I recently took a trip to Bangkok to experience the protests going on in Thailand firsthand as well as to gain a better perspective on what the root cause of this seemingly spontaneous act of disorder in such an otherwise peaceful country is. I can say that I came away with both fresh insight into modern Thai society as well as a host of new questions about what is going on in Bangkok.
Thaksin Sunawatra: Shadow Prime Minister in Exile
The immediately recognizable root of the conflict seems to stem from the influence that Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled previous prime minister of Thailand, still wields over the government of Thailand through the proxy of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, the current PM of the country. Mr. Shinawatra, a Thai business tycoon turned politician who was overthrown in a 2006 coup, still has a great deal of popular support amongst the rural population of Thailand, where he is credited for lifting many out of poverty over the course of his term in office.
So why all the uproar over a man who was not only the first Thai prime minister to win comfortable reelection in 2005, but who has also been exiled from Thailand for over 7 years? The short answer is that people aren’t buying this exile. Though many throughout Thailand believe that Mr. Shinawatra brought a great deal of progress to Thai society, the charges of large scale corruption that have been leveled against him since his overthrow as prime minister are astounding. In 2008, he was sentenced to two years incarceration in absentia over a corrupt land deal in which he and his wife acquired state real estate at a third of its estimated price during his tenure as PM.
This is not the first time Bangkok has experienced these sorts of protests (the most recent ones in 2008 being even more severe), but they all seem to link back to the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a figure who has, in some parts of rural Thailand, become even more revered than the Thai king himself. Ms. Shinawatra’s party, the Pheu Thai party, holds an insurmountable majority in the Thai government due to its overwhelming popular support in rural Thailand even as many protestors in Bangkok accuse her of using her family’s personal wealth and prestige to subvert Thai politics for the Shinawatra’s own personal gain.
The Battle in the Streets of Bangkok
Despite the sensationalization of a few isolated incidents by much of the Western media, the protests in Thailand seem to be mostly non-violent albeit significantly disruptive. The interesting thing about the protests, however, is that they are not directly protesting the Pheu Thai government, but rather the special election itself that has been called by PM Shinawatra. In an attempt to legitimize her party’s control over the government, a special election was held this past weekend which the Pheu Thai overwhelmingly won. The protestors, mostly consisting of middle-class Bangkokers dissatisfied with the levels of corruption they perceive to be going on in the government, are protesting the election itself, claiming the results to be undemocratic on the principle that the Pheu Thai party commands the preponderance of political power in Thailand.
Though many government offices have been blockaded and a few people have been injured in the resulting clashes between armed protestors and security forces, Ms. Shinawatra and her government seem to be clinging to power, as tenuous as that power may seem. Indeed, the slogan touted by the “yellow shirts” (the name the protestors have adopted to align themselves with the ever-popular monarchy), “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand”, seems not to have played out as tourists continue to flock to the city and major services continue to operate as usual. For now, it seems, the political scene in Thailand will continue to revolve around a single name: Shinawatra.