Five questions you want answered about Thailand's political tumult

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has called elections for early February, but opponents on the streets of Bangkok want to derail the process. 

By , Staff writer

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    Anti-government protesters sing the national anthem during a rally at the Democracy Monument in central Bangkok on Dec. 27, 2013. Thailand's powerful army chief refused to rule out military intervention to defuse an escalating political crisis, the latest blow for a government determined to hold a February election despite deadly clashes with protesters.
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Besieged by massive street protests, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called early elections for February that polls suggest she would easily win. But her decision to seek another mandate has not ended the political unrest in Thailand, a US military ally with the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia.

Protesters have tried to prevent the registration of candidates for the election; two people died and dozens were injured on Dec. 26 in clashes between police and protesters. The country's election commission later called for a delay in holding the poll. 

The chief of Thailand’s powerful army, which staged a coup in 2006, has called for calm but as of Dec. 27 had not ruled out a military intervention in the current crisis. The protest movement has vowed to keep up its campaign into the new year. 

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What was the spark for the latest protests and what do the protesters want?

The protests began in November after the ruling party tried to pass an amnesty bill for participants in political violence within the last seven years. The bill would also have exonerated Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister and Ms. Yingluck’s elder brother.

Political opponents and some government supporters called the bill a whitewash. Human rights groups argued that politicians and security forces have ducked accountability for past wrongdoing and that an amnesty would undermine the rule of law in Thailand.

The controversy killed the bill: it was rejected by the upper house of parliament. Opponents then seized on the anger to organize protests in Bangkok seeking to topple the government.

Up to 200,000 people joined the demonstrations, which led to occupations of government ministries and other provocative stunts. Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister turned protest leader, called on police and other government workers to disobey orders from Yingluck’s administration. 

Mr. Suthep, who himself faces criminal charges over a lethal 2010 crackdown on pro-Thaksin supporters, wants Yingluck to step aside and allow an unelected council to take power and reform Thailand’s electoral system. Suthep claims that Mr. Thaksin, a wealthy businessman, has subverted democracy by using money to buy off voters and steer taxpayer funds into populist schemes.

Why is the Shinawatra family such a lightning rod for criticism?

Thaksin, a former police colonel, made a fortune in telecommunications in the 1990s. He parlayed his fortune into building a political party that swept the polls in 2001 and became the first prime minister to serve a full parliamentary term in Thailand, where unstable coalitions were the norm.

As Thaksin amassed more influence, old-money families and royalist elites pushed back. His premiership was tainted by several corruption scandals and brutal tactics for drug suppression, but his policies proved popular with many Thais, including in the northeast, where one in three voters live.

Amid protests, the military seized power in 2006 and a constitutional court dissolved Thaksin’s party, but his allies have contested and won all subsequent elections. By contrast, Suthep’s Democrat Party, which has not registered for the upcoming poll, has not won an election since 1992.

In 2011, Yingluck campaigned on a platform that explicitly linked her leadership to her brother’s. Critics say the family has created a corrupt, nepotistic dynasty.   

Who do the protesters represent and to what extent is theirs a regional revolt?

The protesters are drawn from Bangkok’s middle classes, Democrat Party strongholds in southern Thailand, and elements of the bureaucracy. They represent a minority voice in Thailand that is used to having its way in how the country is run and where the spoils lie.

The protests have not spread outside the capital, unlike in 2010 when pro-Thaksin activists in northeast Thailand stormed town halls and blocked roads. The campaign has no traction in the north and northeast Thailand, underlining the country’s north-south fault line, as well as the urban-rural divide that has long been a factor in electoral politics.

What is the role of Thailand’s constitutional monarchy in the crisis?

King Bhumibol Adulyadej has in the past adjudicated political crises, both directly and using behind-the-scenes influence, but his declining health and disengagement from affairs of state make any repeat intervention highly unlikely.

Protesters have invoked the constitutional monarch’s name and put a royalist spin on their campaign, accusing Thaksin of disloyalty to the throne and to Bhumibol, the world’s longest reigning monarch who took over in 1946. Thaksin has repeatedly denied these claims.

Thailand has strict defamation laws that forbid public criticism of the monarch and his family, but the taboo against such criticism has begun to fade. Some of Thaksin’s allies have republican leanings but Yingluck has made no move to challenge the crown.

Is the protest movement likely to effect significant change in Thailand?

The movement’s anti-democratic arguments are unpalatable to a majority of people, so any move to suspend democratic rule could tip Thailand into chaos. Many protesters would welcome a coup that removes Yingluck and drives out her family and allies.

Notwithstanding the ambiguous comment by Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military is reluctant to wade into the political conflict.

A more sustained focus on corruption and good governance that goes beyond the fixation on the Shinawatra family may emerge and become a more potent force, but not under the movement’s current leadership.

Simon Montlake is the Deputy International Editor of the Monitor and a former correspondent in Thailand. 

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