Why are Thais always protesting? – The Casual Truth



Redshirts brave the rain to mark 3 years since Thaksin's ouster, 19/9/09 (Pic: Simon Roughneen)

Redshirts brave the rain to mark 3 years since Thaksin's ouster, 19/9/09 (Pic: Simon Roughneen)

For over a year, Thailand’s image as a tourist-friendly destination has taken a bit of a battering, with colour-coded political protests almost a weekly event – this week being no exception. But what are the protests and blockades about?

Broadly speaking, Thai politics – or at least Thai protests – are divided between ‘Redshirt’ supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister and telecoms billionaire, and ‘Yellowshirts,’ who support Sondhi Limthongkul, a former Thaksin ally and himself a wealthy media baron.

The remaining Thais do not accept the division and are somewhere in the middle.

Thaksin is probably the most divisive person in Thailand and second most popular after the king. He is currently based in Dubai, but facing corruption charges at home, which poor to middle class Redshirts believe are politically-motivated.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen agrees – and he provoked his bigger neighbour Thailand by offering Thaksin a job as an “economic advisor.” This has sparked a major cross-border row recently, especially when Thaksin was in Cambodia last week.

The Yellowshirts are made up of mostly middle to upper-class people who believe Thaksin threatened the monarchy in Thailand, and alleged that he sought to concentrate power in his own hands.

Redshirts say that Thaksin implemented policies including universal healthcare to help poorer people. Yellowshirts and other opponents of Thaksin recall incidents of corruption and a take-no-prisoners ‘war on drugs,’ which saw over 2000 suspects killed, rather than tried in court, under Thaksin’s rule.

How it all started

While Thaksin was at the UN in New York in September 2006, the army launched a bloodless coup, removing him from power. However, his political party won the next election, held in 2007, meaning he governed the country through his representatives.

The Yellowshirts then launched an all-out attempt to remove the pro-Thaksin government in mid-2008. On the face of it, the Yellowshirts were demonstrating against attempts by the pro-Thaksin Government to amend the Thai Constitution, which could have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand.

But other motives were there – fear that Thaksin might undermine the monarchy, dislike of his popularity among poorer Thais and personal rivalry between Thaksin and Sondhi.

The lowest point for foreign visitors to Thailand was in late November and early December last year, when Yellowshirts blockaded the country’s international airports, stranding thousands of tourists and businesspeople.

The current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva was installed in December 2008, after the courts disbanded the pro-Thaksin party over allegations of vote-buying. A group of pro-Thaksin MPs allied with Abhisit’s Democrat Party, enabling it to form a government.

Abhisit’s Government took a hit in April 2009, when a meeting between Asian governments was cancelled after Redshirts clashed with security forces.

Foreign leaders were barricaded into their hotels, while others fled by helicopter – a serious embarrassment for the Thai government. The summit was re-staged in late October and this time passed without any violence.

But recriminations go on and on. Currently, Redshirts are seeking a royal pardon for Thaksin Shinawatra and want new elections, claiming that the current government is illegitimate.

Hanging over all the protests and power struggles is the fate of King Bhumibol, who has spent recent weeks in hospital undergoing treatment for pneumonia. Four people have since been arrested for allegedly spreading the rumours about the king’s health and causing the stock exchange to drop 7%.

Many Thais revere the King, who has reigned for over six decades and is portrayed as a moral guide, and above party politics by law. Even Redshirts try to counter accusations that they seek to undermine the monarchy by publicly asking for a royal pardon for Thaksin.

But the country has harsh laws which make it illegal to say anything negative about the king or royal family. The king himself has said that he is not above criticism, but the Thai media is wary of testing this theory out. Websites containing critical content are shut down, undermining freedom of speech in Thailand.

Tourist numbers are coming back up now, according to figures released two weeks ago – vital for a Thai economy which depends to a great extent on this sector and exports. However, political stability seems far off and could continue to cause trouble.

Abhisit’s government depends on support from former Thaksin allies. Yellowshirt backer Sondhi has set up his own competing party, launched in July 2009 after a brutal assassination attempt in April.

Redshirts have their own new party, after previous Thaksin groups were disbanded by the courts. The latest version, called the Pheu Thai (For Thais) Party, is headed by former prime minister and retired general Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.

The General is being joined by other former army colleagues and by some Thai actors and other celebrities. And with Thaksin now upping the ante by taking a job as advisor to Cambodia’s government, the stakes have been raised.

Don’t be surprised to see more colourful protests coming out of Thailand, for the time being at least.

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