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No real end in sight to Thailand’s political conflict

Thailand has experienced yet another month of mass street protests. The latest round of demonstrations may fizzle out or escalate, but they are unlikely to resolve Thailand’s deep divide between the forces of majority rule and those of the status quo, analysts said.

How long the protests last depends a lot on the stamina of key protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, 64, who this week led thousands of demonstrators to occupy the Finance Ministry and other government offices in a bid to paralyse the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Suthep, a veteran politician from the opposition Democrat party, has resigned his parliamentary seat and the party membership to lead this month’s protests. He is essentially operating on his own, Democrat sources said.

On Wednesday, Suthep led more than 10,000 followers on a 20-kilometre hike from the occupied Finance Ministry to the Government Complex in Chaeng Wattana Road, where they have camped out in the grounds.

He has vowed to continue fighting until he “uproots the Thaksin Regime,” a reference to the political influence of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra whose sister, Yingluck, is the current prime minister.

On Thursday, Yingluck comfortably survived a no-confidence motion lodged against her by the Democrat opposition, by a 297 to 134 votes.

After the vote, she offered to hold talks with all groups to end the conflict, but ruled out discussing Suthep’s proposal to set up a “People’s Assembly,” apparently an appointed body that would work on a six-point reform programme for the country.

Suthep, who faces an arrest warrant and possibly up to eight years in jail for leading a mob to occupy the Finance Ministry, is not likely to take up Yingluck’s offer of talks.

This leaves both the government and Suthep in a dilemma as to how to end the street protests and the occupation of key ministries.

The government is not expected to use force to crack down on the protests because that might lead to an intervention by the military, which has staged 18 coups in the past 81 years – the last of which ousted Thaksin in 2006.

“A coup is unlikely unless there is a real mess,” said Kraisak Choonhavan, a Democrat member. “But how to end the protest? Maybe Suthep will get exhausted and check in to a hospital, and then the demonstration will probably shut down by itself.”

Weng Tojirakarn, a member of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, foresees a similar fizzle.

“As time goes on the number of people following Suthep will decrease, and at a certain critical low point Suthep will surrender or police will arrest him,” Weng predicted.

Then again, Suthep may keep the protest running for months.

Bangkok is no stranger to lengthy street protests. The capital was convulsed by six months of anti-government protests by “Yellow Shirts” in 2008 that led to the seizure of Government House and Bangkok’s two international airports, which were closed for eight days.

In 2010, more anti-government protests, this time led by “Red Shirts,” disrupted the capital for 69 days, leading to bloody street battles that left at least 92 dead and thousands injured.

Those two mass protests had one theme in common – Thaksin, who has been living abroad since 2008 to avoid a two-year jail term for an abuse of power conviction, but who is still very much a player in Thailand’s political scene.

This month’s protests are also Thaksin-related. They kicked off after the ruling Pheu Thai Party pushed through an amnesty bill in the lower house – on November 1 – that would have pardoned Thaksin for all past convictions between 2004 and 2013.

The bill would also have excused thousands of other political and corruption-related cases during that nine-year period.

The amnesty proposal sparked mass protests on the streets of Bangkok. Yingluck’s government backed away from the bill, which was then rejected by the Senate in a unanimous vote on November 11.

The Pheu Thai Party could still revive the bill 180 days after the Senate rejection, which would no doubt lead to more protests.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Thailand’s Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), views the current protests as part of the ongoing power struggle for Thailand’s future between Thaksin’s supporters and opponents.

“There is no foreseeable end because it is about the end of the reign,” Thitinan said, referring to the 67-year reign of Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s revered constitutional monarch. Bhumibol is 85, and ailing.

“It is all about who gets the upper hand, with a lot of anxiety on one side and ambition on the other,” Thitinan said.

Peter Janssen, "No real end in sight to Thailand’s political conflict," Business recorder. 2013-11-29.
Keywords: Political science , Social issues , Political issues , Political parties , Democrat party , Protests , Bangkok , ISIS , PM Yingluck Shinawatra , Thailand