Thai Violence on the Boil

With tension and violence ratcheting up steadily in Bangkok, the leaders of the opposition insurrection against the government are again using the courts to try and oust caretaker Premier Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai government.

Many in Bangkok consider it a foregone conclusion that Yingluck will be indicted on corruption charges, probably on Thursday, and will eventually be removed from office by impeachment. But it is also likely that a whirlwind is in the offing if that happens.

The Bangkok middle classes and their allies must face the fact that millions of aroused members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) – the Red Shirts who form the bulwark of support for the government – may go into what one Red Shirt leader called “100 percent combat mode” if Yingluck is booted out. The Red Shirts are calling for a massive rally to demonstrate their strength and while they urge caution, fears of a confrontation spinning out of control are rising.

At least 20 people ‑ including three children over the weekend– already have been killed in bomb blasts and shootings since the protests began last November, with hundreds more wounded. Each side blames the other for the violence while shadowy armed figures seem to haunt the protest sites in Bangkok and elsewhere. Indeed, what began as colorful and almost celebratory demonstrations of well-heeled Bangkok residents has become darker and more sinister. The latest deaths included two siblings and their mother who were on a shopping trip in central Bangkok.

Yingluck has vowed to arrest and punish the perpetrators but few expect her words to have much effect. The government has been largely paralyzed as protesters have occupied government offices and blocked streets. Yingluck has been working from offices outside the city although it is believed that the cabinet might meet Tuesday, also out of town.

Looming division?

The so-called Bangkok elites, led by politician Suthep Thaugsuban, seem to be ignoring the looming conflagration. On Sunday, Red Shirt leader Natthawut Saikua told 4,000 UDD members at a rally in the northern province of Nakhon Ratchasima that the Red Shirts might set up an “exile” government in Isaan, the northeastern section of the country where Pheu Tai’s support is deepest.

The Red Shirts say there is no stepping down and that Suthep and his fellow People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) co-leaders must be arrested. Having built up their strength over several years in support of ousted premier Thaksin Shinatwara and now his sister, Yingluck, the Red Shirts say they will resist "unjust" court rulings and decisions by independent agencies like the corruption commission.

“The government must not be defeated. This is an order from the people,”' Natthawut said.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the chief of the Thai army and arguably the most pivotal figure in the country now, took to the airwaves Monday in a rare nationally televised speech to repeatedly call for adherence to the constitution, interpreted as a signal to the demonstrators that the military would not intervene.

“I would like to urge you to reconsider, compose yourselves and ask yourselves whether this would end peacefully,” Prayuth said.

The Bangkok Post on Tuesday quoted military sources saying “men in black” from both sides could end up battling it out in Bangkok if the Red Shirts carry out rallies to protect the government. The newspaper said Prayuth has asked Yingluck to persuade the Red Shirts to step back from the brink.

Court actions

On Feb. 17, as had long been expected, the country’s Anti-Corruption Court announced it would file charges relating to a rice subsidy scheme against Yingluck. That was followed by a confusing Bangkok civil court ruling that upheld the government’s 60-day state of emergency, but warned that the government was "not allowed to use clauses in the state of emergency to disperse the protests."

Despite the opposition Democrat Party losing a string of elections to Thaksin’s forces going back more than a dozen years, the middle-class and royalist also-rans have used the courts to bring down government after government, sometimes on the thinnest of pretexts.

On Jan. 7, the National Anti-Corruption Commission charged 308 Thai lawmakers, most of them from Pheu Thai, for attempting to alter the constitution to make the Thai Senate a fully elected body. If convicted, the lawmakers face being barred from holding public office.

It is unknown how valid the charges are against Yingluck, since they have not been adjudicated. However, observers in Bangkok have said for weeks that once the Feb. 2 snap election was out of the way, the courts would indict her over the rice pledging scheme, an economic disaster in which the government promised to pay farmers roughly 50 percent more than the global market price for their rice. The scheme is billions of dollars in debt and the government is now unable to borrow to pay the farmers.

Pheu Thai appears to have won the election handily but cannot form a government since about 10 percent of precincts in Bangkok and elsewhere were blocked from voting by Suthep’s minions. The ironically named Democrat Party boycotted the election and backs the protests.

Jatuporn Promphan, another UDD leader, warned that when the time was right, major roads in Bangkok would turn into a “sea of red.” That, Jatuporn said, didn’t mean a sea of blood but a sea of red shirts. "It will be our historically greatest struggle to preserve democracy,'' he said, claiming the reds would ensure that there would be no clashes or loss of life.

But given the growing tension, it appears impossible to rule out a clash of major proportions with considerable loss of life. With the ailing 86-year old Thai king on the sidelines and no obvious way out of an intractable situation, Thailand is mired in the kind of political chaos the country once prided itself on being able to avoid despite regional and class tensions.

From the start, Suthep’s forces have seemed intent on a violent outcome as a way of bringing the military into the fray. That would open the way for another government by the Bangkok elites, this time in the form of a council of some kind to oversee unspecified reforms presumably aimed at ending Thaksin’s political influence.

Suthep appears to be living in a world of his own making that has little to do with reality.