The Battle for Bangkok

In the wake of the power struggle between the political elites in Thailand, we are now seeing a popular uprising.

Once again Thailand’s capital is paralysed by demonstrations. The streets are filled with Thai flags and demands that the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, must step down. “Shut down Bangkok – Restart Thailand!” But behind the façade of colourful placards and catchy slogans lies a brutal political power struggle.


The country’s political crisis seems to be worsening in proportion to the advancing age and deteriorating health of the people’s beloved King Bhumibol. The danger of violent confrontation is significant – just today [17 Jan 2014] 28 people were injured when a bomb exploded in a procession of demonstrators. Unfortunately there is no swift resolution in sight.

Power struggles and popular uprising

The ongoing political crisis has embroiled Thailand ever since the current prime minister’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was deposed by a military coup in 2006. The crisis is playing out on two levels: power struggle and popular uprising. At root, the crisis represents a struggle between two elite factions. One faction, comprised of Thaksin and his nouveau-riche business allies, has challenged Thailand’s traditional elite, which is made up of a network of some of Bangkok’s wealthiest families and central figures within the military and judiciary.

Regardless of changes in the constellations of ruling parties, this traditional elite network – with the 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej as its figurehead – has controlled Thai politics for most of the past century. Now that Bhumibol’s reign is drawing to a close, there is enormous uncertainty regarding Thailand’s future direction. The most nightmarish scenario for the traditional elite is that Thaksin and his allies will be in power during this critical period. Influence over parliament will be decisive in the coming years, and here the Thaksin faction has total control.

A direct attack on the elite

By exploiting Thailand’s democratic system, Thaksin has mobilised the population in densely populated provinces that previously were politically marginalised. He won votes by giving people what they wanted – health services, micro-credit loans and a small-business stimulus programme (OTOP). In doing so he achieved something that no other Thai politician has managed, or has bothered to attempt. He won a parliamentary majority and was even re-elected. The Thaksin-allied party has won all democratic elections since 2001.

Backed up by democratic legitimacy, Thaksin has directly attacked the traditional elite and attempted, for his own benefit and that of his allies, to deprive its members of their privileges. The 2006 coup and the political crisis we have seen since – including the demonstrations now taking place – represent the attempts of the traditional elite to fight back. All available means will be deployed.


Political awakening

However, the power struggle and murky political manoeuvring have exposed how Thailand has been governed and for whose benefit. In the wake of the power struggle between the elites, significant popular movements have emerged and added a new dimension to the political map. Previously marginalised groups – farmers and low-paid workers – have understood the value of a ballot paper and are no longer prepared to tolerate the repeated attempts of a small, privileged faction in Bangkok to unseat their elected representatives. These groups form the basis of the “red shirts” – the popular movement that is mobilising in support of Thaksin and his allies. For this movement democratic elections have become part of a class struggle that has significant appeal in rural districts and among Bangkok’s migrant workers from the provinces.

On the other hand, a second popular movement has emerged whose members are fed up with the corruption and abuses of power in Thai politics. This group sees Thaksin as the personification of a corrupt politician and as representing everything that they see as wrong with Thai politics. People holding these views are often known as “yellow shirts” (despite variations in colour codes in recent years). It is this group who are now dominating the streets of Bangkok.

Putting democracy aside

The “yellow shirts” call for responsible and honourable politicians and are willing to put democracy aside in order to prevent further corruption and abuses of power. Demands for political reforms appeal to this group, even though it is unclear what types of reforms would be involved and whether in any event they would improve the political climate. There is reason to believe that the reforms would be directed only towards Thaksin and his allies and would not otherwise make noticeable changes to the political picture.

That Thaksin is corrupt is beyond doubt. Even many “red shirts” would admit as much. That he is guilty of buying votes and breaches of human rights is also no secret. Nevertheless, it is difficult to put forward a convincing argument to the effect that Thaksin is significantly more corrupt than is the norm in Thai politics. Suthep Thaugsuban, the former deputy prime minster from the Democratic Party who is leading the current demonstrations, also has his own actions to answer for.

Clinging to power

There is a great deal at stake and the opposition, comprising the Democratic Party backed by the traditional elite and the army, is not willing to let Yingluck and the Phuea Thai Party stay in power. The only reason that Yingluck has been allowed to rule in peace for so long (since July 2011) has been a compromise that was agreed between key army leaders and the royal council.

The basis for this compromise ended when Yingluck attempted to enact an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand without having to serve a jail sentence imposed on him for corruption. The temporary truce broke down and now Yingluck must be removed. The only question is how. Yingluck clings to her clear democratic mandate, but she is facing powerful forces and the other side has no desire to negotiate.

New elections unlikely

Everything suggests that attempts will be made to sabotage the elections scheduled for 2 February. The best we can hope for is a postponement, but this will also not be a lasting solution. The Yingluck and Thaksin faction will in any event win the election by a clear margin, something the traditional elite cannot tolerate. A military coup, or possibly a judicial coup, is the usual solution in such situations, but this would be risky. Large parts of the Thai population have undergone a political awakening and will no longer be prepared to accept a coup. This could lead to civil war-like conditions in several provinces, particularly in the north and north-east.

The combination of the two levels of the crisis has brought about a deadlock and there is a significant danger of violent confrontations. Provocateurs from both sides will be willing to put lives on the line. Until the coming change of monarch, it is accordingly difficult to envisage a lasting solution to Thailand’s deep political crisis.

Author: Marte Nilsen, senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)

This posting was first published in Norwegian at 17 January 2014.

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