In the Name of the People? Political protests in Thailand and the underlying conflict

What started as protests against a controversial amnesty bill has sparked new rounds of political conflict along deep ideological divisions that touch upon questions of Thai identity and transitional change, leading to fears of bloodshed and even civil war.

After a series of large protests in Bangkok by anti-government protesters in November and December of 2013, the Thai government – led by “caretaker”[1] Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – dissolved the parliament and announced snap elections for February 2, 2014. Nevertheless, the opposition continues to occupy the capital and is threatening to “shut down” Bangkok in January[2]. The protests have been accompanied by widespread rumors of a coup as well as social tensions.

Red and yellow: Thailand’s political divide

The last time Thais went to the streets was in 2010, when anti-government protesters, the so-called red shirts, were rising up against the ruling Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejajiva, and his Democrat Party, which came to power after a military coup that toppled Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai Party.

Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire, was Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006 and the first Prime Minister ever to be reelected in the history of Thailand. His politics reached out to the rural peoples in the northeast and north of Thailand, representing the majority of the population. His family roots are in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Thaksin politicized them through populist policies that aimed to reduce rural poverty and by providing microcredit development funds and universal healthcare. The support he gained from the rural Thais shifted political power away from the capital, Bangkok, for the first time.

As Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul writes: “The royalist elite denounced his political agenda, accusing him of populism and vote buying. However, the transformation of the rural population out of extreme poverty and illiteracy not only was a boon for the country but also paved the way for Thaksin’s political popularity.”[3] During his premiership, Thaksin was accused of large-scale corruption, vote buying, and grave human rights violations, which include more than 2,000 extrajudicial killings while fighting his so-called war on drugs. He is also held responsible for escalating the ongoing violent conflict in the Muslim-majority provinces in the south.

In 2006 large crowds of protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the so-called yellow shirts, comprised mostly of the conservative urban middle-class, demanded the end of Thaksin’s rule and the dissolution of his party. He was ousted during a peaceful coup on September 19, 2006, which marked the 18th coup in the history of Thailand since its transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Since 2006 Thaksin has been living in self-imposed exile in Dubai, but still pulls the strings in Thai politics.

Elections were held in 2007 and Thaksin’s renamed party was elected into government. The government was in place only a few months before the yellow shirts staged massive protests and blocked airports. A “judicial coup” led to the dissolution of Thaksin’s party, which was found guilty of electoral fraud. The Democrat Party, the oldest political party in the country, was then able to form a government, with Abhisit as the appointed Prime Minister. The rule of the unelected Democrats, in turn, triggered large protests by red shirts, who occupied the city’s economic center for weeks in March and April of 2010. The army cracked down on protesters, leaving 92 people dead and more than 1,800 injured. Thailand was further divided along red and yellow lines and was deeply traumatized by the violence.

After years of conflict, it is noticeable that the color-coded division into red and yellow follows regional, ideological, and class identities: The reds are mostly from lower-income rural populations in the north and northeast and speak with a Lanna (northern Thai) or Lao (northeastern Thai) accent. The majority of them favor Thaksin, since they benefitted from his social and economic policies. However, the red shirts are not limited to only farmers, but also include “urbanized villagers” from the lower-middle class.[4] The yellow shirts are mostly members of the Bangkok middle class and Thais from the upper south who support the Democrat Party and perceive Thaksin as a threat to the monarchy, their economic privileges, and their political influence.

Elections were finally held in July 2011, in which the Democrat Party, led by Abhisit, was contesting Thaksin’s renamed Pheu Thai Party, led by Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Pheu Thai won with a majority of the votes due to its strongholds in the rural north and northeast. Yingluck, with a business career but no previous experience in politics, was called a puppet of her brother Thaksin by critics and the opposition party.

Reconciliation was one of the central pillars of Pheu Thai’s election campaign. However, the attempted reconciliation discourse failed to unite the deeply divided country – in fact , the society drifted even further apart.

Passing of a bill sparks protests from all sides

At the beginning of November 2013, the Pheu Thai Party tried to pass the controversial amnesty bill, which allegedly was intended to bring reconciliation to the deeply divided political camps after years of political turmoil. The bill would grant amnesty to individuals accused of politically motivated offenses since the coup of 2006. Included in drag net style impunity scheme would have been Thaksin; the yellow-shirt protesters and leaders who seized the airport in 2008; the red shirts who fought the Abhisit government; and the army and ministers who were responsible for ordering the killing of protesters in 2010. The passing of the bill through the lower house caused a large outcry from different political factions and triggered large street protests: The Democrat Party and opposition claimed that the sole purpose of the bill was to bring Thaksin back to Thailand, and they rallied vehemently against it. The red shirts, who were the base of the Pheu Thai Party, also partly opposed the bill because it would clear all those perpetrators who were responsible for the deaths during the protests in 2010. Expressing their anger at different rallying sites, protestors from different political camps took to the streets.

Senator Rosana Tositrakul, a partner of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in its energy program, told the press during the protests: “I cannot accept this bill, not only because the people have come out to oppose it, but because it is unconstitutional.”[5] The bill was eventually rejected by the upper house, the Thai Senate. Nevertheless, the yellow-shirt protestors did not leave the streets. Further charter amendments sparked an outcry and intensified the anti-government protests.

Anti-democracy protestors call for appointed government

Suthep Thaugsuban, the former Democrat Party Deputy Prime Minister, emerged as the leader of the anti-government protesters, who declared to fight “Thaksinism” and eradicate Thaksin’s influence in politics once and for all. The protestors, who are claiming to fight for the eradication of corruption in the political system, seem to be happy to ignore the fact that Suthep is mired in allegations of bribery himself. Moreover, he is facing murder charges for his role in the deadly crackdown on red-shirt protestors in 2010.

Large crowds in the hundreds of thousands gathered in “flash mob” protests throughout the city in front of government buildings and major public places, blowing whistles to express their anger. Whereas in the beginning, the crowd represented a large cross-section of Thai society in terms of social backgrounds and political leanings, the people who remain on the street are closely linked to the yellow shirts. They form an alliance of groups that predominantly consist of the urban middle class and people from the south. Suthep and other former Democrat Members of Parliament call their movement the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).The call to eradicate the “Thaksin regime” seems to be the common denominator and the only clear goal of the movement.

In a survey conducted by the Asia Foundation at the end of November 2013, red- and yellow-shirt protestors were asked about their motivations to occupy the streets. A clear majority of the PDRC supporters said that they wanted to end Shinawatra’s influence in politics, followed by the protection of the monarchy; 46 percent of PDRC supporters would accept a strong leader who is not elected, whereas 50 percent belief democracy would be the best model of governance. To end this conflict, 44 percent of PDRC supporters agreed to replace the government with a “People’s Council.” The poll indicated clearly that the yellow-shirt protestors would be willing to trade their votes for an appointed council comprising of what Suthep called “good people.”[6] Notwithstanding the visibility of the protests in the capital, the whistleblowers only speak for a minority in the country, which has a population of almost 70 million. The attitudes of some of the protestors expressed in the media show the deep divide in the country. Some of the protestors were referring to government supporters from the northeast as uneducated, or even stupid, unable to understand democracy: “These people are very low in mentality. They don’t understand things.”[7] Moreover, rural people have been labeled as second-class citizens: “We are rich and our children are educated in Bangkok. They [the government supporters] are poor, uneducated and have been bought out by Thaksin and his lot.”[8]

The PDRC movement is campaigning for the installation of a vaguely defined “People’s Council,” which would be comprised of hand-picked “morally good” people and a royally appointed Prime Minister. Academic Andrew Walker called Suthep’s proposal “a recipe for civil conflict” that would further divide Thai society[9]. After deadly clashes between anti-government protestors, government supporters, and security forces in December, in which eight people were killed, Prime Minister Yingluck gave in and dissolved the parliament to call for snap elections for February 2, 2014.

The Democrat Party – the only serious opposition to Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party – has not won an election since 1992. Knowing that the Democrats have little chance of gaining an upper hand in free and fair polls – and frustrated by their regular defeats against the emerging political powers from the rural areas – the Democrats and their Bangkok-based supporters are boycotting the February elections. “Democracy has not worked for the Democrats” is how The Economist[10] described this phenomenon in an ironic remark. In a show of strong defiance, yellow-shirt protesters began to obstruct candidate registration by blocking access to temporary registration offices. It is still not clear if elections can proceed as planned.


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Media, freedom of expression and the conflict

Through social media and TV stations, the protesters’ demands spread rapidly. Social media turned quickly into an arena for hate speech and demeaning accusations. The German journalist Nick Nostiz, who had reported on Thailand’s previous political conflicts, was singled out by a Member of Parliament on stage during a protest, labeled as a red-shirt reporter, and was subsequently beaten up by protestors. An online witch hunt against Nostiz spread through social media. Foreign media coverage of the protests has been closely monitored by the protestors and routinely denounced as being biased and devoid of any knowledge about “Thai reality.” Efforts by the yellow-shirt supporters to broadcast their political views to an international audience include protest signs in English (“Stop Thaksinomics,” “No more Shin”) and “A message from Thailand to the World” on YouTube. Moreover, protesters invaded major private and public TV stations and forced the broadcasting of anti-government speeches.

A statement by the NGO Coordinating Committee on Development (NGO-COD), comprised of several hundred civil society groups, called for non-violence and opposed a military coup. In the same statement, the NGO-COD urged the Election Commission to postpone the elections. This statement demonstrated once again how divided Thai society is. Thai civil society only managed to settle for the lowest common denominators – non-violence and no coup.

Ahead of the 86th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on December 5, the protests came to a temporary halt to allow for nationwide celebrations. In his anticipated speech, the King did not address the violent conflict but called for unity of the country. The public appearance of the aging and fragile regent further sparked discussions and fears about the future of the monarchy, which cannot be openly discussed in the country. The King has been on the throne for more than 60 years, unifying the country in times of crisis in the past as the beacon of Thai identity. He is highly respected and loved by the Thai people, but his old age and ongoing health issues raise the question of succession.

The underlying power struggle – the view of Thai analysts

The raging conflict is a symptom of the underlying changes that Thailand has been going through, which include socio-economic changes and the anxiously anticipated change in the role of the monarchy.

Bangkok is the stronghold of the old elites closely affiliated with the monarchy. For decades centralized politics and vested business interests have focused on the capital. Decisions were made by the royalist army, backed by elites, ensuring their stranglehold over the political and economic power in the rest of the country.

New financially influential players such as Thaksin have emerged and are challenging the old elites and their powerbase. Confronted with an increasingly confident political opposition and economic growth in the north and northeast, the old elites fear losing their traditional power. In defiance against a democratically elected government, these elites are rallying in the streets. Academic Thitinan Pongsudhirak remarks concisely in his comment in the Bangkok post: “Thailand’s problem is that those who keep winning elections are not allowed to rule, whereas others who ultimately call the shots cannot win elections,”[11] referring to the Pheu Thai Party winning elections, but the old elites are still pulling the strings.

Historian Thongchai Winichakul argues that Thaksin’s popularity is threatening the royalist elites. Thongchai further elaborates that Thaksin derives his power through his independence from the military and elitist circles in the capital, which is made possible by his popularity, power, and wealth. Intensified by the uncertainty over the issue of succession, the ongoing power struggle in Thailand is explosive, according to Thongchai.[12] Academic Duncan McCargo also highlights that a proper analysis of the role of the monarchy is the key to understanding the ongoing conflict. McCargo coined the term “Network Monarchy” to illustrate how political power in Thailand is being brokered through a network of proxies. The ongoing conflict can then be seen as the surfacing of the power struggle between the monarchy and Thaksin, which has been simmering since the coup of 2006.

The way out?

Regional, class, and ideological differences have further widened in the years since the 2006 coup. Due to the radicalization of the political discourse and a general inability of the main actors to seek inclusive solutions, the ongoing protests are sparking fears of further bloodshed, even secession and civil war. The complexity of the color division has increased with the emergence of a variety of other voices, particularly among the red shirts, resulting in the creation of “different shades of red.” Some red-shirt leaders are no longer Thaksin supporters but rather see the movement as a vehicle for more substantive political change. New movements have formed, such as the “white shirts,” who support the planned elections. In light of these developments, the conflict appears much more complex than the classical red-versus-yellow or poor-against-rich schools of explanation may suggest. One growing movement bringing some hope of solving the conflict is comprised of a group of activists leading the so-called We Vote movement, which differentiates itself from red and yellow. They are calling for a peaceful solution to the protests and support the planned elections on February 2 through gatherings throughout Bangkok, holding candles, and presenting slogans calling for the right for their voices to be heard directly instead of through an appointed council.

The government has recently imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces to deal with intensifying conflicts following two recent bomb explosions at protest sites. The decree authorizes the military to help police forces to control the protest situation and will last for 60 days. Social and political tensions have increased further, instilling doubts about the feasibility of – and institutional support for – the February elections.

Multiple interest groups such as the monarchy, the new and old elites, business leaders, academics, the middle class, and politicized rural voices are mingled together in this conflict. A way out of this deadlock is impossible to foresee. While a coup might bring a temporary calm before a possible storm, but elections will not silence the protestors. Thailand is facing an uncertain future.


[1] Yingluck stepped down as Prime Minister, but chose to keep her position as the “care taker” until she is replaced by a successor.

[2] The “shut down” started on January 13 when the opposition blocked several key road junctions in the capital.

[4] Naruemon Thabchumpon and Duncan McCargo: “Urbanized Villagers in the 2010 Thai Redshirt Protests – Not Just Poor Farmers”;