Monday, December 23, 2013

Thailand: Tens of Thousands Protest in Bangkok on Sunday, Objective: Topple Yingluck

According to Reuters, tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators massed peacefully across Bangkok on on Sunday (December 22) in their latest bid to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, 46, before a February election the main opposition party will boycott.

Yingluck called a snap poll for February 2 to try to cool tension, yet protesters seemingly want to scuttle the election to prevent her from renewing her mandate and perpetuating the influence of her self-exiled billionaire brother and former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, 64, who lives comfortably in Hong Kong and Dubai.

Thailand remains in an all-too-familiar deadlock after eight years of on-and--off conflict broadly between supporters and opponents of Thaksin, whose populist political machine has won every election since 2001 with widespread support among the rural poor.

Chanting "Yingluck, get out", whistle-blowing protesters gathered at locations around Bangkok and set up stages in at least four places, bringing traffic to a halt at three main intersections and in two commercial districts. 

COMMENT: Among the protagonists in Thailand's turmoil is an establishment elite with influence among judges and generals and which backs protests against governments controlled by Thaksin, who they see as a tax-dodging crony capitalist who used his power to enriches his family and his clique of tycoons. 

Yet, to millions of rural working classes and farmers outside Bangkok, he is a benevolent billionaire who improved their living standards with cheap healthcare, easy credit and a raft of state subsidies.

Thailand's near-term future has become more uncertain following a decision on Saturday (December 21) by the opposition Democrat Party to boycott the election, saying the democratic system had been distorted by Thaksin and was failing all Thais.

The boycott adds to concern that Thailand could be left in political limbo if forces allied with the Democrats and the protesters block an election that is otherwise likely to return Yingluck's Puea Thai Party to office.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, 64, a former Democrat heavyweight, was feted like a rock star at rallies across the city on Sunday. He urged supporters to stop candidates from signing up for the election when registration opens on Monday (December 23).

"No matter where this takes place, we will go there and block it. We don't want this election," Suthep shouted to roars and applause from tens of thousands of protesters. "We will take our country back from the hands of the Thaksin regime."

Suthep wants democracy to be suspended and for an appointed "people's council" to reform Thailand before any election can occur. His campaign is less about policies and more about weakening the influence of the powerful Shinawatra Family. Yet, the Thai Constitution contains no narrative on a "people's council."

Yingluck had enjoyed a smooth two years in office but that unraveled in November of this year when Puea Thai tried to push through an amnesty bill that would have nullified Thaksin's 2008 graft conviction, allowing him to return home from Dubai. It proved to be a political miscalculation by her powerful party.

Questions remain about how the protesters can remove Yingluck when the rallies, which have attracted as many as 160,000 people, have remained largely peaceful and have failed to stop her government from functioning.

Yingluck's strategy has been an effective one: Don't challenge the protesters even if they penetrate government property.

Yet, for Suthep, a skilled politician, it almost seems as if he must orchestrate violence to demonstrate that Bangkok is unstable and unpredictable.

Suthep has asked for the heavily politicized military that overthrew Thaksin in a 2006 coup to intervene on their behalf, but the top brass thus far has refused to acquiesce.  

Thailand's Election Commission had suggested the poll could be delayed, fearing it could be marred by violence, but on Friday it ruled out a postponement.

Most Thais have grown weary after weeks of protests, none of which seem to suggest that Suthep's efforts are either effective or a contribution to his cause, considering that Suthep is on the wrong side of the Thai Constitution and could well be arrested for subversion depending on how the current House of Cards unfold.

Unfortunately, PM Yingluck is waiting for Suthep to make the next move. At the moment, her strategy is working, but for how long?

One option would be for Yingluck to order Suthep's arrest, yet that could have serious repercussions if the powerful military is tiring of inaction on both sides and decides to lean toward the protesters.

Alternatively, Yingluck's ordering Suthep's arrest could be irreversible depending how the military reads the "tea leaves."

My belief is that either the protesters or the government will make a mistake at the wrong time that could well escalate the capital into violence, which may be the spark that is needed.

Clearly, Suthep cannot wait for the February 2 election to occur, as Yingluck would clearly win, particularly with Thaksin's billions behind his sister's party. 

Thus, it is my belief that a forced error will occur before February 2, which is very likely to escalate violence on behalf of the government or the protesters, depending on variables too numerous to correctly call.

A final note. The tens of thousands of protesters are increasing with each passing day, particularly for international news media.

A word to all tourists and travelers: Avoid Bangkok.