As Thailand’s anti-government protests enter their fourth day, observers say prospects for violent confrontation are increasing, with reports of government supporters stockpiling weapons in case of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s ouster.
According to the Bangkok Post, radical members of the Red Shirts — diehard champions of Yingluck and her notorious brother Thaksin Shinawatra — are readying a cache of arms in case the 46-year-old premier is forced from office by either military or judicial intervention.
The paper quoted a Red Shirt source as saying “There are strong anti-coup and anti-court sentiments among the red-shirt mavericks who are familiar and experienced with weapon use.”
Tens of thousands of protesters have clogged key arteries of Bangkok, Thailand’s sprawling capital — a tourist mecca and a booming economic hub — since Monday in order to shutdown government and purge the influence of the Shinawatra clan, especially that of billionaire telecoms mogul and former Prime Minister Thaksin.
Led by the burly Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Deputy Prime Minister for the opposition Democrat Party, who resigned to lead the protest, demonstrators have built tent cities around government buildings. The move has forced their closure, forcing civil servants to work from home and other offices. “We’re here to chase out a tyrant government,” Suthep told the BBC on Wednesday
Seeking a path through the ongoing unrest, Yingluck has dissolved parliament and called snap elections for Feb. 2. However, Suthep is demanding her unconditional resignation and threatened to detain her and fellow caretaker cabinet members if she does not quit immediately. However, not to hold elections would be unconstitutional Yingluck insists. “If people don’t want this government they should go out and vote,” she said.
Thaksin-backed parties have won the last five elections based upon huge support in Thailand’s rural northeast, where populist policies are credited for bringing millions out of poverty. However, Thaksin remains anathema to royalists and the traditional elite of Bangkok and the southern provinces, who accuse him of flagrant vote-buying. Thaksin was ousted in a military coup seven years ago and currently lives in exile in Dubai following a conviction for corruption.
“Isaan people [from the rural northeast] don’t pay taxes, Thaksin buys their vote and then steals our money with it,” Noi, a 48-year-old teacher from Chonburi province, told TIME outside the Tourism Ministry on Tuesday, echoing a common complaint of the protesters.
The opposition wants an unelected people’s council to replace the democratically chosen legislature for a period of up to two years, in order to usher through a series of reforms designed to permanently nullify Thaksin’s power.
According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thais grudgingly accept a certain level of graft, but the protesters believe Thaksin went beyond mere nest-feathering to the pursuit of “a monopoly on power and wealth.”
Conversely, Red Shirts argue Thakin is just another player in Thai politics with vested interests, “and this persecution of Thaksin, in their eyes, is unjust and typifies the grievances that they feel — that Thaksin gave them a voice and policies that paid attention to their interests,” says Thitinan.
On Thursday, protest numbers had dwindled from the tens of thousands clearly visible earlier in the week, leaving ever more visible a hardcore of opposition cadres — grizzled figures clad in black shirts and military fatigues, largely brought in from Suthep’s stronghold in the south.
The Thai Department of Special Investigation has issued a summons for 55 protest leaders for offenses relating to the shutdown. Suthep is himself facing rebellion charges for his role, on top of murder charges for ordering the 2010 crackdown on a Red Shirt demonstration in central Bangkok that killed around 90 and left 2,000 injured.
Despite the outstanding warrants, protest leaders openly stroll around the city in full view of the public, and the 20,000 police and troops deployed to maintain order have been largely hidden.
“We’re trying not to get close to the mob,” one police officer, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP. “They may get angry if they see us and that could spark clashes.”
While the military is generally seen as pro-establishment, and by extension sympathetic to the protesters, the Royal Thai Police is seen as a pro-Thaksin institution. (Thaksin was a mid-ranking officer himself many years ago.)
Despite this absence of security personnel, the vast majority of rallies have been peaceful, although late at night shots have been fired at some protest sites and some small explosive devices have been detonated. Nevertheless, “it is still early days and as the days wear on I think we will see more frustration,” warns Thitinan.