A cloud of dread hangs over the elections on February 2 to chose a new parliament for Thailand. The old one was dissolved earlier in December by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a move that was calculated to defuse violent demonstrations demanding her ouster.
The prime minister grossly underestimated the protesters’ rage. They have long harbored suspicions that she is the puppet of her brother, Thaksin, the prime minister until he was overthrown by the military seven years ago.
An attempt by Yingluck and her associates in parliament to pass a law that would have cleared Thaksin of corruption charges and paved the way for his return further inflamed her detractors.
The protesters have said they will not participate in the February elections, which many observers believe Shinawatra and her supporters will win handily. Thaksin had been extremely popular among the Thai masses and his sister rode that wave of popularity to wrest control in the parliament.
The protesters are calling instead for the establishment of a “people’s council” that will put in place sweeping reforms in government designed to break the Shinawatras’ stranglehold on power.
The mechanics for installing a people’s council is vague, but for the anti-government demonstrators that is a minor concern.
They have in fact have become more aggressive, besieging a number of candidate registration centers in an effort to disrupt the election process.
The anti-government rallies have been growing increasingly bloody. Last week a gunman fired at an opposition rally, killing one demonstrator and wounding several others. Just days earlier two protesters were killed and 140 injured in street clashes with the police.
Neither Shinawatra nor the protesters are backing down, pushing Thailand closer to the brink of a dangerous crisis.
In the past, only two institutions had prevented the country from sliding into anarchy: the army and the monarchy.
Thailand’s military is no stranger to regime changes, having successfully staged 11 coups since the 1930s. The last time was in 2009, when the army banished Thaksin Shinawatra.
So far, the generals have stayed out of the current turmoil. “Please don’t bring the army into the center of this conflict,” the army chief has implored, as he urged both sides in the political dispute for restraint.
How long the military stays neutral is anybody’s guess, but the army chief himself has dropped some hints when he said, “The door is neither closed nor open. In every situation, anything can happen.”
If the impasse is not broken, King Bhumipol Adulyadej might have to step in. The 86-year-old monarch wields no actual political power, but he is revered by his subjects, and to them his word is law.
But King Bhumipol is ailing, and there is talk that after ruling for six decades he might be giving up the throne soon. And the king will not act unless there is a resounding clamor for him to take a direct hand in resolving the dispute.
The Philippines must closely follow developments in Thailand. The kingdom is our partner in ASEAN and any civil strife there could impact on the entire region.
The fallout from a financial crash that started in Thailand in 1998 wiped out whatever gains the Philippines reaped from an economic upswing.
We do not want to be blindsided this time.