It was blisteringly hot yesterday in downtown Bangkok, near the city’s Democracy Monument, not far from the backpacker mecca of Khao San Road.
It’s not just the heat that is soaring in Bangkok. The political temperature has been ratcheted up to boiling point after the country’s army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha invoked the nation’s 100-year-old martial law legislation at 3am on Tuesday morning, an early morning wake-up call that sent diplomats across the city scurrying for their codexes.
His justification was the deaths of 28 people and more than 700 injuries during the course of protests by the self-styled anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee over the past six months. The army has been remarkably restrained during the ongoing political turmoil, but the deaths of three people on May 15 and the plan by pro-government “red shirts” to clash with with the PDRC in Bangkok forced his hand.
In temperatures that threatened to breach 40 degrees, thousands of anti-government protesters sheltered under several kilometres’ worth of makeshift roof cover (pictured). They lolled, slept, smoked and tucked into curry and rice or more cooling ice and jelly deserts in a vast tent city that occupies a dozen city blocks. This is the headquarters of PDRC, an offshoot of the country’s misnamed Democrat Party, which began protests against the ruling Pheu Thai Party last October. The PDRC’s leader is former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, a multimillionaire demagogue peddling — without a hint or irony — a message of anti-corruption. Yet he himself was once bounced out of Parliament for corruption.
Lujirapa Wasuwat (pictured left, below), a 50-year-old housewife, has been attending yellow shirt protests regularly. “I feel safe the army is here, I feared the red shirts were going to attack,” she told Crikey.
Like Lujirapa, Suthep’s supporters are from the capital or to the south in a country that has been cleaved into a rough north/south divide over almost 20 years since the emergence of populist billionaire businessman-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra.
Now exiled to Dubai and facing jail on corruption related charges, Thaksin still acts as godfather or puppet-master to the democratically elected ruling Pheu Thai Party — commonly known as the red shirts — which is now clinging to power by a mere fingernail. The trigger for last October’s protest was the ham-fisted attempt by the government to force through a wide-ranging amnesty bill that would have paved the way for his return.
On May 7 his sister Yingluck Shinawatra became the fourth PM of Thaksin’s parties to be bumped out of power by the powerful Bangkok establishment, which cannot win a popular mandate but has stacked so-called independent institutions, including the courts, with cronies.
Twenty-five kilometres away from the PDRC protests on the outskirts of the city, another protest site continues to fill with tens of thousands of Thais. It is here that the rival red shirts, supporters of Pheu Thai, are gathering. The removal of Yingluck has finally rallied them to action.
Crikey visited the red shirt rally site on May 10. Most protesters here are from Thailand’s more populated north, and many still wanted Thaksin to return.
Ordinary protesters from both sides rail against the corruption of both government and the country’s courts. For more than half a year Thailand has been trapped in a stand-off between its elected government and a wealthy establishment tussling over the spoils of power while its people struggle, often in subsistence farming or barely living urban wages.
Yet the average Joe and Jane protesters don’t seem to know or care that they are the pawns in a billionaires’ battle. And it’s not just Thailand’s political system that’s in a funk — the economy is as well. Since the beginning of the protests six months ago, the country’s gross domestic product growth outlook for 2014 has slumped from a forecast of 4% growth to a bare 1.1%, according to ANZ, after contracting by 0.6% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2014. Thailand’s export-based economy has suffered due to a lack of government spending on much-needed infrastructure, as well as weakening private sector sentiment (companies in Thailand — and elsewhere — tend not to spend when the government isn’t). The country’s export growth depends on the struggling European market and a weakening Asia-Pacific region, and consumers have closed their wallets amid the political turmoil.
Prayuth is the only powerbroker who has come through the mire with anything like an intact reputation. It’s the army that appears to have best learnt the lessons of the country’s last political upheaval in 2010 — these have been monotonously regular since World War II, with at least 11 successful coups and multiple prime ministers forced from office. In 2010, pitched street battles resulted in at least 90 deaths. No one here wants a repeat of this, yet it appeared to be getting close this week.
Yet, with the remarkable Thai ability to look the other way (while smiling) as protest camps across opposing sides of Bangkok swelled, yesterday most of Bangkok’s 10 million-plus citizens went about their business as usual. The sight of pods of soldiers and armed vehicles has become commonplace since a 90-day state of emergency was in place from January for three months.
Travel warnings issued by more than 50 governments helped drive the country’s tourist numbers down by almost 6% for the first three months of the years compared to 2013. Yesterday Australia joined dozens of nations in reissuing warnings for travellers and urging its citizens to stay clear of protest sites. Tourism will be crunched again.
Away from the main protest sites, in many popular tourist areas and the city’s sprawling suburbs an ordinary visitor might well not realise that anything was amiss. Tourists appeared unfazed, wandering around foreigner-friendly precincts such as Silom and Sukhumvit.
Martial law in Thailand is defined as the imposition of military power over a designated region or on an emergency basis, but the constitution remains, nominally at least, in place. Yingluck’s replacement, Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, now acting caretaker PM, remains nominally in charge, yet he too is facing corruption charges.
Compared to the emergency decree imposed in January, martial law is far more powerful, research analysts from Japanese bank Nomura said.
The country’s half-elected, half-appointed Senate, which is controlled by the opposition, is pushing ahead with a plan to appoint an interim prime minister to “reform” the country ahead of elections. But in a press conference yesterday, Prayuth said his main goal was to end the bloodshed and bring political rivals together in order to reach a compromise and bring peace. He said had not considered a curfew and would only use martial law powers sparingly:
“Our intention is to push the country forward. We hope all government officials and members of the public sector co-operate, so that problems can be quickly resolved. We only want to see the country in peace, with security. Nobody wants to keep this law in place for a long time. Let us all help find a way out as soon as possible.”
On the evidence so far, he is asking the impossible. But most of Thailand’s 70 million people will be praying that he can.