BANGKOK — Thai opposition leader and former prime minister Abhisit Vejajiva did not look like a man accused of murder when he joined the crowds marching to the US embassy in Bangkok on Friday.
Shouting to make himself heard above the piercing whistles of red, blue and white-clad protesters who have besieged more than 14 government offices and ministries over the last six days, Abhisit told the Nikkei Asian Review why he had decided to join Thailand’s spreading anti-government protests. “The government has to take responsibility for what it has done, which is to try to push through an amnesty bill and refuse to accept the verdict of the court,” he said.
Abhisit and his former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban — leader of this week’s protests — were indicted for murder in October for their role in ordering a brutal military crackdown on “red-shirt” demonstrators in 2010, in which nearly 100 people were killed.
Now, they are the ones on the streets vowing to topple a government they claim is illegitimate. In response, their supporters have occupied a succession of government offices — even entering army headquarters on Friday — in what have so far been relatively peaceful demonstrations. More than 150,000 supporters turned out last Sunday to listen to Suthep and others rail against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Their numbers have fallen since then to an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 camping out in government offices, including the finance ministry.
But the scene has been set for further mass protests this weekend, with red-shirted supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, urging a rally in Bangkok to defend the government. The situation has also presented a dilemma to the Yingluck government over how to clear protesters out of occupied government facilities without resorting to violence.
The upheavals, the biggest mass actions since the 2010 protests, were triggered earlier this month by an attempt by Yingluck’s ruling party, Pheu Thai, to push an amnesty bill through parliament to absolve those charged with political offences over earlier protests. Significantly, the bill would have facilitated the return of Thaksin from self-imposed exile and his demand for the return of more than $1.4 billion in seized assets. The bill drew criticism from both sides of Thailand’s festering political divide, reflecting growing disillusionment among some red-shirt supporters who have been demanding justice for those killed in the 2010 protests.
The amnesty failed to pass Thailand’s Senate, but the resulting public fury galvanised Thailand’s opposition Democrats, which has not won an election in over 20 years and was trounced at the polls by Yingluck’s Pheu Thai in 2011. The only time the Democrats took power was when the military stepped in to quell protests and set up a caretaker government — headed by Abhisit — in 2008.
This time, the protest leader, Suthep, has formed a new group, the Civil Movement for Democracy. It looks and sounds like the old People’s Alliance for Democracy, which led similar, if much bigger, anti-Thaksin demonstrations in 2008.
Urged on by Suthep, Democrat supporters have been filling the streets of Bangkok in efforts to topple Yingluck’s government. This time the mobs include middle-class, educated Bangkokians — office workers and students. Many seem new to street protests, but appear to relish the novelty of occupying government offices and holding placards demanding the government resign.
“Thaksin bring your sister, go to the hell now. Thank you three times LOL,” read one such sign.
Only on Friday did Abhisit and fellow Democrat leader Korn Chatikavanij, a former finance minister, join the street protests. Clearly, said one western diplomat, the Democrat leaders are hoping to regain power through “extra constitutional means,” similar to the action that propelled them to government in 2008.
On Thursday Yingluck handily defeated a no-confidence motion in parliament, 297 votes to 134 against. Despite that mandate, and despite her crushing victory in 2011 elections, the Democrat leaders insist the Yingluck government is illegitimate.
“We are protesting against a government that has made itself illegitimate by declaring itself above the law and above the constitution,” said Korn, the former finance minister, citing the amnesty bill and a recent government attempt to alter the constitution to change the makeup of the Senate.
All the while, tensions are building ahead of the King’s birthday — a widely celebrated holiday on Dec 5. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest- reigning monarch, is widely revered and Thai politicians on all sides are usually careful not to involve the royal institution in daily politics – though Suthep broke with that taboo last weekend in calling for ‘a real constitutional monarchy.’ Neither political force is likely to cause any upsets ahead of the celebration. But, added the diplomat, “all bets are off as to what happens immediately after.”
Suthep’s call on Friday for the suspension of Thailand’s democracy in favor of setting up an appointed “People’s Assembly” clearly signaled the party will not stop in its efforts to bring down the government — and possibly step into the breach
For now, the biggest victim of the escalating protests could be the Thai economy. In the past few weeks the Thai baht, the stock market and even exports have slowed, while more than 14 governments have issued travel advisories about Bangkok ahead of the country’s peak tourist season. In the most potent sign of economic fears, the normally conservative Bank of Thailand this week unexpectedly cut rates by a quarter-point to 2.25%, citing a poor economic outlook and political tensions. The government meanwhile has warned that annual growth could slow to barely 2.3% this year — a far cry from earlier projections of more than 5.3%.Show