Thailand in 2014: The Trouble with Magic Swords
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Thailand in 2014
The Trouble with Magic Swords
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For Thais, 2014 could be divided into two distinct periods: pre-coup, and post-coup. Before 22 May, Thailand was chaotic; after 22 May, outwardly much more orderly. However, orderly at what price? During 2014, Thailand’s often contentious politics reached levels of conflict arguably not seen since the 1970s. Summarizing what happened is quite straightforward, but characterizing the conflict is more tricky. Superficially, there was a showdown between two rival power networks: the network aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (including his sister Yingluck, the Pheu Thai Party, the Red Shirt movement, elements of the business community, and the police) and the old power elite network aligned with the military (and including the palace, the Democrat Party, much of the bureaucracy, and the various “post-Yellow” movements). In this showdown, the military and their allies defeated the pro-Thaksin network by force, and then sought to consolidate their victory through lasting new political arrangements.

This interpretation assumes that the military and the Democrat Party were fast and firm friends with a common agenda. Another, and more troubling, possibility is that while Thaksin was especially disliked, the military harboured a deep distrust of all elected politicians, and has been profoundly unimpressed by the performance of the Democrats in recent years. In other words, the goal of the military is the “depoliticization” of Thai life, the creation of a public sphere in which contentious debates are permanently suppressed.1 Since this goal was unlikely be accomplished, the junta may have been setting itself up to fail. [End Page 337]

Restart Thailand?

Following a troubling attempt by her administration to push an unpopular amnesty bill through Parliament, Yingluck Shinawatra was confronted by a wave of street protests that forced her to dissolve Parliament in early December 2013.2 The rallies peaked on 13 January 2014, when the anti-Thaksin movement attempted “Bangkok Shutdown” at eleven key locations across the city. At their height in mid-January, the protests led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) mobilized hundreds of thousands of people; at their nadir, by late April, they probably comprised no more than a few thousand.3 The grouping popularly referred to as the PDRC was a repositioning or regrouping of a range of organizations that had long been discontented with Thaksin and his political machine.4 The PDRC — whose Thai name has been more literally translated as People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State5 — was formed on 29 November 2013. It was a rebranded version of the earlier movement against the Thaksin regime, including some supporters of the Democrat Party. Other elements of the wider movement included the more hard-line Network of Students and Citizens for Reforms (NSCR), and residual elements of the old People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

The main PDRC rally sites all featured campsites providing accommodation for core protesters, market areas selling a range of T-shirts and other protest paraphernalia and souvenirs, food and beverage stands providing donated refreshments, large stage areas and giant plasma TV screens. During the evenings popular entertainers gave free concerts interspersed with vitriolic speeches from Suthep and other prominent movement leaders, who toured the stages in quick succession. For around six weeks, the PDRC rallies had a festive atmosphere, drawing large evening crowds, including many people there as much for the entertainment as for the political messages.6 However, the crowds declined sharply during February following a number of fatal attacks on the rallies, apparently carried out by pro-government groups, notably three deaths (including two children) at the Ratchaprasong site on 23 February.7 The major businesses that initially underwrote the protests became increasingly concerned about adverse effects on the economy, tourism and consumer confidence.8 As support waned and financiers pulled the plug, Suthep was forced to wind down most PDRC rally sites, and retreated to a consolidated protest at Lumpini Park on 28 February. Following Yingluck’s removal from office (along with nine cabinet ministers) by the Constitution Court on 7 May,9 [End Page 338...