On a collision course in Thailand

Nitithorn Lamlua stalks his Bangkok base camp just over the fence from the offices of the Prime Minister he loathes, his domain protected by a wall of netting, piled-up tyres and bunkers built from sandbags and concrete blast barriers.

The lawyer and activist insists his protest is peaceful and the security purely defensive, in case of an assault by the authorities when the opposition launches a campaign on Monday to close down the Thai capital.

“The shutdown will continue for at least seven days,” says Mr Nitithorn, whose white singlet reveals arms covered in religious tattoos. “Any violence will come from officials, not us.”

The two sides in Thailand’s political struggle are hurtling towards what could be the most damaging confrontation yet to hit a country whose reputation for democratic and economic leadership in South-east Asia is crumbling. The opposition is boycotting elections called for Feb 2 and intensifying efforts to not only overthrow the government, but also suspend the rule of Parliament.

At a time when autocratic regimes are tightening their grip in neighbouring countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam, both sides in Thailand have chipped away at the credibility of one of the few relatively free countries in a region of growing financial power.

INVESTORS UNSETTLED

The Thai protests have deepened investor worries about a nation that is the region’s second-largest economy and has ambitions to be the bridge between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Investors long used to riding Thailand’s turbulent politics are showing increasing signs of becoming unsettled as the expanding protests add to concerns about worsening economic indicators.

The crisis also highlights deep social divisions obscured by the tourist image of a “land of smiles” where “happiness has a thousand faces”. While the conflict in this historically feudal country is much more nuanced than pure class war, one important dimension is a battle between the urban elite and a rural populace awakened to the power of elections to serve its interests. How the country resolves that tension — and the opportunities for exploitation arising from it — promises to affect maturing democracies and quasi-democracies in Asia and beyond.

“The opposition has the right to peaceful assembly, which the authorities must respect,” says Mr Brad Adams, Asia Director for Human Rights Watch. “But the opposition is losing legitimacy by the day by saying that they don’t accept elections as the foundation for a democratic state.”

BACKGROUND TO A SHUTDOWN

Monday’s “Bangkok shutdown” is the climax of an anti-government campaign over more than two months led by Mr Suthep Thaugsuban, a political insider of 30 years turned scourge of the status quo. He wants to block main road intersections around the capital and surround official buildings to stop the government from working. Past protests suggest that the chances of chaos are high: At least eight people have died in a wave of demonstrations that have, at times, turned violent.

At the same time, pro-government Red Shirts — mortal enemies of the opposition Yellow Shirts — are promising counter-protests of their own.

Speculation has been growing about a military coup — of which at least 18 have succeeded or been attempted since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. Mr Suthep — who has good friends among senior officers — has denied he is trying to sow chaos to provoke army intervention, although the military has hardly scotched the idea that it might get involved if the situation deteriorates.

General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the army chief, said this week that people should not be scared of something that has not taken place yet, but added enigmatically: “Everything must happen for a reason. Without a reason, nothing will happen.”

The showdown next week will be the latest in a series spanning seven years between supporters and opponents of exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, the elder brother of Yingluck Shinawatra, the current Premier from the Puea Thai party. In 2008, anti-Thaksin demonstrators closed down Bangkok’s two main airports and occupied the Prime Minister’s offices for three months, eventually triggering the court-engineered installation of an administration led by the opposition Democrats. In 2010, pro-Thaksin protesters, in turn, paralysed parts of Bangkok for two months, an occupation that ended with shops burnt and more than 90 people dead after the army opened fire.

A STEP TOO FAR?

Many Thais and foreign observers feel Thailand is on the brink again. Mr Hugo Swire, Britain’s minister for Asia, called on Twitter on Tuesday for all sides to refrain from violence, respect the rule of law and adhere to the democratic framework, echoing the United States and European Union statements.

Even the Bangkok Post, a newspaper not noted for its sympathy to Ms Yingluck’s government, pleaded with Mr Suthep to pull back to avoid undermining his “successful” campaign for “much-needed” political reform. “His plan to ‘shut down Bangkok’ next week is a step too far,” the paper said in an editorial on Monday. “It puts his great mass uprising on a dangerous trail that risks fringe violence, harms ordinary people and, once again, punctures the country’s image.”

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Throughout the turmoil looms the absent Thaksin. The billionaire plutocrat has been a cipher for the struggle for Thailand’s soul that has raged since he won the first of his two elections in 2001. His success was to mobilise the large vote of the northern rural poor in a country that has more than 65 million people and an average gross domestic product per capita of less than US$6,000 (S$7,600) a year. Many farmers and others felt ignored by the establishment Democrat party when it was in government, leading them to vote for Thaksin after he promised — and then delivered — schemes including cheap healthcare, microcredit and rice subsidies. The Democrats have not won an election since.

YINGLUCK’S ERODING POSITION

While Ms Yingluck — a more diplomatic figure than the domineering Thaksin — oversaw a period of relative calm after her own landslide election victory in July 2011, she was widely viewed as a proxy for her brother.

Simmering anger boiled over when her government tried last year to push through an amnesty Bill, which was seen as an attempt to allow Thaksin to return to Thailand. The protests prompted the Senate to shelve the proposed law, but also gave momentum to Mr Suthep, who has in the past himself ridden out — and denied — allegations of corruption.

Ms Yingluck’s position has been further eroded by the weakening export-led economy, with growth perhaps as low as 3 per cent last year. The baht slid more than 15 per cent over the past year on worries that Thailand could be hit by capital flight now that the US is scaling down its programme of asset purchases.

Thai rice farmers blocked roads this week in protest of delays to the payment of subsidies owed to them under a much-criticised government buying scheme that is costing at least US$4 billion a year and has led to the build-up of huge stockpiles.

The Prime Minister has also provided few answers to growing concerns about corruption, reflected in Thailand slipping 14 places to 102 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

THE OPPOSITION’S ‘CYNICAL AND DANGEROUS’ GAME

Yet, for all the valid criticism of the government’s performance and Thaksin’s enduring influence, many people still see Ms Yingluck as the likely winner of any contested election — and some view the opposition efforts to install an unelected council to run the country instead as cynical and dangerous.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrats and Prime Minister from 2008 to 2011, called last month for Parliament to be dissolved. When Ms Yingluck did exactly that less than a week later, he described the move as a first step and said his party would boycott the polls.

The opposition claims elections are illegitimate because of vote buying, although activists on all sides acknowledge that every party — including the Democrats — sprays money around at election time.

A heckler made waves when he challenged Abhisit at a press conference this week, distilling a wider criticism that the Democrats make unconvincing progressives because of their record in office and their failure to change their elitist image.

“If you cannot even reform yourself, how can you reform the country?” shouted the activist to the Democrat leader. Opposition social media dismissed the man — and the #respectmyvote hashtag and T-shirts spawned by the banner he was carrying — as a government propaganda stunt.

CURIOUS BALANCE OF POWER

The depth of Thailand’s schisms are even more clearly on display outside the Prime Minister’s office, where protesters have pitched tents next to a canal overhung by pink blossoms and filled with barbed wire. Although no weapons are visible, the camp has, in some respects, a military feel. A Toyota pick-up painted in camouflage colours is stationed at the entrance, while a guard in combat trousers is seated opposite, a grappling hook peeping out from a bag beside his army issue tent.

The incongruity of an opposition movement hunkering down as if it were the official security force reflects the curious balance of power in protests that the government has generally dealt with tentatively — because its authority and support in the capital are relatively weak.

While the activists include working-class people, they are joined by affluent Bangkok residents whose wealth and power buttress the protest movement. The compound is well-stocked as if for a siege, with its own pharmacy, a giant covered rally area and piles of fried rice, blankets and energy drinks.

In one view, the crisis pits a clannish government for whom elections are the only thing standing, against an overweening opposition for whom they mean nothing. In a situation that cries out for talks, the belligerent minority is firmly in control. A country that has been a beacon for free expression is seeing a slow collapse in the authority of its institutions.

Mr Nitithorn, the protest coordinator, admits he may not speak for a majority of Thais. But he does not accept there are any nuances in a fight that, if successful, could sweep away an eight-decade-old system of governance — and send shock waves beyond its borders. “The problem is not as complicated as you think,” he says. “If the government does something unlawful, the people have the right to rise up.” THE FINANCIAL TIMES LIMITED

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Michael Peel is The Financial Times’ Bangkok regional correspondent. With additional reporting by Panvadee Uraisin.

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