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Thailand: People’s coup or putsch?

Categories: East Asia, Thailand, Governance, Human Rights, Law, Politics, Protest

Since Tuesday, anti-government protesters have invaded Thailand’s Government House demanding the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. The rallyists, estimated to be as low as 3,000 to as high as 25,000, are members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

The activists accused Samak of being a puppet of ousted Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra. One of the most popular slogans [1] in the rallies is this: “Monarchy, Nation, and Samak you are bad.”

In the last four days, protest actions were launched in different parts of Thailand. Rallyists have forced airports to close down [2] and union workers refused to work [3] in solidarity to the protesters. Despite the rallies, Samak has refused to step down.

It is difficult to ascertain the sentiments of the Thai people about the ongoing protests. Citizen dissatisfaction may be high; and people are very angry against corruption. But many are opposed to the campaign tactics used by PAD.

A sample of public opinion: Bangkok University surveyed [4] 1,023 people in Bangkok this week about the PAD protests. Below is a summary of the poll results as provided and translated [5] by Bangkok Pundit:

1. Do you agree with closing of the roads to force out the government? 13.8% agree, 72.6% disagree and 13.8% have no opinion.

2. Do you agree with the seizing of NBT? 14.8% agree, 70.8% disagree, and 14.4% have no opinion.

3. Do you agree with the seizing of Government House? 16.9% agree, 68.3% disagree, and 14.8% have no opinion.

4. Do you agree with the police to take action against the 5 PAD leaders? 42.8% agree, 31.7% disagree, and 25.5% have no opinion.

5. Do you think it is time to declare a state of emergency? 46.9% say not yet, 27.6% say and 25.5% have no opinion.

6. What action do you want the military to take? 51.8% say join with the police to control the situation, 38.4% say stay neutral and stay put, 4.5% say stage a coup, and 5.3% gave other responses.

7. What do you want the government to do? 34.9% say continue administering the country, and 65.1% want a change (33.3% want a new election, 17% want the PM to resign, 14.8% want the Cabinet to resign).

Christopher G. Moore provides [6] a background to the events which transpired last Tuesday:

“Last night a mob (some estimate to be 25,000) occupied a radio/TV complex in Bangkok, and later broke into and occupied Government House. Tempers are on edge. Violence is in the air. But the police and military have exercised restraint. There is tension and uncertainty as everyone hunkers down and waits for the final confrontations on the streets to play out. Forces hidden out of sight are huddling, contemplating, weighing, and planning. One plan is to starve them into submission. No food is allowed into the building. No keys given out to the washroom.”

absolutely Bangkok.com liveblogged the first day [7] of protest activities.

PAD was severely criticized for invading a TV station [8] and blocking traffic. This prompted ~Meaw & More~ to reflect about nonviolent activism [9]:

“The PADs protest raise questions and doubt for people who heard that it was nonviolent. As we have seen television and website broadcast, it did not seem to be so. Does nonviolent simply mean unarmed or that no one is physically hurt others.

“Considering what PADs have been proclaiming that they want to bring about ‘democratic’ change, can they be the change and democratic?”

PAD was the same group which led the protest actions in 2006. The street rallies were followed by a coup which led to the ouster of Thaksin. But former PAD supporters are now questioning the legitimacy of today’s protest activities. The Lost Boy is one of them [10]:

“This is getting silly now. As a foreigner who has lived in Thailand for three years and often sympathized with the PAD, I’ve lost all patience and respect for that group and I hope the PAD leaders are brought to justice and that the government does not buckle to the demands being made.”

absolutely Bangkok.com further explains [11] why PAD is losing public support and why Samak is benefiting from the crisis:

“Doesn’t seem much popular support left for the PAD. They got carried away by pitiful issues such as Preah Vihear and ran nonstop through town demanding this and condemning that – and are staging a revolution that shall bring Thailand which leadership?! Heaven forbid. Any PAD success would divide the kingdom even more deeper. No disrespect, but the PAD’s current actions and false fronts work for the benefit of Samak.”

Thailand Jumped the Shark identifies the street protests of PAD as Thugocracy [12]:

“This is a fascist movement. Of course, because this is Thailand and an Asian country on the periphery of world affairs, nobody will care. But this is what fascism looks like in the 21st century.”

Even mainstream international media have negative views on PAD [13], perhaps bolstered by PAD’s attack on a TV station.

But there is no doubt that PAD remains a solid force supported by many Thais, including ordinary people, as noted [14] by The Bangkok Bugle:

“There was noticeably less traffic on the roads this morning, so much so that my taxi driver had no qualms about going past one of the PAD demonstrations close to Government House. The few protesters I saw were very normal, mostly female and a far cry from the mobs that took control of some Government offices yesterday. There are a lot of ordinary people supporting these protests.”

Sustaining a protest movement for several days is not easy. Logistics preparation is essential. The public were asked to support the rallies by donating food and other stuff [15]:

“If the organizers could not manage proper toilet and shower corner, it would be more difficult to female protesters to stay. Some post in Manager webboard ask for donation of flashlight, whistle, helmets, umbrellas, hat, fans, towels, tissue paper, plastic bags and rubber band (to be used as makeshift toilet.) Other requested female and male underwear.”

Manager posted pictures [16] which exposed police brutality. On the other hand, several video clips [17] showed the aggressiveness of the protesters.

New Mandala theorizes [18] the possible motives and endgame plans of PAD:

1) They may hope that the king steps into the fray and asks, to guarantee national “reconciliation” among other things, that Samak resign.

2) Elements within the PAD may hope that an escalating confrontation could motivate an army faction to mount another “extra-constitutional” intervention: a coup. Whether such an effort would be acceptable to the general populace or to the rest of the Bangkok elite is uncertain.

3) The PAD may, more modestly, be hoping to de-stabilise the Samak government sufficiently that its management of the economy and society is brought into further disrepute. Perhaps there is hope among some in the PAD that a confrontation in Bangkok, however resolved, could prepare the way for a stronger Democrat Party showing in future elections. Perhaps there is also some hope that if a compromise can be worked out, perhaps with an interim “government of national unity”, the PAD will be able to take on a role as an un-elected “PM-maker”.

4) Elements within the PAD may also be hoping that a heavy-handed government response to the current protest may provide them with some politically useful symbols of repression (and perhaps even some martyrs) that could be used to invigorate future phases of their campaign.

Bangkok Pundit reacts [19] to this post. A coup is unlikely. Samak is still the Prime Minister even after meeting with the King.

A timely appeal [20] to all parties involved:

“You’d expect rationality and reasoning in a political fight. Thailand’s political landscape has been reduced to a Darwinian diktat of the ruthless and reckless leaving a swatch of hate, division and destruction behind.

“The aims and goals of all sides are respectable and we’re not for or against the Samak government. We’re just asking for some mutual respect, civil debate and adherence to the rule of law. All we can see though are agitation and politics of primal fears.”