Thailand: Challenges to Democracy?

31 Dec, 2013    ·   4230

Aparupa Bhattacherjee comments on the anti-government protests in Bangkok

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer

The ongoing anti-government protests in Bangkok seem to threatening the democratic establishment of the country. The protests which started in November 2013 are being led by Suthep Thaugsuban, the former deputy Prime Minister of Thailand before the Pheu Thai Party came to power in 2011. The crisis started after Yingluck Shinawatra’s government tried to introduce an amnesty bill in parliament in November 2013. The proposed bill would have pardoned the corruption charges of Thaksin Shinawatra, and facilitated his return to Thailand from his self-imposed exile in Dubai. The protest which was initiated against the bill slowly turned into an anti-government agenda.

What are the demands made by the protesters? Do these protests have an impact on Thai democracy?

The present anti-government protests have their roots in the history. The 2010 anti-government protest in Thailand led by the pro Thanksin, Red Shirt group resulted in the fall of the Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban government. The following elections installed Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister, in government. There was a rising fear among the Thai elites that Yingluck Shinawatra was the puppet of Thaksin Shinawatra who was in actual control the government. Moreover, the Prime Minister’s governmental policies followed a pattern similar to her brother’s, which basically included the development of rural Thailand and upliftment of the urban poor who comprise the pro Thaksin vote bank. Thus, the introduction of the amnesty bill was enough to trigger anger among the middle-class and elite urban Thais against the Yingluck government.

The protesters demands include the removal of Yingluck Shinawatra from power and the establishment of an unelected ‘People’s Council’. The ‘People’s Council’ will comprise of one representative from all sectors, such as one representative from academia, one representative from the legal structure and so on. On 9 December 2013, Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the lower House and declared a general election for 2 February 2014. Nevertheless, this seems to have failed to pacify the demonstrators who are adamant about their demand for an unelected body as they believe that only an elected body can bring stability to Thailand. However, most of the protesters are vague on the idea of the ‘People’s Council’. Questions such as what would be basis of selection of the representatives for the People are Council; the procedure for the election of these representatives; how they would govern the country and so on are unclear.

Another important aspect in the protest is the lack of involvement of the Thai army. The Thai military has not been involved in this protest and have claimed their stand to be unclear. The protesting leader has asked the politically powerful Thai military to choose their side, which continues to maintain its position as a mediator in the recent crisis. The Thai military has always played a pivotal role in Thai politics; they have attempted eighteen coups in eighty years and were the reason for the downfall of the Thaksin government. Therefore, if the military choose to be on the side of the protesters, Thailand should be ready to witness another coup.

Challenges to Democracy
In a national conference in Thailand in December 2013, most of the Thai political parties agreed that the February election is essential for political stability.

Nevertheless, the protesting leader Suthep Thaugsuban has claimed that he would not let the 2 February 2014 election happen in Thailand. Moreover, there is a clear divide between the Democrats, the biggest opposition party, on the question of whether to support the election or not. The recently re-elected party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has not made any declaration on this issue. However it is very clear that it will not advisable for them to boycott the upcoming election as most of the other Thai political parties seems to support the election. Although the election has been accepted by not only the Thai political parties but also by other sections of the society such as private investors and the academics, there is a rising debate that asks whether a 2 February 2014 election is too early. Many in Thai society think that the election date should be postponed and the election should only be held after a political reform in the society. However, the election commission chairman Supachai Somcharoen has declared that the general election will be held on 2 February 2014.  An establishment of a stable government in Thailand is the only way to bring peace to the nation, and this can only be achieved by a general election. Only an elected democratic government can initiate the process of reform in a more organised and disciplined manner.
The political stability of a country is essential for overall development. This should be understood by the protesters. The prolonging of protests will not only lead to the growth of violence but also have a negative impact on the economy.