Thailand lifts state of emergency in Bangkok as protesters pull back

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said the move should help Thailand's image after months of often-violent street protests against her government, which faces legal challenges to its tenure. 

Apichart Weerawong/AP
Anti-government protesters dismantle the sandbag barriers, blocking roads near Lumpino park in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. Thailand's government is lifting a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas after violence related to the country’s political crisis eased.

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Thailand is lifting a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding provinces following months of antigovernment protests marred by deadly violence. But the move does not necessarily signal an end to demonstrations – or further violence.

The state of emergency was invoked two months ago amid opposition marches against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government and her influential brother and self-exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra. An estimated 23 people have died and hundreds have been injured in the protests, which have quieted down in recent days.

The state of emergency will be lifted Wednesday, and replaced by a less harsh law called the Internal Security Act, reports Agence France Presse. Under this law, authorities can still impose state-mandated curfews, set up security checkpoints, and restrict the movement of protesters.

Lifting the state of emergency should “improve the state’s image because rights groups tend to view the emergency law as draconian,” political analyst Kan Yuenyong of Siam Intelligence Unit told Reuters. Ms. Yingluck said the move was meant to “build confidence in the economy and the tourism sector” after more than 4 months of political unrest.

But Mr. Kan warns that, “ultimately, no law can help the government contain the protests if they flare up again.”

According to Reuters, “the threat of further violence remains real.” One factor is that a new, more militant politician now leads the pro-Thaksin "red shirts" and has promised to fight "tooth and nail" to defend Yingluck. 

Opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban had started drawing down protesters' presence about three weeks ago, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

He said the move was tactical and designed to allow demonstrators to concentrate on disrupting government ministries. Insiders say it was also motivated by spiraling costs and safety fears after a spate of grenade attacks and shootings in which four children were killed and scores injured….

But if the streets are returning to normal in the capital of Southeast Asia’s second largest economy, the chances of a resolution to Thailand’s political crisis have not significantly increased. Rather than retreating, the core of Mr. Suthep’s followers have merely regrouped inside Bangkok’s largest park, where they insist they still have the numbers to topple the government. Observers say the chances of Prime Minister Yingluck Shiniwatra being forced out of office by the courts – widely seen as sympathetic to the protest movement – is looking increasingly likely. Meanwhile, signs of a truce across Thailand’s bitterly divided political lines are yet to materialize.

Despite the positive implications of lifting the emergency law and a reduced protester presence in the capital, the BBC reports that Yingluck’s government still has several legal challenges to take on, including charges of negligence and corruption in a government rice subsidy program. Furthermore, the Election Commission has yet to announce results from a Feb. 2 snap election and parliament hasn’t been able to assemble, “breaking the rules of the constitution according to a group of Thai scholars,” reports the Monitor.

In an opinion piece for Al Jazeera, Charles Keyes, professor emeritus of anthropology and international studies at the University of Washington, questioned how Thailand will ultimately weather this period of ongoing political unrest.

For nearly a decade there have been large-scale protests, primarily in the capital, Bangkok, with supporters of royalist elites confronting those who favor representative democracy.

The current protests calling for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s resignation began in November. Amid fears of impending civil war, tensions have eased in March through a combination of pressure from the army and negotiations between representatives of the protesters and the government. Nonetheless, the deep divisions in Thai society will continue. At stake is whether Thailand can remain a democracy and, if so, what kind of democracy….

The current stalemate threatens to degenerate into tit-for-tat violence ... The civil society is deeply polarized. There is a lack of moderating voices with moral authority that can transcend the political schism. Several Buddhist monks led by the respected Phra Paisal Visalo have called for the end of hatred and revenge.

At the moment, the standoff has mostly moved from the streets to the courts. Regardless of the legal outcomes, which could mean the removal of Yingluck from office or the arrest of Suthep and other protest leaders, the street confrontations could well resume.

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