Tension for Yingluck in Thailand
Tensions have been rising again in Thailand, with 4,000 protesters taking to Lumpini Park in Central Bangkok Sunday in what might be considered a preemptive strike against any possibility that Thailand's parliament might produce amnesty legislation that would allow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's fugitive brother, Thaksin, back into the country.
Although that raises questions whether the wheels, or maybe the wings, are about to come off the Pheu Thai government that took power in 2011, the consensus is that the government will prevail, with a certain amount of tension. A veteran western businessman told Asia Sentinel the government has managed to preserve relative calm, describing the situation as a kind of Goldilocks state, blowing neither too hot nor too cold. "My prediction is for no big problem," he said by email.
The issue is the amnesty bill, which Pheu Thai has vowed to present on the floor of the House of Representatives Wednesday and Thursday. The opposition Democrats have refused to cooperate and have demanded that the bill be withdrawn. The Democrats remain in disarray, with their power base pretty much confined to Bangkok.
Any time amnesty or constitutional reform looms, the protesters take to the streets. Pheu Thai leaders have been waiting for almost three years to attempt to push through a series of constitutional reforms after the document Thaksin put in place during his administration was emasculated at the behest of the military in the wake of the 2006 coup that drove him from power. But each time the issue has come up, street protest and tensions have shelved them. The Supreme Court delayed moves to pass legislation in 2012.
Party leaders deny that there is anything in the amnesty bill relating to a pardon for Thaksin, who remains in exile in Dubai, although he is widely assumed to be running the government by remote control through his sister and through her top advisers, most of whom served Thaksin during his period as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, when he was brought down by a royalist-backed coup while he was out or the country.
The issue of amnesty has been complicated by the government's need to pass a US$80 billion fiscal plan for the current year and by the need to push through a US$100 billion supplementary spending document to upgrade the country's creaky infrastructure, much of it to combat widespread flooding. With the amnesty issue blocking the government's plans, the badly needed budget bill and the supplementary appropriation measure are on hold.
The coalition that came together in Lumpini Park Sunday included a wide range of protesters from several different camps including various permutations of the so-called Yellow Shirts -- the pro-royalist People's Alliance for Democracy, who officially don't want to violate their bail terms by protesting -- and a flock of former military officials who say their goal is to uproot "Thaksinism," whether practiced by the 64-year-old fugitive or by his 46-year-old sister.
Although lots of reports circulated on twitter and other social media that tanks were on the move, Deputy Army Spokesman Winthai Suwaree told reporters rumors of a military coup were "just the personal imagination of some people who are out to confuse the public."
In fact, Yingluck has been given credit -- or blame, depending on who you talk to ? for working hard to please Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha to keep the military in the barracks through hefty budget allotments that give them pretty much what they want.
Thaksin took to Facebook to ridicule the rally, saying many core leaders were military people he had refused to promote. He ridiculed the Democrats as well, for siding with the protesters.
It does appear that Yingluck's government's popularity is waning, although whether it's waning enough to have any real political effect is questionable. A Bangkok University poll quoted by Asia News Network said the government's job approval rating has sunk to 4.49 on a scale of 10, down 0.38 from a similar poll 18 months through her term.
About 55 percent of respondents told pollsters said they were unsure where the government is leading the country against 27 percent positive and 17 percent who said the country was being led in the wrong direction. Yingluck was given a positive rating of 4.9, down by 0.48 from when she took office. Her diligence and devotion to solving problems was rated at 5.4 and her decisiveness was the least impressive at 4.5, according to the Asia News Network report.
Protests are expected to continue until the amnesty issue is dead and buried, especially if somehow the Pheu Thai Party were to slip an amnesty into the measure for Thaksin, which seems politically impossible for any time into the distant future. Royalist protesters are also concerned that the bill might exonerate those held in jail for having violated the country's draconian lese majeste provision, which prohibit any criticism whatsoever of the royal family or even institutions connected with the royal family.
It is unknown how many people remain in jail for having violated the provisions, plus those of the country's equally harsh computer crime law. According to Political Prisoners of Thailand, an NGO: "Cases are seldom dropped outright, not least because prosecutors themselves worry about being charged with lese majeste for dropping a case. In mid-2012, an Amnesty International representative stated that it "is very hard to say the exact number detained under the lese-majeste laws," and went on to refer to "tens of people":
The bill would exonerate protesters involved in demonstrations from 2006 until May last year. However, the protesters said they fear that the bill would whitewash Mr. Thaksin's corruption charges and pave the way for his return to power. They also worry that the bill would clear charges against those who violated the country's strict lese majeste laws, which prohibit criticism or comments deemed insulting to the monarchy with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
Thida Tavornseth, one of the leaders of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, the UDD, the red shirts who staged protests in 2009 and 2010 to eventually bring down the Democratic Party-led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, complained that while the bill covers incarcerated protesters from the bloody 2010 riots in which 91 people died, it doesn't covered Red Shirt leaders who remain in jail.
"Almost all of the people, maybe many hundred - about 500 to 800 - and they already were in jail about two to three years. No, not the leaders and not Khun Thaksin Shinawatra, just only the people," Thida told local media.