Protest turned into murder on Saturday night, punctuating a return to politically motivated violence on the streets of Bangkok after a period of relative calm. What is particularly concerning is that opposing mobs, apparently of ordinary citizens, are increasingly facing off against each other. In earlier incidents, violence was usually between protesters and authorities.
At least five people were killed and several wounded near Ramkhamhaeng University in the capital on Saturday. By yesterday, the threat of further violence had receded as pro-government groups disbanded in response to the killings, and police kept anti-government protesters at bay with tear gas and water cannons.
The sense of unease has deepened, however, with some expectations that the government of Prime Minster Yingluck Shinatwatra will fall in the near future. Both Ms Yingluck and the anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban had rejected the idea of negotiations, but after the two met on Sunday night – at the army’s insistence – Mr Suthep issued another ultimatum: quit in the next two days.
In the shadow of the 2006 coup that toppled Ms Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra, the quiet giant in the room is of course the military. The army commander Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha had until Sunday stayed out of the fray and disavowed any prospect of a coup. In Thailand, army chiefs always do until the tanks roll out on to the streets.
The colour-coded politics are starting to blur along the margins, proving far more complex than the red shirt (pro-Thaksin) and yellow shirt (anti-Thaksin) shorthand repeated in the media. The erstwhile mandatory yellow shirts (which are also seen as a token of esteem for the king) are not as common at rallies anymore, and there are open questions being asked about the real interests of groups on both sides.
At first, the anti-government crowds were not specifically calling for the fall of Ms Yingluck, but protesting against an amnesty bill that would have cleared Mr Thaksin of several criminal cases brought against him during his self-imposed exile – much of which has been spent in Dubai. That, in turn, would have paved the way for his return to Thailand.
Paradoxically, that same amnesty bill was opposed by many “reds” as well as “yellows”, lining up purported enemies on the same side of an issue. The amnesty also would have applied to leading Democratic opposition politicians, including Mr Suthep, who ordered the army to crush pro-Thaksin demonstrators in 2010, resulting in more than 86 deaths and arson attacks across the capital’s central business district, in the country’s worst political violence since 1992.
Ms Yingluck certainly overstretched her hand with the amnesty bill, trying to steamroll over the opposition with all the appearances of the arrogance of power (also, perhaps, the Achilles’ heel of her brother during his terms at the helm).
In truth, the proposed amnesty was symptomatic of a more troubling trend in the recent violence – an utter lack of accountability. In the 2010 violence, heavily-armed men wielding sniper rifles and grenades attacked security forces from within the protesters’ ranks; a protest leader was killed by a sniper during an interview with a New York Times reporter. No one has been brought to book.
There are already allegations that Thai police donned red shirts during Saturday’s skirmishes and fired pistols at anti-government protesters. Rarely are there satisfactory answers to these types of questions. The “hidden hand” in Thai politics has become conventional wisdom, with seemingly little effort to bring it into the light.
Last month, the amnesty bill died in both Houses of Parliament with many of Ms Yingluck’s supporters voting against it. But the opposition had smelt blood, and went in for the jugular.
What is striking is that, in the absence of the amnesty bill, there is very little coherent policy to either side – except as defined by opposition to the other. Ms Yingluck’s party has proposed a constitutional amendment that might favour it in senatorial elections, but she is much more readily identified as a proxy for her controversial brother than for her policies.
Similarly, Mr Suthep has formulated some vague goals of “cleaning up” Thai politics. Certainly, the political sphere is steeped in endemic graft and vote-buying, and Mr Thaksin is perceived as an exemplar of that rot, accused of everything from skimming on government contracts to rigging national legislation to favour his business interests.
But there is a certain irony to Mr Suthep’s campaign. He is perhaps best known for his role in a 1995 corruption scandal involving the distribution of land deeds, which subsequently led to the collapse of the government led by his Democratic Party.
The most easily discernible driving force in Thai politics is simple hatred: the long-abiding hatred of Mr Thaksin, the post-2010 hatred of Democrat leaders and, most worryingly, the hatred seen between apparently ordinary Thais on Saturday.
Anti-government protesters continued their push to occupy government buildings, as Ms Yingluck’s government denied it would dissolve parliament. But members of her party, Pheu Thai, have said it was an option of last resort. What qualifies as a last resort in Thailand today is an open question.
All the while, amid a resurgent political crisis, the capital buzzes on in many areas unaffected. One gets the sense that the vast majority of Thais do not care or are simply tired of the protests, the headaches, the traffic jams, the violence. Many would prefer to spend their Monday evening at the shops or home with the family. For this silent majority in Bangkok, the political classes have failed them miserably.
Jeremy Walden-Schertz is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok