Thai Opposition Losing its Gamble?

It is starting to appear that the gamble by forces backing Thai opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban to use the courts to drive Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her fugitive brother Thaksin from political dominance may fail.

That coincides with a fading campaign to attempt to bring down the government through three months of demonstrations that closed government offices, choked Bangkok intersections, damaged tourism and cut into gross domestic product. As one of the omens that things may be making a turn for the better, the country’s stock market has again begun to rise, slowly but steadily, from 1304.62 on Feb. 26 to 1345 on March 4. Another omen is a report that the Election Commission has approved US$22 million from the central budget to pay rice farmers who pledged their rice under the rice-pledging scheme.

Suthep announced Sunday that the opposition forces, backed surreptitiously by some of the country’s biggest businesses and banks, would abandon the Ratchaprasong intersection that was the center of the campaign and other venues in Bangkok and consolidate in Lumpini Park. In reality, Suthep, who advocates a non-elected People's Democratic Reform Committee to run the government while enacting reforms, has only been able to rally a few hundred demonstrators at successively weakening rallies.

That doesn’t mean the political chaos that has plagued the city for three months is over. Some 53 leaders of Suthep’s PDRC have been issued summons for insurrection and instigating people to break the law, which they have ignored. Thugs armed with automatic rifles continue to patrol the streets. There are still significant dangers on all sides, including the very real threat of all-out civil war – especially if Thailand’s Anti-Corruption Court rules to force Yingluck to step down.

From the start, the elites, aligned with the Democrat Party, have been counting on the courts to oust Yingluck, as the courts have ousted Thaksin surrogate governments from power going back to 2007. From the start, sources say in Bangkok, the demonstrations have largely been largely a sideshow to the greater strategy of forcing a decision from traditionally Democrat-friendly courts.

The current action is in the Anti-Corruption Court, where Yingluck faces impeachment over her role as head of a wasteful and largely corrupt rice-pledging scheme that had a devastating impact on the treasury, roiled the global rice market and has left unpaid farmers furious. The prime minster was charged with negligence on Feb. 26. If found guilty, she could be removed from office and would face a five-year ban from politics.

The charges, however, have energized the Red Shirt forces who dominate the north and northeast of the country and led to the looming threat of violence. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha warned last week that the country could face collapse unless the political crisis is addressed.

“The actual legal grounds are for impeachment are shaky in the extreme, to say the least,” a western banker told Asia Sentinel. “The Red Shirts are now emboldened and mobilized, then maybe the judicial court will decide she is not guilty? I think the consequences of a judicial coup might be very bloody.”

That possibility of violence, according to other sources, may be weighing on the court, along with rising irritation at the courts’ tactics. On Feb. 19, a civil court, although upholding a 60-day state of emergency called by the government, ruled that police couldn’t use force to clear protesters from government buildings and voided a ban on gatherings of five or more people, saying it violated their constitutional rights to rally.

That decision was met with widespread anger and dismay on the part of the general public, leaving critics asking how the government could get access to its own offices without clearing out the protesters. It has been impossible to renew a driver’s license or take care of other mundane tasks for weeks, causing pubic irritation while the government has played a careful role, avoiding violence as much as possible at all costs.

“Tactically Yingluck has played this street battle well,” the western banker said. “Police are back on duty at Ratchaprasong intersection for the first time in weeks, sanitation workers are cleaning the streets. Now the government will start to return to work. And the red forces will be primed, ready for action.”

If Suthep’s forces are in danger of losing the campaign to oust the government, however, political analysts say in Bangkok, Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party has fared little better. Both sides have suffered almost irreparable damage with the public, making it questionable how Thailand can be governed.

Pheu Thai started the mess by attempting to force through a blanket amnesty bill that would have allowed her fugitive brother to return from exile without having to face prison time on charges of corruption that drove him from the country in 2008. It would also have exempted both Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep, then a deputy leader, from charges of murder for the brutal 2010 crackdown that left 90 people dead, most of them protesters, when the army attacked Red Shirt forces to end their own occupation of the Ratchaprasong intersection.

Certainly the events have shown a spotlight again on the long list of concerns over Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai government which led to his ouster, including allegations of widespread corruption, enriching his family, authoritarianism, muzzling the press and human rights violations over his “war on drugs” in which the police went on a murderous spree, killing 2,500 people, about half of whom were said not to be involved in drugs at all.

The Democrats have been irrevocably stained by the tactics they used subsequently to drive the democratically elected Pheu Thai government from power, however, and to force a Feb. 3 snap election, which they then attempted to block. They have deliberately courted police action in the hope that a crackdown would stain the government, as the 2010 crackdown stained the Democrats..

Considerable violence has been directed at anti-government protesters as well, although it is difficult to say where it has been coming from. Pheu Thai leaders have repeatedly asked their followers to refrain from violence but with millions of disaffected Red Shirt followers primed for action, it is impossible to rule out.

At least 21 people have been killed so far, including four children hit by stray bullets or thrown grenades. A further 720 are said by authorities to have been injured. The damage to Thai political institutions has been severe, creating a leadership vacuum that will probably take months if not years to resolve.