Monday, November 19, 2012

To Coup Or Not To Coup?

Once again, I am wishing that there was a reliable source in Bangkok for current news. I don't read The Bangkok Post every day but I do read it frequently enough that I feel like I have a pretty good idea as to what is going on around Bangkok. However, I really need to learn that, in Bangkok, just because the news isn't reported in the paper, it doesn't mean there isn't anything newsworthy happening.  

A friend and I were walking our dogs the other day and you could have knocked me over with a feather when she asked me if I was at all worried about the possibility of a coup this weekend. Who, What, When, Where?!? Apparently this coup isn't newsworthy enough to be breaking or headline news on There are a few articles here and there but certainly not the coverage I would expect of a coup in the making. The General who is organizing this "rally" (scheduled for Sunday, November 24th) stated that he intends for the 1 Million + participants in the "rally" to topple the democratically elected governmental. Rally = Coup. This is big news. 

Unfortunately, given very recent events in Thailand's history, the possibility of a coup does not bode well at all for Thailand and even less so for Bangkok. In 80 years, there have been 18 successful coups in Thailand, the most recent being in September 2006.  In my opinion, the 2006 coup is very important because the players & political parties involved in that coup continue to affect the current and ongoing political crisis.

So, here we go with Thai Politics 101 - as simple (and hopefully as accurate) as I could make it. I am only going to cover from 2006 to present (and very briefly at that) because there is a heck of a lot that went on before 2006. (Post script - I read this over before posting and realized that there is a heck of a lot went on after 2006, too). 

Thaksin Shinawatra represented the Thai Rak Thai party (Thai Love Thai party) and overwhelmingly won the 2001 election. This was the first election held under the Thai Constitution of 1997. Prime Minister Thanksin was (and remains) enormously popular in Thailand. In the four years of his first term, his economic policies helped reduce poverty by half. He also introduced Thailand's first universal healthcare program as well as a highly successful  drug suppression campaign. Thaksin embarked on a massive program of infrastructure investment and construction, including roads, public transit, and Suvarnabhumi Airport. It was no surprise that the Thai Rak Thai party won by an unprecedented landslide in the 2005 general election, which had the highest voter turnout in Thai history. 

However, with the good came the bad. The Thaksin government faced allegations of, among other things, corruption, authoritarianism, treason and conflicts of interest. Thaksin was personally accused of tax evasion, lese majeste (insulting the highly revered King) and selling assets of Thai companies to international investors. Thaksin's human rights record was criticized by international organizations. He was also charged with concealing his wealth during his premiership. After Thaksin's election to a second term, protests by the other significant political party in Thailand, the People's Alliance For Democracy (PAD) began. Long story short, on September 19, 2006, while Thaksin was abroad, the military overthrew his government in a  coup and declared martial law. 

Martial law continued until elections were held in December 2007. The Thaksin-supported People's Power Party (PPP) (really just the Thai Rak Thai party re-named) won a majority of votes. The PPP, in accordance with Parliamentary procedure, formed a government along with five other parties. Although the elections effectively ended the military's rule, the political situation was still very fluid. In mid-2008, a series of scandals and missteps brought PAD onto the streets of Bangkok in protest. Although PAD portrayed the new Prime Minister as simply a puppet for Thaksin, the Prime Minister survived a vote of non-confidence in Parliament and remained in office. However, shortly thereafter, the Prime Minister violated a constitutional prohibition on private employment while in office and he was removed from his position.  His replacement was none other than Thaskin's brother-in-law. 

Not surprisingly, after this turn of events, PAD increased the number and volume of their protests. The PAD protests reached their height in late November 2008 when hundreds of anti-government protesters seized Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok. PAD continued their seige for several weeks, effectively shutting the airport down and stranding thousands of travelers.  After Thaskin's brother-in-law continued to insist that he would remain in power, PAD protesters also seized and forced the closure of Don Muang Airport in Northern BangkokSoon after the occupation of Don Muang Airport, the Prime Minister (Thaskin's BIL) was forced out of power as a result of a violation of election law. Members of the military and Parliament selected the newest Prime Minister (what number are we one here?!?), a man from the Democratic Party. The selection of this man silenced the PAD protests as the Democratic Party is aligned with PAD. 

If you are still with me, this brings Bangkok into 2009 and the political scene in Bangkok, while not settled is at least quiet.  

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Things did not go very well for Thaksin after the coup. The Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved and, along with other Thai Rak Thai members, Thaksin was banned from Thai politics for five years. The new Thai government froze Thaksin and his family's assets in Thailand. In October 2008, Thaksin was found guilty of a conflict of interest and was sentenced (in absentia because he fled the country) to two years in prison. In 2009, his passport was revoked because of his financial support of the 2009 violent protests in Bangkok. In 2010, the Thai Supreme Court seized a significant portion of his frozen assets.  

Although Thaksin is still not permitted to enter Thailand, he continues to strongly influence Thai politics. He is the alleged financier of the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (the UDD - aka "Red Shirts"), the political party which is comprised of his supporters left over from Thai Rak Thai and the PPP. The Red Shirts seem to have more popular support and are portrayed as the movement for the poor and oppressed, of which there are many in Thailand. The Red Shirts' opposition is the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). PAD followers usually dress in yellow (the color of the King) and, thus, are called the "Yellow Shirts". The Yellow Shirts typically have the support of Bangkok/Thailand's elite.  

In early April 2009, while still in exile, Thaksin called for a UDD-supported "people's revolution" to overthrow the government. It is believed that Thaksin funded this revolution from abroad. The protests between anti-government (UDD) and pro-government (PAD) groups turned quite violent. A State of Emergency was in effect for several weeks and the protests ended only when the military was called in to restore order. The Red Shirts continued for months with small protests against the Government but nothing got too out of hand.


In March 2010, the Red Shirts began to demand that the Prime Minister (still the Democrat and still aligned with the Yellow Shirts) resign, dissolve the Parliament, and call new elections. At the same time, the Red Shirts occupied a sizable area in the Central Business District in downtown Bangkok and maintained their protest camp there. By the time all was said and done, the Red Shirts occupied those streets for over two months. Hotels, restaurants, shopping centers, and business were all greatly affected by this occupation. In early April, the Yellow Shirts (supporters of the Government) began to rally against the Red Shirts which only served to increase tension and violence on the streets of Bangkok. On April 10th, the military was brought in to maintain order and the situation went south very quickly.  By the time the military withdrew, 24 people were dead and over 1,000 injured. For several weeks after the military withdrawal, a very tense stand-off followed.

In early May 2010, the Red Shirts accepted the Government's proposal for a new election to be held in November. With that acceptance, the Red Shirts also agreed to vacate the areas of Bangkok that it occupied. However, it soon became public that the Government & military leaders responsible for the killings of unarmed Red Shirt protesters on April 10th were not going to be punished. The Red Shirts refused to de-camp until those leaders were held accountable for that violence. The rioting and protests continued to intensify. On May 14th, to finally end the protests, the military moved in and began to attack the Red Shirts' camps and force them from their bases. Most of the Red Shirt leaders were captured and forced to surrender but a few escaped. The attacks on the Red Shirt camps set off a series of intense and violent riots on the streets of Bangkok and the city was literally on fire as cars, piles of tires and buildings throughout the Central Business District were burned. The military proclaimed success on May 19th and on May 22nd, the casualty count was 85 dead and 1,378 injured. To give you an idea as to just how volatile Bangkok was during this time, the State of Emergency that was declared on April 7th continued until December. Kevin and I visited Bangkok in January 2011 and we were able to see some of the burned buildings that had not yet been demolished.

Since the 2010 protests, things have been relatively quiet in Bangkok. Ironically, Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was appointed in August 2011 as the current Prime Minister. If the  anti-government rally this weekend (which is supported by those aligned with the Yellow Shirts) is successful, the Red Shirt-aligned government would be overthrown and I can't even imagine what might happen after that. While there have been a few attempts in the last year to amend the Constitution and pass other laws that would allow Thaksin to return to Thailand (and, one would assume, to politics), those efforts have been weak. This weekend's rally might change that though. If the Yellow Shirts can garner strong enough support to even initiate a coup of the Red Shirt-aligned government this weekend, the Red Shirts might be inclined to do whatever needs to be done to bring the ever popular Thaksin back to Bangkok so the Red Shirts can maintain their leadership of Thailand. 

There sure is a lot for us to keep an eye on this week and it will be interesting to watch it all unfold. Although, those of you back in the U.S. might get better information from the media than we do here in Bangkok.

Have a great Monday.

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