This post is the eighth post in the series ‘Thailand in Crisis’, covering the political history of Thailand in the 21st century. You can see the rest of the project here.
When the results rolled in after the polls closed on July 3rd, 2011, one could be forgiven for thinking they had watched this movie before. The ruling Democrat Party, which had dissolved parliament a month previously, was once again trounced. The Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai party won 265 seats, an outright majority, to the Democrats’ 159.
Abhisit had pulled all the stops to try to win the election. Prior, the Democrats had passed major amendments to the electoral laws to increase their likelihood of winning, and had campaigned energetically. They also held out hope that their coalition partner, the Bhumjaithai party, could perhaps use old patronage-style politics to flip some Pheu Thai seats. Those hopes crashed against a hard wall of reality when Pheu Thai selected Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s very own sister, as their prime ministerial candidate. Although accused by opponents as an empty suit, Yingluck thrilled the Pheu Thai base. The close Thaksin connection certainly helped, and was not hidden throughout the campaign; Pheu Thai put up banners with the slogan ‘Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts’, and campaigned with a full roster of Thaksinite populist policies. Soon after the election, Yingluck was inaugurated as the nation’s first female prime minister.
The new prime minister soon faced a national crisis in the form of massive floods that soon overwhelmed 58 provinces and led to severe criticism of the government for an incompetent and inadequate response. The government also mismanaged policies such as the rice pledging scheme, an ill-thought out plan to buy back rice from farmers at above market prices that severely reduced the competitiveness of Thailand’s biggest export. Yet throughout 2011 and 2012, the prime minister largely weathered her political storms. The Democrats, once again relegated to the opposition, were largely confined to challenging the government by petitioning the courts, in the hopes that the Pheu Thai party could be dissolved like its predecessors.
When a true crisis did come, it came by the government’s own doing. If ‘Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts’ was the Pheu Thai slogan, then the self-exiled Thaksin thought a lot about returning to Thailand. This issue quickly became Pheu Thai’s obsession. The question was: how? Any overt action that would pave the way just for Thaksin to return would not do; simply the re-issuing of Thaksin’s Thai passport, stripped away by the Democrats, raised howls of discontent from the opposition. Instead, Pheu Thai floated political amnesty for all as a win-win solution. A bill would be drafted in parliament that would grant political amnesty for all with legal charges as a result of the political crisis since Thaksin’s premiership, with the stated goal of fostering national reconciliation. The bill would erase Thaksin’s crimes and thus allow him to return to Thailand jail-free, but it would also dissolve Abhisit’s own impending charges over the government crackdown in 2010.
Soon enough, Thaksin would be equating amnesty with his own political comeback. By 2012, the homesick former premier boasted publicly that he would return to Thailand within 3-4 months. On a visit to Cambodia in April to rally the red shirt faithful, his associate declared, “Whoever won’t reconcile, let them be!”, while Thaksin sang a bizarre off-key rendition of the Beatles classic ‘Let It Be’. It was clear that Thaksin, increasingly desperate to come home, was now willing to equate national reconciliation with his own triumphant return. And with his own sister as prime minister, what could stop him?
During its first committee hearing, the government presented the bill as one that would merely grant amnesty to protestors on both sides. However, by the second committee hearing, it had morphed into one that also granted amnesty for political leaders, Thaksin included. Then, on November 1st, 2013, Pheu Thai MPs passed the bill in parliament at 4 AM after the Democrats had already left.
It quickly became clear that Thaksin had badly miscalculated the depth of opposition to a political amnesty. Three days later, demonstrations erupted across the country. The bill had indeed united the country, but in unintended ways; neither yellows nor reds liked it. Anti-Thaksin protestors could not accept Thaksin’s return, while red shirts were unwilling to forgive Abhisit for the 2010 crackdown. Yingluck, sensing the political mistake, promised not to revive the bill if it were to be rejected by the Senate, which duly struck it down on November 11.
By this point, however, anti-Thaksin sentiment had been re-energized and the protests morphed into a movement aimed at overthrowing the Yingluck government. The protests came to be headed by Suthep Thaugsuban, a Dick Cheney-esque figure who had been former deputy prime minister under Abhisit. Suthep himself was a controversial figure, whose alleged corruption had led to the downfall of former Democrat prime minister Chuan Leekpai’s cabinet in 1995. Now, however, the brash and assertive ‘uncle village headman’ (kamnan, a title Suthep once held in the south) electrified the anti-Thaksin base with fiery speeches in ways that parliamentarians like Abhisit never could. It was preaching to a converted crowd who were convinced of the need to stop corruption and populism. The Bangkok and southern middle and upper class swelled the numbers of these protests.
Sentiments became further inflamed when a separate government-proposed amendment to the 2007 constitution was invalidated by the Constitutional Court. The government desired a return to a fully-elected senate as opposed to the half-appointed upper house codified in the 2007 charter. The court argued that such a change would lead to the ‘debasement’ of the bicameral legislature. Pheu Thai fired back, saying that the court had no jurisdiction over the amendment.
The protestors, essentially a re-branded version of the yellow shirts, came to be known as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). They began seizures of government buildings in late November and rallied several times. Suthep declared that they would try to effect a ‘people’s coup’ and called for the dissolution of parliament and the creation of an unelected ‘people’s council’ to run the country. The mechanism for this to happen was for Yingluck to resign, creating a political vacuum and allowing the president of the Senate to appoint a new prime minister. The people’s council, to be handpicked by the PDRC, would be tasked with reforming the country for 12 to 18 months before elections could be held. What those reforms would entail were left largely unspecified, but the end-goal would be to “eradicate the Thaksin regime”. It was, needless to say, a radical suggestion: a culmination of over a decade of anti-Thaksin frustration with being outvoted at the polls in every election.
On December 8, after intensive protests and the mass resignation of all Democrat MPs, Yingluck dissolved the house and called for new elections in February 2014. However, Suthep reiterated his demands for an unelected people’s council and the Democrats announced they would boycott the election. Suthep continued to make energetic calls to action:
The government has been abusing the sovereign power of the people to do whatever it wants. It tried to pass an Amnesty Bill whitewashing graft, corruption, and murder, and it has violated and denounced the Constitution and the Constitutional Court again, and again, and again. This, my friends, is why it is time for the people to reclaim their sovereign power. But we will do so without arms, in a disciplined manner, and peacefully. We are not here to use force against anyone no matter how badly this sham government tries to taunt us. We will topple the Thaksin regime with our bare hands! The world shall witness our pure victory!
Thailand descended into a state of anarchy. On January 13, the PDRC occupied Pathumwan, Suan Lumpini Park, Asoke, Lardprao and Ratchaprasong intersections in the ‘Shutdown Bangkok’ operation. Although the atmosphere was festive for several weeks, peaking at hundreds of thousands of protestors, crowds dwindled significantly in February after a number of fatal attacks on the protest sites. The government was hapless in seizing back any protest sites. Multiple PDRC rallies continued to be held for several months.
The February election, on the other hand, was disrupted by protestors in 69 out of 375 constituencies and could not be completed. The Constitutional Court invalidated the result on the grounds that it could not be completed in one day. In many ways, the 2014 election was a re-run of the failed 2006 poll.
Yingluck herself lingered on as caretaker prime minister until April, when she was finally removed by the Constitutional Court after a conviction for abuse of power over the transfer of a mid-ranking official. Suthep began declaring that a political vacuum had been created and called on government officials to turn up to PDRC sites to report to him, while continuing to demand the creation of a people’s council and reform before elections, which the government continued to insist was impossible.
With no solution to be had, the situation could not hold. It would fall on the military to deliver the coup de grâce.
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