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Déjà vu in Thailand

Filed on December 1, 2013

THE LATEST crisis in Thailand, with tens of thousands of demonstrators occupying government offices in Bangkok, is turning out to be a replay of previous agitations that have sparked off violence and military intervention.

Fortunately, despite the harsh words that political leaders from the ruling Pheu Thai Party and the opposition Democrat Party, which has formed the Civil Movement for Democracy (CMD), are hurling at each other, they have restrained their supporters from indulging in violence.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who comfortably won a no-confidence vote in parliament on Thursday — with lawmakers defeating a motion against the government 297 to 134 — has appealed to the demonstrators to call off the protests. “I’m begging you, the protesters, because this doesn’t make the situation any better,” she said in a direct appeal to her opponents, whose numbers were estimated at around 100,000. Many of the demonstrators, who describe themselves as “a people’s assembly”, have occupied key government offices including the ministry of finance in the national capital, besides state offices in all 14 southern provinces.

Opposition leaders have also reiterated that their movement is a non-violent one and they do not want to prolong the agony of the nation by occupying ministries for long. Ironically, Suthep Thaugsuban, the Democrat Party leader, who is currently leading the protests, had cracked down on similar demonstrations (led by the then opposition) as deputy prime minister in 2010. The protestors had occupied parts of Bangkok for nearly two months; the army was called in to clear them, an action that resulted in 90 deaths and about 2,000 injuries.

While Yingluck has called for negotiations, Suthep has refused to enter into talks with the government. Strangely, his demands revolve around vague political concepts, and includes replacing the elected government with a non-elected council that would oversee political reforms and conduct ‘fair elections.’

Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, has been embroiled in a series of political crises over the past decade. The man at the centre of the turmoil is Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister’s elder brother, and a polarising figure who fled the country in 2008 to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption. Thaksin, who won elections in 2001 and 2005, was ousted in a coup in 2006, but has been accused of running the country from abroad through his supporters.

The latest wave of protests was sparked following an attempt by the government to push an amnesty bill in parliament that would have enabled Thaksin to return home without serving the jail term. The political turmoil of the past few years has wrecked Thailand’s economic prospects and millions of ordinary citizens are made to suffer because of the impasse.


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