This is the seventh post in the Thailand in Crisis series. The previous post, Nominee Governments, followed the tumultuous politics under Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat.
“I know that for the past 2-3 years the pictures and images that you have seen of Thailand has not been positive…I know [people] recall Thailand as a land of smiles, land of opportunity and land of the free. It is my every intention to restore the picture of Thailand that friends all over the world used to know…I insist that with the will parliament putting me where I am today, I will use that mandate for all Thais, so that we restore not just peace and order, and put an end to the conflict, but also to take Thailand forward politically and economically.”Abhisit Vejjajiva addressing the foreign media upon becoming prime minister
Abhisit Vejjajiva’s first speech as prime minister was upbeat, confident and positive. Time would prove that they were much too optimistic; instead of improving, the circumstances of conflict would continue to deteriorate in Abhisit’s time in power.
In many ways, Abhisit’s ascension was unexpected. The Thaksin-aligned parliamentarians had been left reeling after the Constitutional Court dissolved the People’s Power Party, forcing its members to move to the newly-formed Pheu Thai Party. Pheu Thai, however, still commanded the largest plurality in parliament, and if their government coalition held, they could had expected to remain in power.
Yet their coalition did not hold. Newin Chidchob, leader of the Bhumjaithai Party, found himself in the role of kingmaker as he declared he would switch his contingent of 25 MPs to the Democrat Party, cementing a new majority for Abhisit in parliament and shutting Pheu Thai out of power. In return, Newin’s party was richly rewarded with control of key ministries, including the ministries of the interior, transportation, industry and energy. In a bid to placate the yellow shirts, Abhisit also appointed Kasit Piromya, a controversial politician who had supported the airport shutdown and called Cambodian prime minister a ‘scoundrel’, as foreign minister. The coalition was not always harmonious, with the Democrats and Bhumjaithai feuding periodically over budget distribution, but it allowed Abhisit to remain in power.
Over the course of his time in government, the Democrat administration would portray itself as a pro-poor reforming government, introducing many Thaksin-style populist policies that it rhetorically rejected. Indeed, many placed hopes in this young, British-born and Oxford-educated premier who spoke English with the RP accent and had a reputation for both good looks and clean politics. However, this failed to placate Thaksin’s red-shirt supporters. By this point, Thaksin’s fate had morphed into a representation of the rural and lower class’ popular aspiration for greater economic well-being and political voice, and they resented how Abhisit’s coalition locked Pheu Thai out of power. Unfortunately for Abhisit, the yellow shirts had previously shown how to effectively disrupt the Thai government. The United Alliance for Democracy against Dictatorship, informally known as the red shirts, would now use the same tactics and in many cases extend them further, to devastating effect.
The initial omens were not good, when the red shirts managed to block Abhisit from making his initial policy address in parliament; instead, the new premier quietly relocated to the Foreign Ministry. In April 2009, however, the unrest was to escalate much further. On April 8, red shirt leaders, comprised of Veera Musikapong, Jatuporn Prompan and Nattawut Saikua demanded Abhisit’s resignation. Abhisit refused, leading the red shirts to disrupt the ASEAN summit in the seaside town of Pattaya, which the prime minister was chairing. Incredibly, the police and military failed to block the protesters, instead allowing them to break into the hotel in which the summit was being held. World leaders from China, South Korea, Japan and across Southeast Asia were forced to flee the hotel by helicopter. It was an international humiliation.
With the Pattaya summit successfully cancelled, the red shirts returned to Bangkok, where chaos ensued. Riots ensued, where extremists blocked roads and burned down public buses. Abhisit’s car was momentarily entrapped in a red shirt crowd as protesters smashed the arc, but the bulletproof vehicle managed to hold up. In the end, the protests were dispersed by the military, with soldiers in full combat kit cracking down on the red shirt encampment at Victory Monument. Unlike during the yellow shirt protests, when the security forces chose inaction, the military acted vigorously. By April 14, the protests were over.
Yet the movement did not give up. Thaksin Shinawatra, in refuge abroad, continued to drum up support for himself, phoning in to red shirt rallies. Meanwhile, ‘red villages’ were set up throughout the country, with political education schools that trained cadres in red shirt ideology; red shirt leaders continued making incendiary speeches. By February 2010, anticipating an upcoming Supreme Court decision to seize the Shinawatra family’s frozen assets, the red shirt leaders scheduled another march against the government, with the express goal of toppling the Democrats. For his part, Thaksin via teleconference declared that if there was the sound of gunfire, he would immediately return to Thailand to lead the march towards Bangkok.
In March, the protesters initially coalesced around Rachadamnoen road, where red shirt leaders demanded parliament’s dissolution and fresh elections. When these demands were refused, the red shirts poured buckets of blood on Government House and Abhisit’s personal residence – a supposed curse on the prime minister. (The blood later tested positive for HIV, leading to a round of recriminations from the red shirts against the health authorities). The government initiated negotiations with the red shirts, but collapsed over a lack of compromise on when to dissolve parliament.
The red shirts soon moved to occupy the Rachaprasong shopping district. A leader explained, “We are here because this area is a symbol of the Bangkok elite. We want to show them that they cannot rule without consensus of the people”. Now, however, events took a darker turn. The military, charged with retaking one of the protest areas on April 10, soon found themselves engaged with the ‘men in black’: mysterious armed forces seemingly aligned with the red shirts. A colonel in the Thai Army was killed by a grenade attack, which also wounded other army leaders, inducing a retreat. Footage showed that the army also fired live ammunition in the direction of protesters. The night ended with 25 dead and 800 injured. Bangkok had turned into a battleground.
The crisis continued to worsen, as a mysterious bombing campaign commenced around Bangkok and the government continuing to threaten a crackdown; deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who was in charge of security, asked “innocent people” to leave the protest sites as the government must crack down on “terrorists”. A red shirt proposal that the government dissolve parliament within 30 days was rejected by the government, while Abhisit’s proposal in early May for elections in November 2010, along with a ‘Roadmap to Reconciliation’ was also rejected by the red shirts. It appears then that a split had emerged within the red shirts, with rumors that Thaksin overrode some of the red shirt leaders’ desire to accept Abhisit’s proposal.
In any case, the stalemate continued; the red shirt militarist leader Seh Daeng publicly rejected Abhisit’s proposal. By 13 May, Seh Daeng was mysteriously assassinated, and the next day the government declared that the time had come for it to forcibly end the protests. The military enclosed the protest camp and over the course of several days cracked down on the red shirts. Observers noted that both sides used lethal tactics against each other, including live ammunition by the military. The protest leaders were booed as they declared an end to the protests, and instead arsonists began setting fire on multiple buildings in the city, including two shopping centers and the Stock Exchange. By 22 May, 85 were dead and 1378 injured while 35 buildings had been burned.
Abhisit had come to power hoping for reconciliation. It is true that Abhisit had, technically, come to power legitimately through parliamentary means. However, the fact that his premiership was possible only after extensive judicial activism and coalition deal-making created a crisis of legitimacy almost immediately. The prime minister, despite his qualifications and reputation as a ‘clean politician’, was doomed from the start. Two years into his premiership, Bangkok had become a battlefield. The country was more divided than ever.