BANGKOK – Anti-government protesters in Thailand are blocking key intersections in the heart of Bangkok in an attempt to bring the government to a standstill and force the prime minister to quit. Here are some questions and answers about the political unrest:
Q: Why are demonstrators demanding that the prime minister resign and that elections scheduled for Feb. 2 not be held?
A: They say Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government is carrying on the practices of Thaksin Shinawatra, her billionaire brother who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, by using the family fortune and state funds to influence voters and cement its power. They want political reforms before any elections are held.
Q: What measures are the protesters suggesting as a remedy?
A: Protest leaders, who call themselves the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, want the government to hand over power to an unelected “people’s council,” a group of 300 people chosen by organizations representing various professions and 100 of their own nominees. The council would amend laws to fight corruption and institute other reforms, while an appointed prime minister would help administer the country for up to two years.
Q: Why do they want to force Yingluck to quit?
A: They regard Yingluck as a stand-in for her brother Thaksin, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 after street protests accusing him of corruption and abuse of power. He fled into exile in 2008 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a conflict of interest conviction.
Q: How long have the protests been going on?
A: The latest round of protests started about two months ago. But Thailand has been riven by political tension and periodic protests since the 2006 coup.
Q: What is the government’s position?
A: The government says it is willing to hold talks immediately with all parties on political reforms, and begin a defined process to institute them if re-elected.
Q: What kinds of reforms are being proposed?
A: The protesters have not been specific about the reforms they would implement, aside from the direct election of governors who are now appointed by the central government, and vague suggestions about making the police more accountable to the people. Yingluck’s administration sought to make the upper house of Parliament fully rather than partially elected, but courts and state oversight agencies, which share the protesters’ anti-Thaksin sentiments, scuttled the plan.
Q: How much support do the protesters have?
A: As many as 200,000 people have joined the biggest of the opposition protests in the past two months, making them the largest in decades. The demonstrators are mainly middle class, and are generally backed by big business and the financial elite. They include a large contingent of people from southern Thailand, a stronghold of the opposition Democrat Party, which is closely allied with the protest movement and is boycotting the elections.
Q: Who are the government’s supporters?
A: Thaksin and his political allies have easily won every national election since 2001, with Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party winning a majority of lower house seats in 2011. Pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” activists staged their own disruptive protests in Bangkok in 2010 against a Democrat-led government. Thaksin draws support from the lower and lower middle classes, mostly rural people who benefited from his populist policies, including virtually free health care.
Q: Where does the military stand?
A: The army has been a potent force in Thai politics, staging about a dozen successful coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. But its last two interventions, in 1991 and 2006, destabilized the country and hurt its own reputation. Army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has declared the military neutral in the current political conflict, but his disinclination to suppress the sometimes violent protests shows a tilt against Yingluck’s administration.
Q: How violent have the protests been?
A: At least eight people have been killed over the past two months, including police and Red Shirt supporters. Although the protesters profess to be nonviolent, they have thrown rocks and small homemade explosives at police. Their tactics have a twofold purpose: to elicit a violent response by police to win public sympathy, and to make the situation chaotic and prompt the army to step in to restore order.
Q: How will the conflict be resolved?
A: The protesters have refused to negotiate with the government. Yingluck says her caretaker administration is legally obliged to carry out its duties and hold the elections. Even if the polls are held, Parliament may fail to achieve a quorum and be unable to convene because the protesters blocked candidates’ registrations in several provinces. A military coup remains a possibility, but more likely is a “judicial coup” by the courts that could force Yingluck from office for alleged corruption or violations of the constitution. – By The Associated Press