The mass protests in Thailand, which have caused 10 deaths and left nearly 600 people injured, have not been quelled by the calling of a snap election. On the contrary: yesterday Bangkok echoed to explosions and gunfire as the two sides, which should have been competing in the tranquillity of the polling stations, instead fought it out in the streets.
Thailand’s interludes of democratic rule have often been shattered by coups, but this time the army seems to have decided that politicians must sort things out for themselves. When even Burma, on Thailand’s border, ruled by the military for half a century, can take largely peaceful steps towards real democracy, it is humiliating and anachronistic for its far richer and more developed neighbour to show itself incapable.
Thailand is at an impasse because the party in power, Pheu Thai, is universally expected to win the current election, regardless of what happens on the streets, thereby cementing the domination of its billionaire founder, Thaksin Shinawatra. The protests were sparked by the attempt by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, the provisional Prime Minister, to pass a blanket amnesty which would have liquidated Thaksin’s 2008 conviction for abuse of power, paving the way for him to return from self-imposed exile. But although Thaksin remains immensely popular in rural northern Thailand where his populist policies helped to emancipate an impoverished part of the electorate long ignored and neglected, in Bangkok and among rubber-planters in the south he is loathed with equal passion.
But nobody believes the protesters can summon enough support to overturn Pheu Thai democratically. So their only hope is to prevent the election from taking place, precipitating some kind of coup and then persuading the new masters to install their wished-for, unelected “people’s council” which would have the task of expunging Thaksin’s influence.
However reasonable the protesters’ objections to the absent billionaire, these demands amount to a negation of democracy and are a recipe for yet more strife. It is time for both sides to step back from the brink, start talking and hammer out a compromise.