Today, in their latest attempt to force caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office, Thailand’s anti-government protesters are calling for a shutdown of Bangkok’s commercial centre.
Mass protests, made up largely of middle-class urbanites, have been taking place in Bangkok since November of last year. The demonstrations are in reaction to Shinawatra's party, the Pheu Thai Party, trying to rush an amnesty bill through parliament, which, if passed, would see her brother – controversial former PM, Thaksin Shinawatra – being able to return from exile.
Because the protesters widely view him as corrupt – owing predominately to the fact he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for corruption while serving as prime minister – they don't want that to happen, and their plan is to oust the ruling party and replace them with an unelected people's council. Their newest plan to ramp up the pressure is to move their main rally site from Bangkok’s historic quarter to the heart of the capital, sparking concerns ranging from traffic gridlock to a fear of bloodshed and military intervention.
According to protest leader and former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsbuan, "We will dismantle our stage, break our rice pots, move our kitchen and open a new battlefield to take over the capital." But as the protesters prepare to move, the Royal Thai Army – generally considered to be sympathetic to the anti-government movement – has been busy ferrying troops and tanks into the city. The generals say it is in preparation for the annual Armed Forces Day, which is to be held later this month (as it is every year). However, many are sceptical, and Bangkok’s rumour mill has worked itself into a frenzy over what the influx of troops really means.
In addition – just in case tanks and imminent city shutdowns weren't enough – the protest movement’s own astrologer has apparently nominated the 14th of next week as an auspicious day for a military takeover, which has many convinced that a coup is inevitable. That said, much of the talk about coups and the potential for violence has come from the current government and its own supporters, happy to drum up a bit of fear into the rest of the country over what they say the protesters are planning. But a bit of fear is perhaps not entirely misplaced.
There have been almost nightly attacks on the current protest camp, and fears that this will continue when they move to the city centre have left many demonstrators nervous. On Saturday, at least seven protest guards were injured when unknown gunmen on motorcycles reportedly opened fired with M16 assault rifles. The day before, battles had taken place in a town just north of Bangkok when anti-government and pro-government supports clashed, leaving a number of people injured.
In fact, in almost every situation where supporters from both sides have confronted each other, violence – often involving guns – has broken out almost immediately. These outbreaks of violence stoke fears that the move further into Bangkok is a provocation designed to escalate violence, thus opening the door to military intervention – an accusation that the protesters firmly deny.
In an interview earlier this week, Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha said that, "The military does not shut nor open the door to a coup. Anything can happen, depending on the situation." Other army spokespersons have since tried to allay fears of an imminent coup, but considering Thailand’s history (18 coups in the last 80 years), not many of those fears have been quelled.
The reality is that a coup is entirely possible, if not likely. It could come in the aftermath of potential chaos next week, or following an indecisive outcome in the upcoming elections, which are scheduled to be held on the 2nd of February. The elections are being boycotted by the opposition, and (if they take place at all) are unlikely to produce the required number of parliamentarians to fill the house. In this scenario, the army may well feel justified in taking over the running of the country.
However, we might not need to wait that long. Last week, the National Anti Corruption Commission found evidence for 308 lawmakers to be charged for supporting a bill that looked to amend certain workings of the government. According to at least one interpretation of the constitution, all those members are now – or will be – suspended, leaving a vacuum that, again, the army may feel obligated to fill.
And the rumours don’t stop at coups. There is talk of civil war, of a divided country: the north, run from Chiang Mai (where Yingluck lives when she's not in Bangkok), versus those in the south, in Bangkok – the power base of the opposition and current protest movement.
It could happen. It could all spiral out of control and there could be widespread bloodshed. But it's unlikely. This isn’t a grassroots revolution where the masses are rising up against the ruling, power-hungry elite. These are heavily invested, largely middle-class members of society who would have nothing to gain from a crumbling nation.
Instead, according to long-term observers of Thailand's political landscape, this whole affair is about more than removing the present government. They suggest it's wrapped up in what will happen when the current – and deeply revered – king dies, but due to Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law, not much more can be said on the matter.
Internationally, Thailand is too deeply integrated into the global community for it to fall into bloody conflict unnoticed. It’s not a pariah state, nor a country shielding itself from globalisation or the winds of international opinion. Earlier today, for the first time, it was reported that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been holding talks between Yingluck and the leader of the opposition party in an effort to help them bridge their differences.
Ultimately, though, nobody knows what is going to happen. The city has been busily preparing itself for the shutdown, with schools closing, public transport routes bolstered and measures underway to help maintain some semblance of normalcy. The US Embassy in Thailand recently updated their own travel advice, suggesting that their citizens living in Bangkok stock up on food and supplies for the next two weeks. However, most people are just waiting to see what happens, with few precautions being taken by local businesses and no reports of a rush on shops.
So the shutdown could be a major inconvenience and nothing more, or it could be the start of a whole new violent chapter for Thailand. At the very least, next week should provide a little more clarity on where Thailand is headed amid its current political turmoil.
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