Briefing: Why Thai protesters are taking to the streets again

Antigovernment activists plan to defy a tough security law to rally Saturday on the third anniversary of a military coup.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Antigovernment protesters are gathering Saturday in Bangkok to mark the third anniversary of a military coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. At least 30,000 are likely to attend the rally, defying the use of a tough internal security law that allows troops to make arrests.

The protesters will wear red shirts and voice support for Mr. Thaksin, who is living in exile. In April, armed troops put down violent protests in Bangkok by the red shirts after they had disrupted a regional summit. Some of the leaders of the movement face criminal charges.

Last year saw rival yellow-shirted protesters occupy government buildings and two airports. That group has since formed a political party and is loosely aligned with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva, who took office last December after the courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin administration.

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Since the coup, Thailand has been held hostage by its fractious politics, to the alarm of the US, a longtime ally. Its Army is also battling a growing Muslim-led insurgency in its southernmost provinces.

What do the protesters want and how much support do they have?

They have called for Mr. Abhisit to dissolve parliament and hold elections. More broadly, the leaders say they are fighting for social justice and accuse powerful elites in Bangkok of undermining democracy.

The red-shirt movement isn't well organized and relies heavily on Thaksin's popularity to galvanize supporters. But it has tapped into the anger among rural and working-class voters over the coup and subsequent events. A recent petition for a royal pardon for Thaksin got 3.5 million signatures.

Analysts say pro-Thaksin lawmakers would probably win if elections were held today. At the last elections in December 2007, the now-defunct People's Power Party won 233 out of 480 seats in parliament.

The reds lost credibility, though, when the April protests descended into chaos. Some liberals are turned off by Thaksin, a billionaire businessman who won landslide election victories in 2001 and 2005. Last year he was convicted of abusing power, and his two terms were shadowed by human-rights abuses.

After nearly four years of upheaval, Thais are disenchanted by politics in general: only 31 percent think the country is moving in the right direction, according to a survey by the Asia Foundation.

Who was behind last year's protests? Could they start again?

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) wears royalist yellow and was formed in 2006, when Thaksin was in power. Its leaders include a media tycoon, a former mayor, and a trade unionist. Its followers are mostly conservatives who fear losing privileges under strong elected governments.

Last year, the PAD held nonstop protests for several months. It draws support from the upper and middle classes in Bangkok and southern Thailand (though not the insurgency zone), as well as from individuals in the palace, military, and civil service. While largely peaceful, it had armed security guards.

The protests peaked with the weeklong seizure of Bangkok's two airports. After the courts dissolved the government, the PAD told its supporters to go home. It later registered its own New Politics party.

In April, PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul survived an assassination attempt that he blamed on rogue Army officers. No arrests have been made.

The PAD has organized its own, smaller protest Saturday – hundreds of miles from Bangkok on the disputed Thai-Cambodia border. The PAD accuses Cambodia of usurping Thai territory around a temple, an issue it also used last year to stir up nationalist sentiments against the pro-Thaksin government.

How strong is the current prime minister?

A UK-educated economist, Abhisit has support from influential business groups that have applauded his government's ability to ramp up spending in a weak economy. After facing down the protests in April with minimal bloodshed, Abhisit got a boost in the polls.

But his six-party coalition is beset by infighting and minor scandals. In recent weeks, he has struggled to assert his authority over the selection of a new police chief, exposing his weak hand. Analysts say Abhisit needs a proper electoral mandate to shore up his political capital.

An election is risky, though, as long as pro-Thaksin parties hold sway over the populous north and northeast. Minor coalition parties also want to stay in power long enough to benefit from stimulus spending that can be diverted into campaign funds.

"Nobody wants elections. So they [the coalition] are handcuffed together, even if they don't like each other," says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok.

Where do the military and the monarchy stand?

The military supports Abhisit. But its loyalty can't be counted on. There are also splits within the military over how to deal with Thaksin, whom they deposed in 2006 on the grounds of corruption, abuse of power, and offenses to the monarchy.

The military remains the power behind the government. Last year, it defied an elected government by refusing to disperse the PAD protests at the airports. Military chiefs called publicly for the prime minister to resign.

Analysts say civilian rule has been severely weakened by the coup and subsequent events. The officer corps still believes that it knows best when it comes to running Thailand, says Chris Baker, a historian in Bangkok. "The Army never really adapted to a nonpolitical role," he says.

The crown remains the linchpin of Thai politics. The frailty of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-serving monarch, has intensified the struggle for power, as his designated successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, lacks his stature and experience.

Some red shirts are dismissive of the monarchy and its meddling in politics, though strict defamation laws prevent public debate. Senior royals were believed to have backed the PAD.

How is this affecting the economy and tourism?

The economy is shrinking but is expected to show a recovery by year-end, in line with other export-led Asian economies. The official estimate is a contraction of between 2.5 and 3.5 percent.

Government spending is fueling the recovery, but private investment remains weak. However, Thailand's banks and large companies remain solvent as their balance sheets are relatively conservative.

Tourism has taken a severe hit from the global slowdown, H1N1 flu, and fears over security for travelers, particularly in Bangkok. Many luxury hotels in the capital are running at below 50 percent occupancy. Overall visitor numbers dropped by around 20 percent in the first six months of the year.

Last year tourism was worth around $17 billion, or 6 percent of GDP. It also employs millions of people, many in small businesses that are the lifeblood of the Thai economy.

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