With Election Disrupted, Thai Protestors Regroup and Refocus
By Simon Roughneen 3 February 2014
BANGKOK — After blocking voting across parts of Bangkok and much of the anti-Government south of Thailand, the opposition-backed protest movement is marching again across the Thai capital.
The protestors are dismantling two stages set up for their January 13 “shutdown” of the capital, relocating to a park close to Bangkok’s main banking and finance district and saying they will target private residences of members of Thailand’s caretaker government.
With a 26 per cent turnout in Bangkok and with voting not taking place due to a boycott and blockade in the opposition-dominated south, the election, called in late 2013 by a Government under pressure from sometimes-violent street demonstrations, looks unlikely to do much to heal Thailand’s political divide. Overall turnout was 46 per cent out of the 44.6 million eligible voters in 68 of 77 provinces, while voting was disrupted in 18% of constituencies, amid scenes of anger and disappointment among some would-be voters.
“I want to vote, what they do is too much,” said Supawan Hachawee, standing behind a line of police keeping would-be voters and anti-government protestors apart in Bangkok’s Din Daeng area on Sunday. The protestors stopped voters from entering the district office polling center, leading to an angry stand-off, before the protestors left and the would-be voters broke into the voting area, which had been locked by police. Elsewhere, frustrated voters set up impromptu polling stations, fashioning ballot boxes out of cardboard boxes and creating ad-hoc lists of the disenfranchised voters to be handed to the country’s election commission.
Thaksin was removed from office in a 2006 coup and subsequently fled Thailand after 2008 corruption charges. An attempt by Yingluck last year to pass a wide-ranging amnesty, which would have allowed Thaksin return to Thailand, is seen as the spark that galvanized the latest anti-Thaksin protests.
The protestors are led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Deputy Prime Minister in the 2008-2011 Democrat Party-led government, which sees any election an unwinnable due to strong support for the governing party in the northeast, which has twice the population of the Democrat Party strongholds in the south.
It remains unclear whether enough seats will be filled to enable a new government to be formed, while the opposition Democrat Party, which boycotted Sunday’s voting, said it will seek a ruling from the Constitution Court on whether the election is invalid – another legal challenge to the government headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, the brother of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra, who protestors see as the puppetmaster behind the current government. Yingluck, whose authority as caretaker Prime Minister is unlikely to be bolstered by yesterday’s vote, is also facing investigations over a rice subsidy program, which was intended to benefit her supporters in the northeast – and over an attempt to make Thailand’s Senate a fully-elected body.
The protestors see government subsidies for the northeast region as electoral bribery, and say the election system, as well as institutions such as the police, seen as pro-Thaksin, need to be reformed first. Critics of the opposition say that the Democrat Party ducked out of competing in an election it knew it would lose, though dissatisfaction with the government in rice-growing areas to the north, due to unpaid rice subsidies, could have afforded the Democrat Party some room to campaign.
However, the Democrat Party seems set an trying to retake power through a combination of protests, legal activism, and now, it seems, alleging that the government is intent on sedition. Speaking on February 1, the night before the vote, Suthep made what seemed a tactical swerve, telling protestors that Thaksin was plotting the downfall of Thailand’s monarchy, and sought to turn the kingdom into a republic.
“The intention was to transform Thailand into a republic,” Suthep said.
While the Suthep-led protestors are mainly southerners from Thailand’s rubber-growing regions, as well as well-off Bangkok residents, many speakers at the protest rallies are stalwarts of Thailand’s previous mass anti-Thaksin protests of 2006 and 2008, which had a strong royalist element.
Allegations about Thaksin’s alleged republicanism – which Thaksin has always denied – are not new, but to date this latest incarnation of anti-Thaksinism had toned down claims that Thaksin wanted to undermine Thailand’s monarchy, with Thailand’s mainstream party opposition, the Democrat Party, taking a central role as protest leaders.
“The past protestors made a mistake by talking too much about the King, without evidence against Thaksin,” said Anusorn Unno, an anthropologist at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.
“Therefore Suthep mostly talked about the nation so far, and the Thai national colors are everywhere at the protests,” said Anusorn Unno.
But it seems that protestors’ royalist leanings are coming to the fore, backed by social media postings by some of Thailand’s royal family clad in protestor garb.
These anti-government protests come as Thaksin-backed parties look unassailable at the polls, having won successive elections since the early 2000s, and as thoughts in Thailand turn to a royal succession, with King Bhumibol Adulyadej now aged 86 and frail after spending 4 years in hospital. Thailand’s King is the world’s longest-reigning monarch and is shielded from criticism by the world’s strictest lese-majeste laws.
However, despite such legal buffers, which the Yingluck Government has maintained, some protestors portray Thaksin’s electoral popularity as a threat to the monarchy. To loud cheers from a crowd gathered before the election at an anti-government rally held near one of Bangkok’s biggest shopping malls, Pamela Bunnag, a speaker at the rally, warned the Shinawatra family to “leave us alone, leave Thailand alone, and leave our king alone.”