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Thailand’s Recurrent ‘Colour’ Protests

Panjaj Kumar Jha was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • April 12, 2010

    Many countries like China, Australia, New Zealand and US are re-issuing travel advisory to their nationals to avoid visiting Thailand because of the violent protests which had left 21 people dead and more than 800 injured in the clashes between security forces and pro-Thaksin protestors this weekend in Bangkok. The month long protests turned violent after Thailand Prime Minster Abhissit Vejjajiva imposed emergency after ‘red shirts’ protestors swarmed the Parliament on April 7. With the imposition of emergency the legal rights were suspended, media was censored and army was authorised to use harsh measures to remove the squatting protestors from the streets of the capital. It has been more than a month since the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra ‘red shirt’ protestors under the banner of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) took to the streets of Bangkok, demanding the dissolution of Parliament and the holding of fresh elections. Their protest in support of their ousted leader, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, began after the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division ruled in favour of confiscating Thaksin’s assets in February 2010. Earlier in 2008, the Thai court had jailed him in absentia for two years in a graft case. He has been shuttling between Europe and Dubai, and has been occasionally using video conferencing to keep in touch with his supporters and sustain the momentum of the protests. Though Thaksin enjoys widespread support in the northern and western areas of Thailand, he has no wish to return to the country yet especially given serious charges of graft and misappropriation of funds against him. In fact, in early March 2010, it was reported that the fugitive former Prime Minister became a citizen of Montenegro.

    On March 31, Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand’s current Prime Minister, offered a third round of talks to end the impasse with the ‘red shirts’ after the first two had failed. The ‘Red Shirts’ are demanding fresh elections at a very early date, the dissolution of the lower house within two weeks, and direct talks with the Prime Minister rather than televised discussions. Abhisit has extended a counter-offer of elections in nine months, which is simply not acceptable to the protestors. The protest rally has affected Thailand’s tourism industry which has suffered a drop of more than 30 per cent in terms of number of visitors. The tourism industry for its part had threatened to organize a counter rally to condemn the virtual siege of the capital.

    In the last four years Thailand has seen repeated rallies and protests by pro- Thaksin and anti-Thaksin supporters. In September 2006 then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, leader of Thai Rak Thai party, was overthrown in a military coup. His ouster came about because he was seen as corrupt and filling his own coffers by selling his family’s stakes in Shin Corporation and avoiding tax obligations through fictitious transactions. General Sonthi Boonyaratglin who led the coup carried it out on behalf of the Council for Democratic Reform. General Sonthi subsequently appointed Surayud Chulanont, a former army general, as interim Prime Minister. Fresh assembly elections were held in December 2007, in which the People’s Power Party (PPP), (the rechristened name of the Thai Rak Thai Party), came to power by forming a coalition government with five other smaller parties. Thaksin’s crony, Samak Sundaravej, became the prime minister in January 2008, and Thaksin returned to Thailand the following month.

    Soon, however, the opposition People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) organized protests by the ‘yellow shirts’ demanding the resignation of Samak. It was felt that Samak was trying to influence the court and also shielding Thaksin’s property from scrutiny. Samak was eventually removed from office by Thailand’s Constitutional Court, which cited conflict of interest arising from his appearance in television programmes. Anticipating probable dissolution by the constitutional court, a few leaders of the People’s Power party formed a new party known as Pheu Thai Party (renamed version of People’s Power Party). Samak was succeeded by Thaksin’s brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, as prime minister, who too was subsequently removed by the constitutional court due to electoral irregularities and banned from fighting elections for five years. Subsequently, 80 members of PPP defected to Pheu Thai Party. It was at this point that leader of the opposition, Abhisit Vejjajeva, became prime minister with support from the Thai military and few other parties in December 2008. But within months, in April 2009, the Red Shirts took to the streets during the East Asia Summit. About a year later, they have once again poured into the streets of Bangkok to protest court orders directed against their leader.

    The central question is whether democracy or semi-democracy should be subordinated to the personal ambitions of a few leaders like Thaksin or should the rule of law prevail. Prolonged demonstrations and siege have affected the tourism industry and are adversely impacting the country’s economic recovery from the effects of the global downturn. At a time when cooperation and coordination are required among political parties, Thailand is being wracked by street protests. While it may be necessary for the masses to rise against violations of democratic norms and institutions, they should not undermine the state by unrestrained actions that too in support of a corrupt political leader.

    What Thailand needs at this juncture is an overarching body comprising of honest judges and officials to scrutinize the graft charges against Thaksin and bring out the truth. Secondly, there is a need for free and fair elections, though not immediately, to confirm the standing of the parties and the extent of support they enjoy among the people. There should be strict guidelines with regard to tenure of the government and the contesting parties should respect that. There should not be any room for irrational activism in democratic institutions if it leads to perennial instability. Thirdly, Thaksin should either face the charges against him or defend himself through a transparent disposition of his assets. Fourthly, the international community, especially the ASEAN countries, needs to make an effort to resolve the political impasse in Thailand.