Will Thailand's military step aside after elections?

Although the current military junta has announced a date for elections, protesters say they have heard this all before. Democracy activists say the country could sink into crisis if elections are postponed.

For four years, Thailand has been governed by a military junta and its opponents have been continuously demanding new civil leadership. This might happen next year, as the military last week confirmed February 24 as an official date for national elections. However, many Thais have their doubts about the fairness of this ballot, and there is much discontent.

Pattaya is a well-known Thai coastal town, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) south of the capital Bangkok. Tourists lie on the beach or sip cocktails in the numerous bars as a noisy parade passes by.

Demonstrators are shouting and playing music. Observers encourage them by raising a thumb or taking pictures. But rather than just making a scene, these red-shirted protesters are actually speaking out for democracy.

Read more: Bangkok protesters demand end to election delays

These are the people known as "red shirts" – supporters of Thailand's civil government that was overthrown after a nonviolent coup in 2014. The ruling military regime is supported by the so-called "yellow shirts," representatives of elites who thought former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was corrupt and had to go.

The junta was supposed to "restore order" after months of street protests, before installing a new government. But the promised elections have since been postponed several times. This has caused dissatisfaction on both sides of the political spectrum.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

A Thai political dynasty with rural support

Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra is a wealthy businessman and former PM of Thailand. As founder of the Pheu Thai party, he was popular among rural poor, but unpopular among rich elite. In 2006, Thaskin was accused of fraud and ousted in a military coup. He fled Thailand in 2008 and faces two years in jail if he returns. Shinawatra-affiliated parties have won every Thai election since 2001.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

Yingluck's rise into politics

As successor to her brother, Yingluck Shinawatra was elected as PM of Thailand in 2011. She enjoyed the popularity of Taskin's base but was also targeted by his opponents, who accused her of being a political proxy for her exiled brother. Before she was elected as Thailand's first female PM, she had never held a political position or government post.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

The rice scandal

Yingluck's flagship policy, which helped her win the 2011 election, was a rice subsidy program aimed at her base where the government paid poor farmers 50 percent more for rice with the intention of providing a minimum wage. The plan backfired with regional competitors undercutting Thai rice exports, resulting in huge stockpiles and alleged losses to the state of $17 billion (14.25 billion euros).

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

Yingluck thrown out of office

In May 2014, Yingluck was ousted from office by the Thai constitutional court after it ruled she had abused power in transferring a senior aide to another position. This was combined with months of public protest against a proposed amnesty bill for those involved in violent protests after her brother was forced from power. The Thai military took power and they continue to rule the country.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

Yingluck's supporters wear red

The "red shirt" protesters, who are loyal to the Shinawatra family, oppose Thailand's elite, royalist class backed by the military. Yingluck's supporters see the moves against her as an attempt to finally oust the family from power and eliminate its political influence in Thailand.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

The royal loyalists in yellow

Loyalists to the Thai royal family, ruling elite and military are known as "yellow shirts." They say that the Shinawatras abuse their power for their own gain and accuse them of creating populist policies to attract the poor electoral majority in Thai society. They consider this a threat to the traditional ruling class. Multiple clashes between reds and yellows have resulted in dozens of deaths.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

Yingluck follows her brother into exile

In 2015, Yingluck was charged with criminal negligence and dereliction for her role in the failed rice subsidy scheme. She was also impeached for the same charges, and not allowed to participate in Thai politics for five years. She fled Thailand in August 2017, before a ruling on her case was to be announced. In September 2017, she was sentenced, in absentia, to five years in jail.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

Thailand's uncertain future

Thai politics has been dominated for over a decade by a power struggle between the traditional elite and the Shinawatra family. Political scientist Wolfram Schaffar told DW that the goal of pursuing the Shinawatras has been to "weaken elements of direct democracy." Other experts say that Yingluck's exile leaves Thailand without an opposition figure and allows the military to rule indefinitely.

'No more postponing'

One of Pattaya protest participants, Travinan, says she is suffering financially because of the political crisis. The revenue from her bakery decreased by 60 percent and she now earns 1,800 baht (€50) a day, when it used to be 5,900 baht (€160). 

"We need these elections urgently," says Travinan. "It is the only way to break the deadlock."

Read more: Thailand on its way back to democracy?

Another protester called Took says she is motivated to speak out because of the bloody crackdown on red-shirt protesters in 2010 at the Wat Pathum Wanaram temple in Bangkok.

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She says she witnessed how the army killed pro-democracy protesters who were seeking shelter in the temple. Took could hear how the soldiers were told "not to let anyone escape."

Loud music interrupts Took's story and she starts dancing obsessively, as if she wants to get rid of frustration. The song playing is the popular protest hit written by a group called "Rap Against Dictatorship."

The song is called "Protee Kum Mee," meaning "my country has this." Rappers criticize the military regime, the unfulfilled promise of elections and the lack of freedom of speech. The song has received more than 46 million views on YouTube since October.

Read more: HRW: Thai junta has 'severely harmed' faith in democracy

One of the rappers, known as Hockhacker, is a rather shy young man who seems a bit overwhelmed by the sudden success of the music he made together with his friends.

"This is the third year I am in the hip-hop underground scene, but so far I haven't got much attention," he tells me. "Only when the police noticed our song, the papers started writing about it and then it went viral." 

So far, the government didn't do much to stop the band – which is remarkable because the song is full of explicit criticism.

"We didn't do anything illegal," Hockhacker explains. "Besides, I think the army and the police realize that threatening or arresting us would only make us more popular."

'Took,' a red shirt protester, dances during a demonstration in Pattaya, Thailand

Fear of prosecution

However, the junta has its own way of dealing with critics. People are regularly accused of breaking the assembly ban, which makes it illegal to have a political meeting with five participants or more.

So-called lèse majesté laws also make it a crime to disparage the royal family, and they can be also be applied to anyone who opposes the military junta.

Sudsanguan Suthisorn, an associate professor of criminology, experienced first hand how far intimidation can go. Two years ago she joined a protest movement.

Read more: Little hope for Thailand's democracy

About forty people put funeral flowers next to the civil court to express their doubts about judicial independence. "I didn't even touch the flowers, I was just standing there, but they saw me as the pack leader," she says. The professor was removed from the group and put in jail for one month.

I persuade her to drive by the court building again and show me the exact location where she was arrested. "I won't get out of the car," she says. "This is not a safe place for people who want to change the regime."

I ask the professor how she sees the future of her country. "I don't think in my lifetime I will ever see a big change in Thailand," is her bitter answer.

Entrenched on the streets of Bangkok

Siege continues

Though clashes and bombings have killed at least 20 people, including three children, and injured 718 according to the Erawan Medical Center in Bangkok, hardcore protesters refuse to give up their positions at key points across Bangkok until the government collapses. Many of the protesters are women of all ages who are defying orders by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand's first female prime minister.

Entrenched on the streets of Bangkok

"For the sake of the future"

"Yai Plawm" an 80-year-old villager from southern Thailand, says she's been waving the Thai flag and sleeping on the hard pavement in front of MBK shopping center in Pathumwan district of central Bangkok for more than 100 days. "My back and neck hurt from sleeping on the street," she says. "But I think about my grandchildren's future." Here, she she has found a few minutes to take a nap.

Entrenched on the streets of Bangkok

Living rough

Protesters at Rajaprasong intersection, and other sites across Bangkok, are sleeping rough for only a few hours every night in the open air or in see-through tents without privacy, fans or air-conditioning in temperatures of 30 Celsius or more.

Entrenched on the streets of Bangkok

Dangerous conditions

Many of those in the camp are senior citizens. They are concerned about thieves or mysterious bombers, such as those who attacked this site on Sunday, February 23, killing a woman and two children.

Entrenched on the streets of Bangkok

Army tents

Backers of anti-government protests have donated hundreds of military-style camouflage tents such as these in the parking lot between Thailand's National Stadium and the MBK shopping mall, the main protest site in central Bangkok. Many others sleep in tents in Lumphini Park and the grounds of hotels or government offices, as hot season temperature continue to rise.

Entrenched on the streets of Bangkok

A moment of silence

At the Pathumwan intersection protest site, "Jeab" from Suphanburi province north of Bangkok cries during a solemn ceremony for protesters killed amid clashes and grenade attacks which have claimed at least 20 lives since last November.

Entrenched on the streets of Bangkok

Martyrs

Amid an increase in violent clashes and deaths of police and civilians including children, protest leaders are venerating "martyrs" such as the loved ones of these Thai Muslim women from southern Thailand, who stood in flag-colored veils before a large crowd in front of the main protest site at MBK shopping center in Pathumwan district of central Bangkok.

Entrenched on the streets of Bangkok

Refusing to budge

Despite the presence of 1990s rock stars such as Audy (shown here) attracting smaller crowds at protest sites such as Asoke intersection in central Bangkok, hardcore groups of mainly female protesters refuse to budge, effectively giving them power to shut down roads, harm businesses and scare off tourists in the short term for what they hope is a better future.

Entrenched on the streets of Bangkok

Upside down

Protesters have painted a number of smashed up police vehicles in Thai flag colors after riot police fled during clashes with protesters last week near Democracy Monument in Bangkok.

Entrenched on the streets of Bangkok

Triumph - for now

Alongside a portrait of King Bhumibol, a man waves a Thai flag atop a trashed bulldozer near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok where more than 10,000 riot police failed to disperse protesters in clashes that killed four protesters and two police officers. Each "victory" over police emboldens protesters to remain steadfast at their Bangkok camps.

One coup after another

The campus of Bangkok's Thammasaat University is being watched by the regime as well.

Here I meet Parit Chiwarak, an eloquent young man who is fighting to reform the educational system and who organizes political meetings.

"They spied on my house, even my mother has been followed. Every simple class discussion is being watched by a safety agent," he says. "Once the police officers entered our class room and they brought handcuffs to intimidate the students who were present."

This generation has been raised with coups. During their childhood, in 2006, the army toppled the government. Eight years later, when they were teenagers, it happened again. The 2014 coup was the twelfth in 80 years.

Read more: With new police powers, Thai military arrests hope for democracy 

These young people don't think the upcoming elections will immediately bring peace and stability to the country. Political power relations are too complicated to be changed overnight.

Last year an important constitutional reform was adopted, which gave a lot of power to the army – even though there was supposed to be a new civil government.

According to Parit, the country awaits another decade of difficulties, before going to real justice and democracy, but the students don't intend to take it to the streets.

"The dictatorship could use any protest as an argument to postpone the elections again," says Parit, adding that this is not the right moment for street actions.

But if the junta does not keep its promise of organizing elections, widespread protest will be inevitable – and they could end with violence.

The election date needs to be approved by the king on January 2, and then two days later by the election committee. Only then can the Thai people be sure that they will go to vote by the end of February.

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02:11 mins.
DW News | 31.01.2014

Future of Thailand lies in the balance

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