Thailand’s Thaksin Thinks He Can Outlast the Protesters

Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted premier who nonetheless has run Thailand for the past seven years through surrogates and guile, is like the Cheshire Cat. There is nothing for his enemies to pursue except his disappearing smile, now here and gone there.

That smile appeared recently in an unnamed Asian city where Thaksin had dinner with a closely monitored coterie of Thai and international businessmen. He expressed confidence that his legions in Thailand will prevail in the face of tens of thousands of protesters on the streets of Bangkok.

Despite growing doubts across the country that that his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and her Pheu Thai Party can survive, Thaksin is said to remain confident that the planned February 2 elections will come off, and certain that his forces will win. And, despite the allegations of massive corruption that have dogged him, he is also said to be confident that democracy is on his side.

On Monday and Tuesday, protesters trying to drive the Pheu Thai government – and the Thaksin family – out of politics for good set up camps in front of huge stages at key Bangkok locations, attempting to create chaos and bring commerce and business to a stop. That was also the strategy employed by the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the so-called anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirts, who brought the entire country to a halt in 2008 only to be defeated at the ballot box in 2011 by Thaksin’s forces.

Thaksin, sitting in an exclusive restaurant surrounded by international businessmen far from Bangkok’s streets, believes it is imperative to keep his supporters from attacking and that eventually, if they are careful, they can outlast the protesters. The Pheu Thai forces believe those financing the protests have been spending the equivalent of about US$1 million per day for what is now 75 days. Even with forces behind them like the owners of the massive Boon Rawd Brewery and other Thai businesses, possibly including the monarchy’s Crown Property Bureau, the pro-Thaksin forces believe, to paraphrase an American politician, a million here, a million there, pretty soon it amounts to real money.

The government, in order to stay in power, can’t attack the protesters, an action the protesters seem to want to provoke. For Thaksin’s forces, the imperative at this point is to practice rope-a-dope, absorbing punches and sliding along the ropes a la boxing legend Muhammad Ali. The Red Shirts – the backbone of those who voted the Pheu Thai government into power in 2011 – will remain outside the city, one of those who attended the dinner with Thaksin said. Thaksin’s forces are acutely aware that if any kind of crackdown ensues, the government loses.

The protesters intend to slide along their own ropes. They have implemented what they call “operation shutdown,” erecting tents, kitchens, medical centers and other facilities at protest sites across the city, including outside shopping malls popular with foreign tourists.

The war of attrition continues on both sides. The protesters, headed by former Democrat Party Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, blocked intersections across the city on Monday and Tuesday and also sought to invade government ministries. The crowd remains good-natured and despite their plans to paralyze the city, school classes reopened Tuesday and commuters continued to go to work.

Yingluck, a competent practitioner of her own public relations, has offered to meet with anybody to discuss postponing the elections if necessary. Suthep has ruled out negotiations, saying, “In this undertaking, there’s only win or lose… today, we must cleanse Thailand.”

The International Crisis Group think tank recently described the “scope for peaceful resolution as narrowing.” But the fact is that there is no scope to do anything unless one side or the other not only blinks but turns tail. Eight people have been killed so far shot either by provocateurs or real vigilantes.

The US is trying to mediate the crisis, saying US diplomats “encourage dialogue and a peaceful, democratic, political resolution.” Nobody seems to be listening.

If Thaksin’s forces continue to refrain from confrontation, the situation appears likely to drag on beyond the point where the world gets bored. That doesn’t seem likely to mollify the Suthep faction. Escalation appears to be their strategy, endangering the fabric of Thai society.

The problem is that Thai politics is irreparably corrupt. If Suthep succeeds in driving the Thaksin forces from the capital and the country, as is their stated aim, he and the Democrats are also corrupt. They held the country’s leadership before and are believed to have taken massive bribes. If the Pheu Thai forces are driven out, it will be a case, as the old aphorism goes, of same sty, different pigs.