Police lines in Bangkok
Thai protests are often pretty confusing. Over the past few years, Bangkok protests have seen red shirts, yellow shirts, pink shirts, black shirts, white masks – all of which represent different political entities – and the mysterious "third hand", the conveniently anonymous force that all sides blame on any outbreak of violence.
The current unrest on Bangkok’s streets is essentially a return of the yellow shirts, the middle-class supporters of the opposition Civil Movement for Democracy party. Last time the yellow shirts were out in force was at the end of 2008, when they stormed Bangkok's two main airports in protest against Thailand's then-Prime Minister. This time, they're being led by Suthep Thaugsuban – a former opposition MP who stepped down recently from his party to lead the demonstrations – but it's unclear exactly what it is that he wants.
However, one overriding goal of the protesters is the overthrow of the present government and an end to "Thaksinism" – the continued influence of exiled and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra over the current government which is ostensibly led by his sister, Yingluck.
While it seems unlikely, the protests may very well manage to dislodge the government – or at least pave the way for other methods of doing so (it has happened before through the courts). But ridding Thailand of the Shinawatra political dynasty is unlikely to happen; the spark for the latest protests was an attempt by Yingluck’s government to push through an amnesty bill that would have seen Thaksin back in Thailand.
The government eventually backed down, apparently realising that they had pushed things too far. But despite a temporary lapse, the protests have now re-emerged, drawing more people with loftier goals. The opposition senses that the government is now weak after backing down and have managed to take advantage of that. But the real difficulty for observers is truly understanding what motivates the leaders of all sides. Is it just power grabbing among the Thai political and social elites? Or, as both sides claim, are there genuine democratic principles at stake? They are questions without any clear answers.
Protesters march through central Bangkok
One thing that can be said is that this isn't some raw outpouring of public anger; this is a controlled, organised and relatively disciplined movement that is well funded and has plenty of political clout. The current crowds roaming the streets of Bangkok have been loud and disruptive, but largely friendly and almost entirely peaceful. This week they occupied a number of government buildings, but it was less a "storming" – as has been widely reported – and more an "ambling in", as there was little attempt to stop them. This might seem remarkable, but the same thing happened in 2008.
When they do approach police lines, there tends to be a bit of farcical posturing, but little else. Anyone who does act too aggressively is quickly pushed back by protest organisers, but neither the police nor army show any sign of wanting to engage in confrontation themselves.
To try and understand the motivations of those on the ground a little better, I spoke to of a few of the protesters in the grounds of the occupied Foreign Ministry – and later outside the besieged Ministry of the Interior – and asked them just what they hoped to achieve. The initial response tended to be simply that they wanted Yingluck out of office and an end to the influence of Thaksin in Thai politics, due not least to rampant corruption and government overspending.
Should they achieve that, what next? I asked Sumon, a Thai national who has lived in New York for the past 30 years, if the goal should be a new set of elections. "No," he said, "because, with elections, they win again."
And this is the key point; Thaksin is hugely popular among the working class and poor Thais outside of Bangkok. They see him as the only politician who has ever made their lives better by giving them something more than empty promises. Thaksin supporters may be drawn from the less socially elevated and educated classes, but their vote is numerically overwhelming.
Sumon dismissed this as a result of vote rigging and fiscally irresponsible populist policies under Thaksin. And while there may be some grounds for this, it's hard to know how a minority of protesters are going to stop it – even if it is true.
One way would be to suspend democracy altogether. Nay, a 22-year-old medical student, said, "I want to see some political reform. We have to admit that both political parties are very corrupt. I still want to see a democratic system, but we need to fix the corrupt Thai system." His solution, shared by everyone I spoke to, was "To close our country for a few years." In the mean time, an appointed "people’s council" would be in charge – its members chosen by the current protest leadership.
Kong – a building owner from Ratchaburi Province, west of Bangkok – told me that he too wanted to overthrow the government and reform the political system. Brushing aside the results of several recent elections, he explained: "Seventy percent of people are farmers. They don’t know about democracy. They take the money and the government wins the election. We are the educated people. Seventy percent are poor and uneducated – they don't know what happens."
Now, all protesters can do is wait to see what happens this week – whether anything will be gained from the ongoing demonstrations or if the government will simply ignore their calls. Meanwhile, the pro-Thaksin red shirts have gathered quietly on the other side of Bangkok at the national stadium, watching events unfold.
All eyes are on Yingluck, who is currently fighting off a no confidence vote in parliament – though she will probably win, as her party has a majority. Theories vary as to how the government will respond if things continue as they are, and the army is also a major player, but has made it clear that they don’t want to get involved. Talks of coups are a recurring theme in Thailand, but Yingluck’s relationships with the army generals have been strong. However, things could always change if events escalate out of control.
The other, more plausible outcome could be a sort of judicial coup pushed through the courts – a scenario made more likely by a recent court ruling against the government on proposed constitutional reforms (which stopped short of threating to dissolve the party). The king’s birthday is next week, and it's likely that protests will finish by then – it would be seen as disrespectful to continue. But the problems will remain, and there's no real way to predict how they'll be solved.
Follow George on Twitter: @georgehenton
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