deadly results.

Though it is hard to spot a single red shirt on the streets of Bangkok these days, pro-government activists have made their presence felt.

Unidentified gunmen riding motorbikes have fired at the protest camps and the headquarters of the opposition Democrat Party in the last three days. Seven people were wounded on Saturday and at least one on Monday.

 The political divisions have split the country, and both sides are now at an impasse – partly because both sides have a point.

There certainly have been cases of vote-buying in the countryside, and the government's generous support of rice prices (with tax dollars coughed up by the more affluent sector of Thai society, resident in Bangkok) certainly bring in the rural vote.

On the other hand, Sutheps' plan — to replace an imperfect democratic system with an unelected council that would reform the electoral process — is ill-defined, and seen by many Thais as equally undemocratic.

Each side thinks the way to break the impasse is for the other to give way. While the anti-government faction says the only solution is for Prime Minister Yingluck to step down, pro-government supporters say the only solution is to have a general election and respect the voters' wishes.

Will the military intervene?

Yingluck dissolved parliament last month and called a general election for Feb. 2. But the opposition Democrat Party responded by announcing it would boycott the vote — an ominous move, given that a similar boycott in 2006 led the army to launch a coup, on the grounds that the lack of a political opposition made the election invalid.

So now all eyes are now on Thailand's military. In the absence of a motivated King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is now 86 and increasingly frail, the army is seen by many as the only body capable of breaking the impasse.

At every media briefing, Thai journalists ask the army's chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, whether he intends to stage a coup, and every nuance of his reply is closely analyzed.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister in the country's main opposition party, addresses anti-government protesters in central Bangkok on Monday. (Damir Sagolj / Reuters)

It was front page news when he changed from ruling out the possibility of a coup to refusing to rule it out last week. On Sunday, he once again said that the army had no interest in intervening.

But that has not stopped the rumours. Tanks and artillery were brought to Bangkok last week, ostensibly to take part in a celebration called Children's Day, and troops have been stationed around government buildings and TV stations.

Veteran Thai analysts are having a hard time deciphering what might be the next move, and even the army itself may not know. Just like the country, senior officers are said to be split between those who want to stay out of politics, and those who want to intervene.

Ultimately, military intervention may depend on how chaotic the situation in Bangkok becomes, and whether violence taints what until now have been relatively peaceful demonstrations.

In the meantime, one of Southeast Asia's most promising, prosperous and alluring countries is bleeding itself dry, especially of the tourist dollars it depends on as visitor numbers plummet and airlines cut back on flights. The Thai baht has been sinking as rapidly as Thailand's growth forecasts.

If the protesters are concerned about the economic effect of their actions, it was reflected in at least one small gesture. During their attempt to shut down Bangkok and stop all cars from entering key intersections they did make a notable exception: taxis carrying foreign tourists were allowed through. 


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