The current street demonstrations in Bangkok are best understood as a continuation of a political upheaval dating back to 2006 and the ousting of the elected caretaker government of Thaksin Shinawatra by an army coup. Subsequent events, most notably the Yellow Shirt occupation of Bangkok's airports in 2008 and the bloody suppression of the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok in 2010 have not resolved the fundamental split in Thai politics: that is, the refusal of many of those associated with the Democrat Party to accept that Thailand's government should be formed by the party that wins the majority of votes in an election.
As the ANU's Andrew Walker has pointed out recently, the Democrats have not won an election since 1992.
It is against this background that opponents of the current government of Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, most notably Suthep Thaugsuban, are repeating variants of previous calls for the country to be run by some form of unelected council or assembly. The flip side of this proposal is the unabashed claim that the sort of people who voted for Thaksin were not sufficiently educated to understand the intricacies of national politics.
Suthep, who was deputy prime minister in the unelected government installed after the 2006 army coup, is a man with a colourful past. During the 2010 crisis he was a consistent advocate of a hardline approach to the Red Shirt protest occupation in Bangkok. His current role in leading the anti-Yingluck protests disguises the fact that those taking to the streets are far from united in their aims, beyond bringing the government down.
As has been repeatedly noted by close observers of Thailand’s politics, the country has changed dramatically over the past two or three decades, with the population living outside Bangkok demanding a voice. The spread of education and the improvement in living standards beyond the capital means rural voters have become a powerful force.
People such as Suthep want to turn back the clock to a time when the Bangkok elite quarelled among themselves as to who should run the country. But that period is over. The concern now must be that in this striving to return to the past, there are risks of a repeat of the sort of events that took place in 2010 when some 90 people died as the Red Shirt protests were routed.
Photo by REUTERS/Dylan Martinez.