Demonstrations kicked off in November after Thailand’s lower house passed a controversial amnesty bill which critics said could allow former leader Thaksin Shinawatra to return without serving time in jail. Mr Thaksin, one of the most polarising characters in Thai politics, was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He now lives in self-imposed exile overseas after being convicted of corruption, but remains popular with many rural voters. The amnesty bill, which was proposed by his sister Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party, was eventually rejected by the Senate. However, anti-government protests continued.
The protesters are united by their opposition to Mr Thaksin, and their belief that he is still controlling the current Pheu Thai government. The demonstrations are being led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Thai deputy prime minister who resigned from the opposition Democrat Party to lead the rallies. The protesters tend to be urban and middle-class voters. About 100,000 rallied in Bangkok on 24 November, when the campaign kicked off. The protests were largely peaceful for the first week but turned deadly when violence broke out near a pro-government red-shirt rally on 30 November. At least nine people have been killed since then. There was a pause in the protests to mark the 86th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, but protesters then returned to the streets.
Thaksin-allied parties have won the last five elections, because of their rural support base. Mr Suthep and his supporters say they want to wipe out the “political machine of Thaksin” and install an unelected “people’s council” to reform the political system. The protesters say the government has been buying votes with irresponsible spending pledges aimed at its support base – thereby creating a flawed democracy and harming the Thai economy.
On 8 December, all opposition MPs in parliament resigned. Protesters said they would march on Government House, the prime minister’s office, the next day. In response, Ms Yingluck called a snap election for 2 February. Her Pheu Thai party commands significant support, especially with rural voters, and was seen as likely to win the polls. The opposition Democratic Party has said it will boycott the election, and the protesters have being trying to disrupt electoral registration. They have also, since 13 January, blocked key road junctions in Bangkok in what they are calling a shutdown. The Constitutional Court has since ruled that the polls can be legally postponed – but that any delay must have the agreement of the election commission and the prime minister. The government, however, insists elections should go ahead as planned. On 8 January, meanwhile, Thailand’s anti-corruption body said it would charge more than 300 politicians – mostly from the ruling party – over an attempt to make the Senate fully elected. This could ultimately lead to the lawmakers being banned from politics.
The anti-corruption body also said on 16 January that it was investigating Ms Yingluck in connection with a controversial government rice subsidy scheme – a move that could potentially force Ms Yingluck from politics. There have been violent incidents, with both the pro-government and anti-government sides blaming each other for the attacks. In response, Ms Yingluck imposed a 60-day state of emergency in Bangkok and three surrounding provinces starting on 22 January. But it is not clear to what extent this will be enforced, given the military’s cool attitude towards Ms Yingluck’s government.
Ms Yingluck warned early on that further protests could cause the economy to deteriorate. Protests in 2008 and 2010 hit Thailand’s economy hard, especially the business and tourism sectors. This time, several countries have issued travel warnings for Thailand. (C) BBC 2014