In recent months, most independent observers have admitted to complete uncertainty about the outcome of the demonstrations and disturbances that for months have plagued Bangkok with its metropolitan area population of some 15 million.
But now there is a date with fate. Organizers of the demonstrations and their leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, have set Jan 13 as the day to shut down Bangkok as they try to prevent a planned national election in February.
As expressed in the Thai Constitution, when an election is called, it is the King who allows the parliament to be dissolved for the election.
So, legally, it is the King’s will that the election take place, but that is just what the protestors and demonstrators want to thwart. Such an abandonment of loyalty to the king is an unprecedented development in Thailand, though the protesters claim to be more loyal to the king than the government is.
The protestors, sometimes referred to as “Yellow Shirts”, have set deadlines and given ultimatums many times before. But this time they appear determined to bring the capital to a grinding halt. There is talk of clogging the city with trucks and busses rammed into each other to prevent movement. What follows from that will be chaos and could be violence.
The police and the army were notably absent from demonstrations in November and December, allowing crowds of up to 150,000 protesters to process and blow their whistles unsupervised and even at times enter government buildings.
However, in the last two weeks, military leaders have become more outspoken, signaling a new interest in events and their part.
Recurrent issues keep the crisis alive:
- The demonstrators reflect the view of the Bangkok middle class and elite – the political old guard, who claim to be most loyal to the King;
- Their party has not won an election since 1992;
- The party of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister deposed in 2006, and his sister Yingluck who is caretaker prime minister has won the last five elections;
- The Bangkok elite believe that the Shinawatra governments are illegitimate and run by remote control from Dubai by Thaksin;
- Thaksin is loathed by the Bangkok elite for alleged competitiveness with the King for leadership in Thailand and generally for being a grubby and corrupt ex-policeman whose political power has been bought with bribes from the immense wealth he generated for himself before and while in power;
- The fact is that the country has changed and Thaksin is more appealing to most than the Bangkok-focused policies of those behind the protests can deliver.
The problem – and Suthep and his “Yellow Shirt” supporters know it – is that Thaksin’s party will win a sixth successive election if it goes ahead in February. They have to avoid a further popular vote.
The last time they held power was in the Government led by the Oxford educated Abhisit Vejjajiva (2008 – 2011) Mr Abhisit was lucky enough not to have to be voted in. The then opposition managed to get the country’s courts to disqualify Thaksin’s parliamentarians and, with most of the government expelled from parliament, conveniently found the numbers to form a government without going to the polls.
What the “Yellow Shirts” propose as their solution to the problem that they seem never to be able to win elections is to install a sort of aristocratic government of the good and the worthy. How they are to be selected and by whom and for how long is not absolutely clear.
While Bangkok is a booming city with a strengthening stock market and a robust set of industries to build prosperity, rural Thailand has also seen a significant increase in prosperity, educational opportunities, health services, industries and benefits from tourism.
More than 80% of the Thai population is in rural areas and it is there that the power of the Thaksin family and their political allies has been overwhelming.
For example, rice, the country’s staple and one its leading exports, is bought by the government at a fixed price, irrespective of the international price the product can be sold at. Happy farmers vote for governments like Thaksin’s and his sister’s that bring rewards and subsidies like this.
What has emerged in rural Thailand is a new and educated middle class for whom the allegiances, policies and prejudices of the old Bangkok elite have little appeal.
One possibility in the current crisis – much precedented in Thai politics – is military intervention to remove the incumbent elected government. That may well occur in the next ten days.
If that sort of chaos doesn’t happen, another will. The disturbances and protests sponsored by the Bangkok elite will continue until Thaksin and his family are seen to suffer and be driven out.
Either way, in spite of this being the cool season in Thailand, it will be a hot time in Bangkok for a while.