Thailand’s color-coded political strife has once again flared up. Yellow Shirt supporters of the Democrat Party have seized control of government ministries and departments in the Thai capital and occupied at least 19 provincial offices, demanding that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — backed by rival Red Shirts — step down. To the Yellow Shirts, the 46-year-old Yingluck is merely a stooge for her brother, exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a divisive figure ousted in a military coup in 2006 and sentenced in absentia to two years’ imprisonment for corruption.
The current wave of Yellow Shirt action stems from opposition to a now stalled amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home, and an attempt by Yingluck to consolidate power by altering the composition of the Senate. On Tuesday, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat Party Deputy Prime Minister, repeated his call for a “people’s revolution” to replace the elected Yingluck administration with a nonelected royalist council. Attempting to downplay personal ambitions, Suthep declared “before the sanctity of Buddhism that I, Suthep Thaugsuban, will not be Prime Minister in the future.” A warrant has since been issued for his arrest for unlawfully entering government buildings.
So far, so histrionic. But what happens in Thailand is important. The kingdom is the sybaritic destination of millions of travelers every year. It is one of the world’s largest exporters of rice and the second largest economy in Southeast Asia. Even more significantly, Thai democracy is an important example to neighboring populations in Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, which have long cast envious glances at their booming neighbor.
It’s just that when it comes to Thai democracy, the ironically named Democrat Party is among the worst practitioners. Tens of thousands of Yellow Shirts are marching across the country, but demanding the establishment of royalist councils is hardly a people’s revolution. If anyone has been exercising people power, it’s the 15 million voters who elected Yingluck and her Pheu Thai party in July 2011. Thaksin-backed political parties have won the previous five elections with significant majorities, and Thaksin’s own populist policies helped bring millions of rural poor out of poverty. He remains the kingdom’s most popular Prime Minister since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932.
There are, of course, plenty of reasons to oppose the billionaire telecom mogul: the catalog of nest-feathering business deals from his time in office left few in any doubt of his lack of scruples, while his 2003 “war on drugs” involved some 2,800 extrajudicial killings. The image of him directing demonstrations from his lavish Dubai haven, while his Red Shirt supporters risk arrest, violence and occasionally their lives, is hardly a heroic one. But the opposition’s failure to exploit these weaknesses is astonishing.
“We always talk about Thaksin because he’s corrupt, he’s abusive, but he keeps wining the election,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “We have to start asking about his opponents.”
The Democrat Party last won a majority in 1992. Its power base is the Bangkok bourgeoisie, described as “timid, selfish, uncultured, consumerist and without any decent vision of the future of the country” by Cornell University Professor Benedict Anderson. As such, the party finds no support among the rural poor of the nation’s northeast — which is Red Shirt territory — and flounders at the ballot box. But instead of developing manifestos and platforms that could compete for rural votes, the party alienates the heartland electorate further by petulantly calling upon powerful allies — such as the military or judiciary — to undermine its rival.
The pattern is now established. A Thaksin-backed administration is voted in, then it is discreditably ousted by some elite machination (the 2006 coup d’état, the 2008 dissolving of the Thaksin-backed People Power Party by the Constitutional Court). Protesters take to the streets, bloodshed is inevitable, and then a Thaksin-backed party wins at the polls again.
A series of deeply unpopular domestic-policy decisions has been eating away at the Yingluck administration. But Democrat leader and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who along with Suthep has been charged with murder for ordering the 2010 crackdown while in office, failed in a no-confidence motion against Yingluck in Parliament on Thursday. The Yellow Shirts’ seizure of government buildings has also backfired. “Yingluck has snatched something resembling victory from the jaws of defeat,” says Benjamin Zawacki, senior legal adviser for Southeast Asia at the International Commission of Jurists, adding that Suthep “has likely overplayed his hand.”
Divisions within Pheu Thai have been put to one side in the face of the current tumult, and hordes of Thaksin loyalists are rallying inside Bangkok’s Rajamangala National Stadium, festooned with crimson bunting and images of their hero. Another Red Shirt rally in the capital has been announced for Saturday.
Many hoped Thailand’s color-coded conflict would end after the terrible low point of April and May 2010, when almost 100 people died and 2,000 were injured during a government crackdown on a Red Shirt demonstration in central Bangkok. (The Red Shirts were protesting the removal of a democratically elected government, just as Suthep is now demanding.)
Regrettably, all signs now point toward an escalation instead — and soon. Dec. 5 is the 86th birthday of now ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej and an important holiday in Thailand. Some believe Suthep will not want to mar this occasion and so will, in Zawacki’s words, “seek escalation now in the hopes of a coup or at least a temporary declaration of martial law” before the holiday. These are thuggish politics. The Democrat Party might cling onto its name, but seeing many of its supporters swap yellow for black shirts seems strangely apt.