The opposition no longer believes in democracy. Protestors in Egypt and Ukraine advocated new elections. In contrast, Thailand’s misnamed Democrat Party and its ally, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), or so‐called “Yellow Shirt” movement led by former DP deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, attempted to block Sunday’s vote.
Thailand’s latest poll was triggered by PDRC mobs in Bangkok which sought to drive Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office. Although the protestors wear yellow, associated with the Thai monarchy, they are the modern equivalent of Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts, who seized power through the infamous 1922 march on Rome.
The Thai political system is nominally democratic, but the military has staged multiple coups and dominated multiple governments. Even during civilian rule the state typically was controlled by an elitist establishment, essentially a military‐royalist‐civil service‐business‐urban/upper class axis. The monarch plays only a limited constitutional role, but anti‐democracy activists use the revered king for political advantage.
The country faces extraordinary political turbulence. Wrote Nirmal Ghosh for the Straits Times: “Thailand’s conflict is complex and multilayered. It merges personality conflicts and revenge politics, class conflict, economic disparity and struggle over resources, and the fear of the urban middle class of a near future of rule by powerful corrupt politicians without the stabilizing presence of a morally strong and benevolent monarch.”
The ongoing political battle grows out of the 2001 victory of telecommunications executive Thaksin Shinawatra. He followed the traditional political strategy of tax, tax, spend, spend, elect, elect, offering financial benefits to the neglected rural poor.
Thaksin won another big victory in 2005, but the following year the so‐called People’s Alliance for Democracy launched demonstrations to bring down his government. The military then ousted him in a coup. After rewriting the constitution to strengthen rule by establishment elites, the military held a new election in 2007, which was won by Thaksin’s successor party (though he remained in exile abroad).
The following year, in what has been described as the 1 percent rebelling against the 99 percent, PAD launched a series of protests to shut down the government — taking over Bangkok’s international airport and besieging parliament, for instance — and the security agencies refused to intervene. The courts stretched the law to oust Thaksin ally Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej as prime minister because he was paid to host a television cooking show. Then establishment pressure on the government’s coalition partners caused them to shift to make the DP’s Abhisit Vejjajiva prime minister even though his party had not won even a plurality of the vote since 1992.
In response angry Thaksin supporters, called “Red Shirts” — dominated by the rural poor and middle‐class — flooded into Bangkok, filling the financial district and disrupting an international summit. The police and army rediscovered their commitment to public order and in 2009 cleared the streets, killing scores of protestors and injuring thousands of others. Opposition leaders were prosecuted and imprisoned.
However, Abhisit was overwhelmingly defeated in 2011 by Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, and her Pheu Thai party. Last fall PAD relaunched itself as the PDRC and mounted large demonstrations after her government proposed an amnesty which would have allowed Thaksin, convicted in absentia of corruption charges, to return to Thailand.
As before, the opposition used storm trooper tactics. Suthep’s mobs seized public buildings, took over government ministries, blocked Bangkok streets, discussed occupying the stock exchange and shutting down the air traffic control system, and even threatened to kidnap the prime minister. The Thai Black Shirts met every failure by adopting more extreme tactics.