Since November 2013, anti-government protests have characterized the Asian nation, marking the most recent symptom of ongoing tensions between the royally and militarily supported Democrats and the pro-governmental ‘Red Shirt’ members of the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship. Yingluck Shinawatra’s time as Prime Minister may come to an end.
In the clashes between members of the politically polarized groups, protesters have resorted to throwing sticks, petrol bombs and other projectiles at the security forces guarding the government’s headquarters, while the security forces have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and batons. The Red Shirts have replied to the violence of the protesters with counter-protests in support of the government. The clashes between these forces have resulted in the deaths of at least five people and the injury of countless others. As the nation nears the birthday of the King, however, tensions are simmering down as both sides wish to preserve the peace on the King’s birthday. Security forces have allowed protesters to peacefully occupy government buildings, and some hold out hope that civilized discussions will be held between the opposing sides after the King’s birthday on Thursday. Others remain cynical, however, as the protesting Democrats claim that they will continue their attempts to remove the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. In the wake of these unexpected protests, many are asking: what could have caused this political debacle? A brief examination of history may help to clarify the situation.
The tension and outright battles between these opposing political groups has existed, despite the changing names of the political parties, for decades. There have been dozens of military coups in the history of Thailand, including one in 2006 – the coup that exiled the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of the current Prime Minister. The two sides have never truly been reconciled, as each seems to scrutinize every new government to find flaws to publicly condemn. The polarized political groups both claim to represent democracy, though they each have different views on how governments should be run. The current government favors the ‘elective dictatorship’ style of government, which is commonly found in democracies such as America and the United Kingdom. This simply means that the elected government has a majority and can use party discipline to ensure that the House of Representatives can pass all (or most) bills. While the Democratic Party members claim that this is an undemocratic form of government, their proposition for an alternate method of governance seems to be far more authoritarian. They propose to replace the government with a ‘People’s Council’, an undemocratic system reminiscent of Communism. People who are not elected.
However, differing political viewpoints alone would not have triggered the protests. Protesters have also responded to media hype surrounding an amnesty bill that if passed, would have nullified the jail sentence hanging over the head of Prime Minister Shinawatra’s billionaire brother due to charges of corruption. Though the Thai Senate did not pass this bill, the media attention that the bill brought served to draw attention to the purported corruption of the Shinawatra government, as it allegedly serves to promote business and family interests above the needs of the people. These allegations have drawn the blistering criticism of the Democrats and ultimately triggered the violent protests. It can only be hoped that rational discussion after the King’s birthday can guide the groups to a peaceful agreement.