Political Temperature Cools in Bangkok

With Bangkok having calmed down in the run-up to the 86th birthday of Thailand’s ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the antagonists are catching their breath before the tear gas, rocks and rubber bullets may again begin to fly.

It could be time to count the winners and losers, at least while a temporary truce reigns between the Bangkok elite and their allies, the royalists led by former Democrat Party deputy leader SuthepThaugsuban, and the Pheu Thai government, led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of exiled former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra. How long it will last is anybody’s guess. But in the short term, it appears the government is the winner.

Certainly the country badly needs to get back to business as usual. Although the protests have had little effect on business and commerce as such, Thailand’s creaking infrastructure must be updated if it is to continue to play an increasing role as Southeast Asia’s industrial heartland. The Pheu Thai government, under Yingluck, has plans to spend the equivalent of US$64 billion by 2020 to make Thailand the center of industrial activity for all of Southeast Asia. Continuing political unrest doesn’t bode well for those plans.

The authorities appear to have learned their lesson from the carnage left in the wake of a 2010 crackdown on Red Shirt allies of the Thaksin forces that left 92 people killed, most of them protesters shot by the military, and the center of Bangkok in flames. That made the then-Democrat Party government a target of stinging condemnation from international capitals and sent a wave of sympathy across the country for protesters who were none too peaceful themselves.

After three weeks of intensifying demonstrations, the protesters were allowed to symbolically enter Government House, although they left after taking snapshots, a marked contrast to their occupation of a variety of other government buildings as the protests escalated. They even helped authorities clean up the debris left at the center of their protest, ironically the Democracy Monument, which commemorates the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.

The initial protest was sparked by the campaign to kill a much-despised blanket amnesty that would have allowed Thaksin to return home and forgiven countless other offenses. The Democrat Party opposition sought to harness that protest into an expanded attempt to drive not only the Pheu Thai government from power but the entire Thaksin clan from the country and rid Thailand of the populist democratic sway that has allowed the Thaksin forces to return to power three times since the 2006 coup that originally drove him from office.

By tradition, the government and the protesters must both show their loyalty to the king by staging elaborate birthday ceremonies in an atmosphere of calm and peace. Suthep was gambling that his forces could continue escalate the violence until the government fell before the birthday party. Therefore, they continued to up the pressure, taking over government buildings and attempting to seize Government House as their predecessors, the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy, did in August 2008, holding the building until the elected government was ordered dissolved by the courts in December of that year.

The government is obviously the winner in the short term. It avoided the use of violence by the police, which Suthep sought as a ploy to discredit the government. The leaders of the tens of thousands of antigovernment protesters are the losers, giving the democratically elected government the ability to take the moral high ground.

Plus, while the protesters did get into the Finance Ministry and other offices, the government held onto the most important ones, meaning the protesters weren’t able to shut down the government.

In particular, Yingluck appears to have played her hand deftly, giving rise to comments by some political analysts that she is finding her own voice not depending on her brother’s practice of running the country from Dubai. When Suthep met with her and Army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha to demand that she dissolve the government, she reportedly showed commendable sang-froid in her refusal. In a televised speech yesterday, she sounded conciliatory, saying she believes the country can navigate its way back to some form of peace, calling on all of the parties to participate in a forum to do so.

Nonetheless, the hatred of the Pheu Thai majority and the party’s poor backers from the rural northeast runs deep. Suthep told AFP last night that "After the king's birthday, we will start fighting again until we achieve our goal," adding that he had no intention of stopping until "Thailand is rid of the Thaksin regime".

It is unknown how much momentum has been lost, however, and the Democrats themselves appear to be split, with Korn Chatikavanij, the Democrats’ deputy leader and former finance minister, openly disagreeing with Suthep on tactics. Other party leaders have backed away from Suthep’s violent street strategy. And, although he has appeared in public to denounce the Pheu Thai government and call for its ouster, sources in Bangkok say former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who like Suthep is under indictment for crimes connected to ordering the troops to attack in 2010, has largely been reduced to being a bystander.

It isn’t possible to know at this point whether Suthep can lead his followers back onto the street when the celebrations for the king are finished. As the protests have continued, with the violence undermining their acceptability, the number of people willing to take to the barricades has fallen.

Suthep’s own legitimacy has come under question, given that he is proposing an unelected “supreme council” with a prime minister appointed by the King. It has taken heavy flak, and not just from the government, over fears that it ultimately might be largely constituted of Suthep and his friends. Although the ousted Thaksin is no angel, neither is Suthep.

As an official in a 1995 Democrat administration, Suthep gave away government plots under a land reform scheme, only to have it discovered that some of the title deeds went to 11 wealthy families from Phuket. Complications from the subsequent scandal forced then-prime minister Chuan Leekpai to dissolve the legislature to avoid a no-confidence vote. Suthep was later disqualified from serving in parliament over the fact that he held interests in a media company doing business with the government.