Photo: Yury Zhalin

Thailand’s ongoing political protests take a violent turn

On February 22, three children between 4 and 6-years-old were killed amidst gun and grenade attacks on rally sites in Thailand, after gunmen emerged from two pickup trucks and opened fire on anti-government protests in Thailand’s Trat province.

Caught in the gunfire was a 5-year-old girl who was waiting for her father’s return at their family-owned noodle stand.

The following day, a grenade attack at Bangkok’s Central World shopping mall claimed the lives of a mother, her 4-year-old son and her 6-year-old daughter. Not taking part in the protests, the family was shopping nearby and fell amongst 21 people who were also injured by the explosion.

The four lives claimed join a group of at least 23 victims who have died since the anti-government protests began three months ago.

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In response to the recent violence, following months of peaceful political protests, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra denounced the bloodshed in an interview with Bangkok Post. “The violent incidents are terrorist acts for political gain without any regard for human lives,” she said.

“The government will not tolerate terrorism and has ordered a full investigation by authorities to find the culprits and bring them to justice without exception,” Yingluck continued.

Who are the protestors?

In an interview with Record, Attasit Pankaew, political science professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok, outlined that the protests are drawn across the class divide.

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“In general, you could say that the protestors are composed of two groups. One is who we call ‘Yellow Shirts’ [a Thai movement that dresses in yellow, the royal color, and claim to defend the monarchy against Thaksin Shinawatra] and the other are Democratic Party supporters, who are represented in the southern part of Thailand and throughout the middle class in Bangkok,” he explained.

Both groups of demonstrators are part of a broad political movement lead by former deputy prime minister and Democrat Party MP, Suthep Thaugsuban.

Thaugsuban heads the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), whose popularity has risen drastically over the past three months.

The PDRC and Yellow Shirt protestors’ main claim is that the government is corrupt. While their main concern is Yingluck, many are even more critical of her billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin served as Thailand’s Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006 – a tenure characterized by corruption and poor human rights records.

In February 2002, Thaksin’s government launched a ‘War on Drugs,’ which involved the extrajudicial killings of over 2,700 individuals who came under suspicion, allegedly having been involved in the drug trade.

In 2008, he was sentenced to two years in prison over a corrupt land deal, and has been in self-imposed exile ever since. Even in his exile Pankaew argues that the current prime minister is merely a puppet for her brother.

Amnesty bill sparks protests

In November 2013, Yingluck introduced an amnesty bill to the Senate that would exonerate political offences back to 2006.

As Pankaew puts it,“The implications behind this bill are what sparked the political protests. Not only would the bill have fully exonerated Yingluck’s brother, it would have pardoned the offences of any corrupt official over the past eight years.”

“A horizontal institution for accountability and governance is not functioning as effectively as many hoped for in Thailand,” Pankaew notes. “The protestors have a legitimate claim. Democracy demands accountability and the Shinawatra family has not been made accountable for their actions,” he urged.

Protests such as these are not new to Thai Politics. In May 2010, more than 90 people died during a military crackdown on a violent protest between Yellow Shirt protestors and Red Shirt Thaksin supporters. At the time, the latter has been demonstrating against Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat government, who took on the role as Prime Minister from 2008-2011.

The Red Shirts showed discontent with a skyrocketing unemployment rate, which increased 63 percent during Vejjajiva’s tenure as Prime Minister. By 2010, the Thai government’s debt had bloomed and reached negative 4 percent of GDP – the largest budget deficit since 1997.

Yingluck’s failed promise

Yet even with a rejected amnesty bill, anti-government protestors continue to fight, quickly changing their focus to ousting of the Shinawatra controlled government – either by coup d’état or through the pursuit of formal corruption charges.

Anti-government supporters have refocused their discontent on the rice subsidy program. The flagship policy of Yingluck’s administration that pledged to buy farmer’s crops – for the past two years – at prices up to 50 percent higher than market value.

Over the past two years, the rice subsidy program has cost the government more than $16 billion (USD), with $4.3 billion still owed to farmers, according to Thai anti-corruption investigators from the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

As a result, the NACC has charged Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra with improperly handling an expensive rice subsidy scheme, which could lead to a five-year ban from politics – should she be found guilty.

International attention

The United States has publicly expressed its concern for the ongoing violence in Thailand. “Violence is not an acceptable means of resolving political differences,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a daily briefing on February 26.

“We reiterate our call for all sides to exercise restraint and urge Thai authorities to investigate thoroughly and transparently all recent acts of violence,” she added.

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed his readiness to assist the political parties and Thai people in any way possible. Speaking to reporters on February 27, the U.N. Secretary General’s spokesperson announced, “Ban is urging parties in conflicts to engage as soon as possible in meaningful and inclusive dialogue toward ending the crisis and advancing genuine reform,”

And yet, international guidance towards peaceful resolution appear to be eleventh-hour attempts to avoid a repeat of the military sanctioned violence of April 2010, when the government declared a State of Emergency that permitted the military to detain people considered a threat to national security.

Possible resolution

After months of protest and casualties on both sides, including the three children in late February, the next move in Thailand’s struggle is difficult to predict. “The protest movement blocked seven intersections for seven months and it didn’t produce a result,” explained former senator, Somkiat Onwimon, in an interview with The Washington Post.

“But after all of this, I don’t think either side has the upper hand,” he admitted.

Whether the political protests end in Yingluck’s removal from power, or with her re-election through a reorganized democratic vote, both outcomes seem to provide more peaceful solutions than a PDRCsanctioned coup d’état.

If peace is at the forefront of current efforts, a judicial decision regarding Yingluck’s political power may be imminent. However, without significant changes to Thailand’s failing economy, a political uprising may well be unavoidable.

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