Just over a week ago, tens of thousands of protesters converged in Bangkok to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first female PM. They overran the streets and occupied government offices in the name of a “people’s revolution.” On December 9th, Yingluck (Thai politicians are referred to by their first names) dissolved parliament, and snap elections have been scheduled for February 2nd. However, the protesters want Yingluck out of office for good, and they continue to demand her removal from politics.
Thailand’s democracy has been weak (at best) since the 1932 coup marking its transition to a constitutional monarchy. Since then, the country has had 17 different constitutions and charters, a series of coups, and 28 prime ministers. That’s a lot of turnover, to say the least. Check out this table listing Thailand’s prime ministers. It’s chaos. Almost every term ends with dissolution, resignation, or removal.
Until the billionaire tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra was voted into power as head of the Thai Rak Thai Party in 2001, never before had a non-military leader lasted a whole term. (!) But what looked like Thailand’s first real chance at a stable civilian government ended in yet another crisis. Anti-Thaksin protests by pro-monarchy “Yellow Shirt” protesters, aka the People’s Alliance for Democracy, and leaders in the Democrat party (including future PM Abhisit) launched a series of events that culminated in a military coup in late 2006. And even though Thaksin was convicted of corruption in absentia in 2008, his persona and his policies remain popular, particularly among the more impoverished populations in the rural northern and northeastern parts of the country.
Pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” protesters (officially known as the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship) later rebelled. In 2010, they overwhelmed the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, one of Thaksin’s chief rivals and head of the Democrat party. Approximately six months worth of standoffs between protesters and security agents resulted in about 90 fatalities and many more injured. Images of downtown Bangkok under siege, including the burned out World Central Plaza, looked more like a snapshot of Beirut than the cheerful shopping hub I remember from my study-abroad days in 2002. Though Abhisit had been in office for just under three years, his government was dissolved.
The pendulum swung back again after Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, was voted into office in 2011. Unsurprisingly, protests were sparked by her government’s attempt to give Thaksin amnesty. In order to avoid the chaos of 2010, this government has been working overtime to avoid bloodshed, though five people have died and hundreds have been injured.
Pro- and anti-Shinawatra movements have succeeded in undermining the other’s government through mass disruptions, and the dismantling of the government is seen by many as the only viable solution to dealing with parties that overstep their reach (read: Egypt). This is a tactic that works in a lot of countries where the military is more powerful than the government and can intervene to restore “law and order” (again: Egypt). The problem is, obviously, that governments cannot function under these conditions (#Egypt #Egypt #Egypt). In Thailand, the cycle has become: protesters seize the streets; intervention by the King and/or the military is condoned for the sake of stability; power is transferred in an irregular fashion; party supporters take a hard line against the repression of their leaders; repeat. It’s a protest success story if there ever was one, but an utter failure for democracy.
All sorts of people have legitimate grievances against the current Thai government and the Shinawatra family’s powerful standing in business and politics. But after more than a week of protests, the movement is now being driven by a core of several thousand (not the tens of thousands seen last week) defined by their Democrat party/middle and upper class/southern region affiliations. In other words, this movement is not popular. It’s the same pro-/anti-Shinawatra standoff we have seen before and a reflection of deepening party, class, and regional divisions.
I make no predictions about the particulars. But when it comes to Thailand, we should be more surprised when governments last than when they fall.