Understanding Thailand’s Political Unrest and U.S. Interests

Tens of thousands have gathered in the streets of Bangkok since early November, when the ruling Pheu Thai party tried to pass a highly contentious amnesty bill that would have paved the way for ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s return to Thailand. The Thai Senate rejected the bill due to widespread public opposition, but anti-government sentiment escalated further following a Constitutional Court ruling that a proposed change to the Senate’s makeup was unconstitutional.

Protesters are now calling for purging from government those linked to Thaksin, especially his sister and current prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and changing the democratic system to prevent their return to power. More than 100,000 protesters rallied in Bangkok on November 24. They have since occupied government ministries across the city and halted operations at others. The protests turned ugly on November 30 when clashes between protesters and government supporters left five dead and more than 200 injured.

The December 5 birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has provided a brief respite, as both sides agreed to a truce for the celebrations. In his highly anticipated annual address, Bhumibol called on all citizens of Thailand to seek unity for the good of the country, but he did not directly address the current crisis. Pro- and anti-government forces are now poised to return to the standoff, with no end in sight.

Q1: Who is leading the protests and what are their goals?

A1: Former Democrat Party lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban has been the de facto leader of the protests since he resigned from his post in Parliament on November 11 to spearhead the anti-government Civil Movement for Democracy. Suthep is a veteran politician who served as deputy prime minister from 2008 to 2011. He has become the protests’ most acerbic leader, demanding that Thailand’s electoral democracy be replaced with an unelected “people’s council” that would appoint government leaders.

The protesters themselves are a loose coalition of monarchists, religious conservatives, established elites, and members of the middle class, mostly centered around Bangkok. They see Thaksin and his populist agenda as a threat to the status quo. Besides Suthep and the Democrat Party, key players include the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy and the student-led Network of Students and Citizens for Reforms.

Q2: How have the government and military responded?

A2: The government has been cautious in confronting the demonstrations. Security forces have for the most part avoided confronting protesters, except to guard key government posts. Ahead of the king’s birthday, they partially abandoned even that strategy, dismantling barricades and allowing protesters to add Government House, where the prime minister’s office is located, and the Metropolitan Police Headquarters to the list of occupied sites. Yingluck has said she is willing to negotiate with the protesters, but she has refused to step down or call an election and has rejected Suthep’s proposal of a “people’s council” as unconstitutional.

Yingluck is wary of taking any actions that could spark the kind of widespread violence seen in 2010, when Democrat Party prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva ordered a crackdown on mostly pro-Thaksin protesters, resulting in nearly 100 deaths. Such chaos could lead to a military intervention and her government’s downfall.

The Thai military has so far declared its neutrality. Commander-in-chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha on November 30 rejected the demonstrators’ request to stage a coup and instead arranged a meeting between Yingluck and Suthep. That meeting did not result in any breakthroughs.

The country’s criminal court on December 2 issued an arrest warrant against Suthep on charges of insurrection. Warrants relating to the seizure of government buildings have also been issued against other protest leaders. So far, the police have proven unwilling to provoke a clash by arresting the leaders.

Q3: How might the standoff end?

A3: The government clearly hopes that Suthep will fail to rally the number of supporters after most took a break to celebrate King Bhumibol’s birthday. If that happens, government forces will reoccupy the seized ministries, and the immediate crisis will subside. This is by far the best option and perhaps the only one that offers a chance to preserve democratic rule.

In the longer term, Yingluck and her government will have to trim back the populist policies that sparked the current round of instability, thereby accommodating the fears of the Bangkok and southern elites. Otherwise, there will be another round of instability around the corner.

If Suthep and the other protest leaders can regain their momentum, the standoff will escalate. Yingluck is unlikely to step down, and she is certainly unwilling to dismantle the electoral system as Suthep has demanded. Continued violence will likely prompt Thaksin’s supporters in the northern and northeastern provinces to travel to Bangkok in larger numbers, joining the already sizeable pro-government counterprotests. This will likely lead to further clashes.

The wild card remains the military. It came under severe international scrutiny, including temporary U.S. sanctions, after it overthrew Thaksin in 2006. Worse, the cycle of violence since proved that the coup solved nothing. The generals are clearly reticent about using force again, but their patience is not unlimited. Ultimately, whether the army decides to step in depends on the events of the coming days and weeks.

Q4: How have the protests affected Thailand’s economy?

A4: The protests have already had a deleterious effect on Thailand’s economy. The Bank of Thailand cut its 2013 economic growth projection from 3.7 percent to 3 percent. A growing number of countries have issued travel warnings as the peak tourist season approaches, which could damage the sector that accounts for 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Thailand’s permanent secretary for finance, Rangsan Sriworasart, warned on December 3 that international credit rating firms are likely to lower the country’s BBB+ credit rating if protests continue.

In the longer run, continuing cycles of instability could cause large foreign companies, primarily those in the high-tech manufacturing sector, to reconsider their operations in Thailand. Known as the “Detroit of the East,” Thailand has risen to become a vital manufacturing and assembly hub of hard-disk drives and automobiles for Japanese and Western firms. But with neighboring countries in Southeast Asia more focused on implementing structural reforms and moving up the value chain, a reputation for perpetual political unrest would definitely hurt Thailand’s competitiveness and attractiveness to foreign investment in the future.

In addition, the more energy Thai leaders spend on fighting each other, the less time they will have to devote to upgrading the country’s infrastructure and promoting economic integration between Bangkok and other parts of the country. The entrenched wealth gap between the old elites and the rural poor has long been at the root of Thailand’s political crisis.

Q5: How should the United States and other friends respond?

A5: The U.S. State Department said it is concerned about the political tension in Thailand and urged “all sides to refrain from violence, exercise restraint, and respect the rule of law.” This was much the same response Washington gave in 2006, and it was inadequate then. The United States’ leverage is limited, but there are still steps it can take.

The Thai military is fully aware that, in the case of another coup, Washington will be legally obligated to cut off aid, just as it did following the 2006 coup. But beyond that, it is important that the United States invest extra time and energy in relating to the Thai military at all levels. Without a doubt, the military will play a decisive role in how the current crisis is resolved and in Thailand’s longer-term political future more generally.

In addition, the United States will want to fully engage the Thai people and civil society across the board in areas that are not political. It is critical that U.S. officials not ignore Thailand while it goes through this crisis. Senior U.S. officials should look for opportunities to engage the business community, the military, and other sectors of the society. And when cabinet members visit Asia, as Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker is expected to do soon, they should stop in Bangkok as a sign of continuing interest in and engagement with Thailand despite the ongoing political standoff.

Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Phuong Nguyen is a research associate and Noelan Arbis a researcher with the Sumitro Chair.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

Phuong Nguyen and Noelan Arbis