Thailand is once again being convulsed by extreme partisan politics, with the country’s polarisation playing out on Bangkok’s streets. Several people have been killed, and many more have been injured. The sense that Thailand has been through all of this before would be mildly reassuring were it not for a nagging fear that this decent and prosperous society may be set to destroy its democracy.
Much of the violence has been led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister. He has inspired thousands of demonstrators, many from his power base in the country’s south, to storm and occupy government buildings with the aim of unseating Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Suthep says that this is the first step in rooting out “Thaksinism” from the country’s political life.
On December 1, Suthep demanded—and received—a meeting with Yingluck in the presence of Thailand’s military chiefs, whom he had asked to “guarantee” his safety. During the meeting, Suthep gave Yingluck a two-day deadline to resign. With the police failing to control the mobs in the streets without the help of the military, Yingluck decided to resign and dissolve parliament, declaring that she would lead a caretaker government until a new election is held on February 2.
The date was endorsed by a “reform forum,” established to resolve the crisis and comprising Bangkok’s elite (including the military). Suthep and his followers were dissatisfied, and left the forum in protest, rejecting Yingluck even as an interim prime minister and demanding that the election be held after political reforms—the sort he would agree with—are implemented to eliminate all vestiges of the Thaksin clan from government.
In fact, Suthep has called for a “people’s council,” comprised of 400 unbiased representatives. The council would replace the Senate after the upper house nominates a new leader to be appointed by the King, thus obviating the need for elections in the near future. Wassana Nanuam, the military-affairs correspondent of the English-language daily Bangkok Post, has described the move as a “silent” coup d’état: no tanks in the streets.
The Democrat Party, led by the former court-appointed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, has separately announced a boycott of the February 2 election on the grounds that the party could not reform the country even if it participated. The Democratic Party last won a parliamentary majority in 1992.
While the military chiefs’ inclinations have been with Bangkok’s elites, they are