Thailand is again spiralling into a familiar cycle of political violence. Dozens have been killed and injured in grenade attacks and gunfights. A state of emergency is in place, and there are rumours of civil war and secession.
Foreign missions have warned citizens to avoid protests, and tourists are staying away. The situation is volatile, dangerous and unpredictable.
This most recent conflagration represents a settling of old scores, and it is infinitely more complex than tired cliches about “class struggle” or “democracy protests”. Analysis centred on democratic process and so-called “elites” ignores the historical, structural and regional causes for conflict and inequality in Thailand.
Hastily convened elections on Sunday predictably confirmed the leadership of the Pheu Thai Party by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, former PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister. The opposition Democrat Party made a grave tactical error by boycotting the election, seeking to oust the government instead through judicial and other means.
Dissolving a democratically elected government, as the protesters and opposition are demanding, would disenfranchise millions of voters in Thailand’s north and north-east. This decision also reinforces an inappropriate message that a culture of protest and violence mitigated by martial intervention is somehow acceptable.
The current round of anti-government protests started in November 2013 in response to the tabling of a failed amnesty bill acquitting Thaksin Shinawatra of corruption. The bill would also have absolved leaders of the Democrat Party (wrongly) accused of “murdering” 85 people during riots in Bangkok.
The protests initially demonstrated widespread opposition to the amnesty bill. The protesters have now paralysed Bangkok, blocking key intersections for months.
Tolerance for the protests is waning as millions of livelihoods and businesses are affected. The protest is having a profound economic impact, and the Thai baht is depreciating. The protesters appear blissfully unaware that they might be in the minority, and when the tide turns they may become the target of reprisals.
It would be untrue, however, to suggest the protest movement is a farce. Many people are aggrieved at the level of corruption and mismanagement. Thailand genuinely needs reform to accommodate the legitimate concerns of the poor, ethnic groups, and millions of migrant workers. Both sides need to better articulate their positions on the path to true progress and reconciliation.
The military has so far showed restraint and allowed protests to continue, but if violence escalates, pressure for intervention will be acute. Unfortunately, the protest movement doesn’t appear to have any other strategy.
The cost of maintaining rage has reached hundreds of thousands of dollars per day. Individuals in powerful institutions have become embroiled in supporting the protest movement, creating an unprecedented political crisis where there is no accountability. Yingluck Shinawatra was previously prepared to allow protests to continue, but she and her government are now under fire for doing nothing and showing signs of strain from the prolonged siege.
The mobilisation of class and ethnic rivalry has released a genie from the bottle as both sides conceitedly deny the danger of igniting tension. Meanwhile, the police have resolved to crush the protest movement in the post-election period.
Opposing factions from the provinces armed with weapons have begun marching on Bangkok. There is potential for this conflict to escalate into a bigger problem than just protests. The movement aspiring for the eradication of corruption will disappear. Gone too will be the carnival atmosphere of students with colourful aspirations and T-shirts.
With the situation dividing the country inside out and upside down, both sides must now pause and face each other in a spirit of reconciliation and negotiation.
Thailand’s people deserve leaders who care about transparency, progress and reform. The current political showdown, however, indicates these are thin on the ground.
*The author requested anonymity due to professional relationships in Thailand