Thailand's Pressure Cooker Politics

Thailand is veering perilously close to civil war in the wake of an extraordinary weekend as rampaging opposition thugs sought to close Bangkok television and radio stations and attacked western reporters in their attempt to drive the caretaker government from power.

The country, in the words of one political observer, “has passed the point of compromise.”

The opposition basically got what it wanted with the court-ordered ouster and impeachment of Pheu Thai leader Yingluck Shinawatra. It appears not to have been enough.

Ironically, the past weekend was the fourth anniversary of the ouster of protesters by the Thai army that resulted in 90 deaths after weeks of occupation by protesters against the Democrat government.

Chalerm Yoobamrung, head of the government’s security forces, said Monday that he would use border police paratroopers to arrest the 51 leaders of the opposition People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which is seeking to drive the Thaksin forces from power. It is a threat he has made before, and one that has been ignored. If the arrests of top PRDC officials did start to occur, the violence would probably accelerate even more.

The situation is growing so ominous that longtime observers are predicting that serious violence can’t be forestalled. The caretaker government, now headed by Commerce Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, a close business associate of Yingluck’s fugitive brother Thaksin Shinawatra, said it would increase security to prevent escalating clashes between the anti-government royalists and Bangkok elite forces and the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, the Red Shirts, who are coming closer to Bangkok as their outrage builds against the ouster of the government it helped install through elections in 2011.

“The situation is more tense,” said a Thai banker. “I think we will have a crash soon. The Red Shirts have threatened to come to Bangkok. They are just across the [Chao Phraya River, which bisects Bangkok] and they are getting ready to come in.”

The prospect of an army of angry red-shirted northerners confronting mobs of anti-government protesters on the streets of one of Asia’s most modern and cosmopolitan cities should seem almost inconceivable and it would surely be a tragedy for the country – but that is where things may be heading.

Despite what many see as a judicial coup to remove Yingluck, the street opposition, headed by southern Thai warlord and politician Suthep Thaugsuban, wants more. He has demanded that the various pro-royalist courts and the senate install an interim government for an undefined period of time to undertake undefined “reforms.”

He has said his protesters would do it themselves if his demands are not met immediately.

“I have never believed in the thing called civil war in Thailand, but frankly recently I have begun to change my mind,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political scientist and frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel. “I think there is a potential that Thailand could slip into that state of civil war. When the judicial system has become highly politicized, this has prompted the Red Shirts to come out and defend their rights. This is not the first time the Red Shirts thought that their electoral rights were robbed. When pushed to the corner, they will come out to fight. So I would not be surprised if the political violence will reemerge, and this could lead to a civil war.”

Despite the fact that Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha and Supreme Commander of the Thai Armed Forces General Thanasak Patimaprakorn have both publicly stated that the military wants nothing to do with a coup, the army may be forced to come in to keep order while the political situation sorts itself out. For better or worse, the military has formed the backbone of the government since a 1932 coup that ended the country’s absolute monarchy.

The army has remained behind the scenes – or in power overtly  in varying ways ever since, although it has faced increasing disapproval of any open political role. But it seems to be the only public institution that can deal with the crisis.

Yingluck was ordered to step down as prime minister last Thursday after a court ruled she had abused her power by ordering the transfer of the security chief, appointed by the previous government, in favor of a Shinawatra relative. Then, on Friday, another court ordered her impeached by the Senate on charges she had failed to adequately police the country’s scandal-ridden rice subsidy program. She is likely to be banned from politics for up to five years if the Senate, many of whose members are regarded as aligned with the opposition, vote against her. Last year, an attempt by Pheu Thai to make the Senate a fully-elected body to dilute its power was declared void by the courts.

Suthep, a former Democrat Party deputy chairman, has become increasingly grandiose, saying he would march his followers across town and set up operations in Government House, which contains the offices of the prime minister and cabinet members. Yingluck had been working out of makeshift quarters after protesters previously invaded the building. He has previously said he and he along would have the power to appoint a new government, despite the fact that he is considered a figurehead for royalists, the Democrat Party and heavyweight businessmen in Thailand’s opaque power structure

As the opposition’s numbers at rallies have dwindled, their tactics have become more violent. The Thai language press has reported scores of attacks on ordinary citizens including attempted murder, stabbings and beatings. The attacks have been indiscriminate, with assailants from the opposition often turning their guns or grenades on their own adherents in an effort to make the attacks look like they had been perpetrated by the Red Shirts.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin, who was driven from power in 2006 by a royalist coup, has hovered at the periphery, directing his adherents via the Internet or other social media. He was in Singapore over the weekend, pushing his Pheu Thai troops to maintain control while remaining committed to a July 20 election. He has appeared quietly in Hong Kong several times over recent weeks to meet with Thai expatriate businessmen and others to plan strategy.

It remains questionable whether the opposition forces including the Democrat Party headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva will participate. The Democrats and their allies have lost every election they have participated in since Thaksin came to power in 2001. After the courts ordered successive Thaksin-backed surrogates from power, the Democrats ruled as a minority party for a brief interregnum ordered by the army from 2008 to 2010 in the face of violent Yellow Shirt protest sieges. That two and a half year reign ended after the massive Red Shirt protests in 2010 were broken up by the army.

In a televised announcement Sunday, the government’s security committee warned people to stay away from protest sites for their own safety.