Bangkok Faces Crisis From Competing Rallies

Bangkok faces a growing crisis Saturday as tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of frustrated “Red Shirt” supporters of the government and equal numbers of opponents descend on the city for mass rallies.

Suthep Thaugsuban, the secretary general of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which has been attempting for five months to drive the democratically elected Pheu Thai government headed by caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from power, said the coming events would be a final push in the campaign, which so far has left 24 dead and hundreds injured from scores of mysterious attacks.

The real target is Yingluck’s brother Thaksin, a 65-year-old former business tycoon who won election in 2001 but was driven from power in 2006 by a royalist coup. He has lived outside the country since 2008, running the government through surrogate parties after he was convicted of abusing his power to help his wife buy public land at auction. He faces a two-year jail term if he returns. It was a misguided attempt to railroad an amnesty bill through the Thai parliament that kicked off the current crisis in October of last year.

Starting with his first term in office, Thaksin won the loyalty of the millions of rural poor through extensive social platforms including cheap health plans, loans, generating local industries and other programs although critics say his government was later riddled with corruption and abuse of power.

From the start, the campaign to oust the government has run the danger that millions of Thaksin’s rural supporters from the northeast of the country would ultimately lose patience and descend on Bangkok with the aim of taking revenge on the opposition for attempting to drive Pheu Thai from power. Yingluck and her government have scrupulously sought to keep that from happening.

The caretaker government, which has largely been at a standstill since Parliament was dissolved in early December, said it would attempt to control the two separate rallies, with Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul telling reporters the Internal Security Act, currently imposed in Bangkok and surrounding areas, would be adequate for the government to monitor the situation and prevent a bloody conflict between the two.

Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha also stressed that the armed forces are obliged to protect both sides. As many as 176 bunkers manned by armed soldiers have been installed throughout the city in case either side comes armed for trouble.

Jatuporn Prompan, the chairman of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – the umbrella organization of the Red Shirts – predicted that as many as 500,000 followers could show up in Bangkok tomorrow for the two-day protest. Meanwhile Suthep Wednesday told supporters to get ready for the biggest demonstration ever.

“Be ready to come out in full force again and this might be the last time to oust this illegitimate government from the country,” Suthep shouted during a rally Wednesday.

The opposition protests had been waning as demonstrators drifted away from the PDRC with the weeks stretching into months. However, a Constitutional Court ruling last month that the Feb. 2 general election called by Yingluck and won overwhelmingly by Pheu Thai was unconstitutional has reinvigorated the protesters and disconcerted the government.

The constitutional court decision has left the government almost dead in the water, throwing the country into an even deeper impasse. It is expected that it could take as long as another three months to organize a new election – which Suthep and his followers have already vowed to nullify.

The impeachment case is one of a long string of legal challenges that the Pheu Thai government has faced. The courts have traditionally been viewed as being clearly on the side of the Bangkok forces that have tried to break the supremacy of the Shinawatra machine that has held sway in in the country since 2001 despite a 2006 coup that first drove the Thaksin forces from power. Surrogate governments have easily won new elections only to have the courts void them twice.

Most recently, Yingluck was charged with corruption by Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission in the government’s administration of a badly flawed program to buy rice farmers’ loyalty by paying them 50 percent over global market prices for their rice, resulting in a 13 million tonne stockpile that government officials are trying to sell. It is unknown when the commission will reach a verdict. Earlier, the Constitutional Court voided a grandiose US$70 billion scheme designed to upgrade the country’s shambolic infrastructure that was designed to make Thailand the industrial center of Southeast Asia.

If tomorrow’s rallies end peacefully, that isn’t going to end the crisis. If the anti-corruption commission impeaches Yingluck, in effect bringing down the Pheu Thai Party, observers in Bangkok say, that could bring on red shirt fury and the threat of violence.

It was that frustration that brought thousands of Red Shirts to Bangkok in April and May of 2010 in a bid to bring down the Democrat Party that had been installed in power by the army after a court voided a previous Thaksin-backed government. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, with Suthep Thaugsuban then his deputy, ordered the military to clear out the demonstrators.

The resulting violence left 90 people dead, most of them protesters, and one of the city’s most upscale shopping centers on fire and in ruins. Nobody wants to see that happen again. But Suthep seems not to be aware of the potential for violence his tactics could generate.