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Bangkok city battle ground

Publication Date : 13-01-2014


Will Bangkok now become a battleground again, and how much damage will there be this time?

The planned chaos in Bangkok from tomorrow hopes to unleash sufficient drama on the streets to topple the government.

Anti-government protesters have conducted noisy rallies in public thoroughfares since November. But instead of calming the angry masses, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s snap election call for February 2 has provoked even more protests.

Despite turning out many thousands each time, however, these demonstrations have still been sporadic and limited to a few city streets. The mother of all demonstrations to overthrow the government begins in earnest on Monday.

Former deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban, protest leader and secretary-general of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) masterminding the demonstrations, wants to eliminate former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s influence from politics altogether.

Thaksin, the billionaire convicted fugitive abroad, is widely seen as the hidden hand behind his sister Yingluck’s government. Her government has often worked in Thaksin’s interest, including tabling an amnesty Bill that would have allowed him to return without having to serve a two-year sentence for abuse of power linked to a corruption case.

Suthep has set himself a tall order unlikely to be met by the PDRC or its feverish supporters. The army still holds the key to the fate of governments, but army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha has quashed rumours of a coup.

A coup would work better than street demonstrations in toppling the government. The last time that happened was in 2006 when Thaksin was prime minister.

Suthep and the PDRC now hope to recreate the 2006 situation. Anti-Thaksin crowds had persisted in their protests which so paralysed and disoriented Bangkok as to tip the army towards a coup.

However, the situation thus far has been different enough. Military leaders are more keen than before to retain an impartial stand.

But Prayuth has also been sending subtle and nuanced signals in his public statements. While his earlier comments clearly denied any intention of a coup, his more recent pronouncements indicated that he was keeping his options open.

And then there have been the actions of the military, besides the mere expression of words. In recent days, tanks and other military hardware have been rolling into Bangkok.

At first the army said these tanks and artillery pieces were only intended for show on Children’s Day on January 11. Then another statement said the tanks were for Army Day on January 18.

Tomorrow, January 13, as the scheduled first day of the PDRC’s final push against the government is conveniently sandwiched between these two days. No army would announce a coup before it occurs.

Nonetheless, the repositioned military hardware in parts of Bangkok may not be aimed at government positions necessarily. It could also be pointed at potential police formations as a deterrent against untoward police action to quell Suthep’s demonstrators.

If military sympathies are marginally seen to be against the Shinawatras, police sentiments are implicitly felt to be for them. Thaksin himself was a lieutenant colonel in the police force before becoming a billionaire.

Since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has had 19 coups or coup attempts. That averages 4.3 years for every military attempt to change the government, about the same time interval that most democratic countries have elections.

Thailand is also a democratic country, but its brand of democracy is limited and subsumed by military power and influence – plus the almost unique reach of street demonstrations to affect the course of governance. This has led many observers to ponder the nature and extent of Thai democracy on Monday.

However, certain features of the Thai polity are also not quite what they seem. The present situation confronting Thai society is a classic case in point.

Under different party banners over several years, a Thaksin or Thaksin-linked government has repeatedly been elected into office despite opposition from parliamentary, institutional and street-level opponents.

The opposition Democrat Party has not won an election in 20 years, and is now said to enjoy just a shade over a third of electoral support. In boycotting the February 2 election that it knows it cannot win, and endorsing the PDRC’s civil disobedience campaign, Democrats are seen to back non-democratic actions.

The PDRC wants to replace Yingluck’s elected government with a royally appointed body. Since the government’s opponents have had no luck with democratic practices, they seem keen to abolish democracy altogether.

But what happens even if escalating demonstrations actually result in a coup? According to the Constitution, Parliament would then elect a new Cabinet.

With Thaksin-friendly MPs retaining a majority of seats in Parliament, another pro-Thaksin party (or coalition of parties) would form the new government. Suthep’s street provocations, with eight people killed so far, may have to be a lifelong pursuit with no guarantee of success.

During the 2006 demonstrations that produced a coup, the push for replacing parliamentary democracy with royal appointments was only a minor feature. It is now part of the mainstream of the protests.

The post-2006 Constitution also made nearly half the Senate seats appointed. Yingluck’s amnesty Bill had already been passed by Parliament when it was rejected by the Senate, the last stop before a Bill became law.

To rub salt into the wound, Yingluck’s government also tried to turn all the appointed Senate positions back into elected ones. It knew it could win through the popular vote, so it banked on that strategy.

Superficially, that would appear to cast the Shinawatra clan and their supporters as champions of democracy. But even they know better than to pose as that.

Thaksin’s critics have long accused him of vote-buying. Previous campaigns have seen money being handed out to his Red Shirt supporters on the street.

More lately, the Yingluck government’s commerce ministry has been paying off rice farmers in Thaksin’s political strongholds in the northern provinces. This comes by way of subsidies for buying their rice at above-market prices.

But the surplus rice, bought at some 10,000 baht (US$302) per tonne, continues to be a drain on the economy while growing amounts in warehouses risk damage. A government claim that the rice had been sold to China was exposed as false.

Another problem is the government’s infrastructure funding scheme involving billions said to operate outside standard checks and balances. Given a record of dubious practices, this again rankled as another shady operation encouraging corruption.

Thaksin’s populist cheap medical scheme for the rural poor, at only 30 baht ($0.90) per treatment, was also found to be uneconomical for the government. The appointed Democrat government following his ouster found the administrative cost of collecting the fees to be more than the fees collected.

Rather than continue with the scheme, Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government gave the rural poor free treatment instead. Yingluck’s government has returned to it, but giving poor patients the option of whether to pay – while still necessitating an administrative cost in collecting payment.

Multiple grievances have snowballed into the mammoth opposition rallies that Bangkok will soon be seeing. Thaksin’s Red Shirt supporters have pledged to hold massive counter-demonstrations.

The threatened shutdown of Bangkok has already threatened to cost 40 billion baht ($1.2 million) in reduced consumer expenditure alone. This does not include the cost of damage from vandalism, lost tourism receipts, lost foreign investment, increased costs of law enforcement or the still unpredictable human costs.


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