The recent protests in Bangkok echo the biblical story of Barabbas, narrated in all four gospels in its shockingly emblematic depiction of the power of mass emotion and political appeasement.
A Jewish mob roused by fanatics bayed for the blood of Jesus Christ. But the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, knowing the captive had done little except preach his own doctrine, was not obliging.
The fired-up rabble refused to relent, even after Pilate asked them three times to be conciliatory. Exasperated, he tried another tack and asked if he should release the tranquil Jesus—or Barabbas, a foul thug who had committed insurrection and murder.
“Give us Barabbas!” the crowd roared.
Barabbas in Bangkok
Barabbas just turned up in Bangkok. There angry crowds numbering more than 100,000 have been haranguing the duly elected government of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to make way for a foul-mouthed bunch led by their favorite thug, Suthep Thaugsuban.
The month-long confrontation saw the mob take over of the Finance Ministry building and assault the PM’s office, and the government survive a no-confidence vote. The unrelenting unrest, reminiscent of the 2010 riots in which some 90 were killed, has pushed Thailand to the brink—again.
The city siege has also been disruptive enough to make economy watchers, including the Asian Development Bank, mark down GDP growth forecasts, with predictable effects on the stock market and business confidence.
Finally, in a late attempt to mollify the mob, PM Yingluck dissolved Parliament last week and called new elections. As if giving the rabid rabble a taste of blood would make the horde calm down and stop growling for more.
Steeped in sleaze
The agent provocateur holding the detonator of Bangkok’s bombshell is steeped in the sleaze, rough and tumble of Thai politics. Suthep’s past anomalous dealings led to the downfall of then-Premier Chuan Leekpai’s Democrat Party-led government in 1995, and later, in another case of alleged illegality in 2009, Suthep’s disqualification as a member of Parliament.
Soon after, in his capacity as Deputy Prime Minister in the previous Democrat government, Suthep signed an order for troops to move against Red Shirt protesters in central Bangkok, leading to scores of civilian deaths.
Most recently, wearing his Nazi-like black-shirt uniform, the histrionic Suthep has been whipping up his lemming-like followers into an anarchic frenzy and urging them to occupy public buildings across the capital.
Actually, comparing him to Barabbas is perhaps unfair to Barabbas—and I say that advisedly, having interviewed Suthep many times and lunched regularly for years with his former sidekick, Likit Hongladarom.
Remote control regime
All that is not to suggest that Yingluck’s government is without fault. For starters, it has been unduly influenced by her elder brother, the former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 coup, then fled into exile to avoid going to prison for corruption.
Under Thaksin’s apparent direction, the Yingluck government has made profound political mistakes, notably over an ill-conceived scheme to pay rice farmers a guaranteed high price for their crop.
And it botched an attempt to pass a blanket amnesty bill which would have allowed Thaksin to return home without doing jail time. It would also have let Suthep off the hook for the murder charges he faces over the bloody 2010 protest suppression.
But in civilized society, mobs do not go on the rampage and politicians are not crucified for policy misjudgments. Instead, they face internal leadership challenges or no-confidence votes in the legislature.
In fact, Yingluck won a confidence vote handsomely last month, but had the vote gone the other way, she would have been obliged to call an election and let the people, young and old, rich and poor, decide her fate.
Now, under relentless pressure from Suthep’s mobs, she has effectively been forced to call polls anyway in the hope of bringing some measure of peace back to the capital. Fat chance.
Polls won’t stop the mob
Suthep’s Democrat Party, however, ostensibly led by the spineless puppet Abhisit Vejjajiva, will not even accept that alternative to the current unrest because it lacks enough support to win a general election.
Plainly, the only way it can come to power is by fomenting mobs to force military intervention, which then leads to a Democrat regime taking over, as in 2008—and as they clearly hope will happen now.
If it does not happen, then, as in 2006, they will boycott the coming February 2 election and later argue the poll was fraudulent because they did not take part—opening the door to more mob action.
It is a despicable cycle with no sign of ending.
Perhaps the only way out is to emulate Pilate and give the people a straight shout-it-out choice between Yingluck and Suthep.
The women and the poorer folks in the countryside will naturally go for Yingluck.
But the fat cats in Bangkok, the guys who decide these things, they’ll bellow: “Give us Suthep!”
So let ’em have him. It’ll serve them right.
Giving democracy a bad name
Let’s see how long they can tolerate his shady shenanigans, his endemic immorality, his pigsty mouth and gargantuan ego. It’s a fair bet that they’ll soon be calling nice Ms. Yingluck back.
Meanwhile, all that talk about Thailand getting set to join the ranks of developed, mature nations is quickly turning into a bad joke in search of a punchline.
And Bangkok’s protests are giving democracy and free expression a bad name, and its detractors in Hanoi and Beijing more reason to keep the citizenry on a very tight leash.
(Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.)