What You Need to Know About the Protests in Thailand

Thousands upon thousands of protesters stomp through the sweaty streets of Bangkok, demanding that the current administration step down and attempting to surround governmental buildings. Confused tourists — whose dollars represent one of the most valuable pillars of the Thai economy — sidestep barricades in the more atmospheric neighborhoods of the capitol city, while rumblings of a military coup and municipal shutdown float through the air. It’s another restive year in Thailand.

An average armchair political scientist might conclude these Bangkok protests are just another pro-democracy people’s movement. But there’s one big difference: the protesters against Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra are taking a stance that would serve to help break down democracy, not bolster it. They’re seeking to install an unelected “people’s council” in the Prime Minister’s stead, which would implement the political and economic reforms they seek. Democratic? Not so much.

Shinawatra has made moves to appease the protesters: she dissolved Parliament in December and has called for new elections on February 2nd, but as the current thousands-strong protests (with shots fired on Tuesday) show, they haven’t been enough.

The Democrats, led by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, intend to boycott the elections, and even blocked parties attempting to register in December.  They’re worried, quite legitimately, that a new election would not just re-elect Ms Shinawatra but could potentially give her a mandate to implement a controversial amnesty bill — their biggest complaint against her administration, and admittedly, a major strategic blunder on her part.

The opposing Democrat party took to the streets to demand that she step down, claiming that she is little more than a puppet for her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled the country on corruption charges in 2006, after a military coup. and who would benefit from the amnesty bill.Protesters claim that he continues to orchestrate the country from abroad, operating through his sister.

But here’s the rub: Shinawatra was fairly elected, a fact that her supporters have repeatedly emphasized. Her base of support is Thailand’s northeast and poorer rural areas, where Thaksin Shinawatra’s reforms in the 2000s introduced such changes as universal health care, microcredit, educational reforms, and other benefits that explicitly helped the Southeast Asian nation’s rural population, which makes up two-thirds of the whole. 

Thaksin is no angel of liberalism.  His heavy-handed “war on drugs,” starting in 2003,  saw the killings of thousands, many of whom appear to have had no linkage to the narcotics trade. Regardless of these human rights offenses, these reforms have translated into long-lasting support: Thaksin-allied parties have won the last four Thai elections. 

The Democratic hotbed of support, meanwhile, hails from Bangkok and other, more urbanized regions of the South. They claim that Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party has used vote buying and other cheating tactics to win elections, but there’s little evidence either that much of this has taken place, or that it has influenced voters towards the Pheu Thai view of things

The battle in Thailand, then, is a rather old one indeed when view on a macro level: between the interests of an urban, wealthier minority who feel better-qualified to hold power (and in some sense, entitled to do so due to their connection to the powerful monarchy), and those of a rural, poorer majority who desire to show that their vote matters, too.

Protests continue in Bangkok this week, and compromise seems distressingly hard to reach. Will Thailand continue its modern habit of forcibly swapping regimes, or will some compromise — a democratic compromise — be reached? Southeast Asia watchers observe, and worry.