The Political Situation: a quick introduction

You might know that there’s some political upheaval in Thailand at the moment. Because people have been asking: we’re not in any sort of danger. There are a lot of protests, but they’re mainly happening well to the north of us; the closest place that anything has happened is Sathorn Road, two miles away. As of today, however, the protesters have declared their intention to occupy the zoo (strategically located right next to Parliament), so there is some disruption in our lives.

Thai politics are complicated and somewhat hermetic, and reporting in the Western press doesn’t seem to be particularly good. (Nor, for that matter, are the local papers doing much better: today the Bangkok Post printed a letter to the editor about the obvious superiority of the original flavor of HP sauce.) But here’s a basic overview of what’s going on.

The prime minister of Thailand right now is a woman named Yingluck Shinawatra. She’s the sister of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who used to be prime minister until he was sent into exile on charges of corruption; now he’s living in Dubai. There’s the widespread belief that he continues to run the country through his sister. Their party is called Pheu Thai. Pheu Thai has draws most of their support from the rural poor, who have been generously rewarded with subsidies; there are allegations of wholesale vote buying.

Pheu Thai supporters are called the Red Shirts; the opposition are the Yellow Shirts. The Yellow Shirts have their name because they are monarchists and yellow is the color of the king (he was born on a Monday, and Monday’s color is yellow). The Yellow Shirts are the urban elite; they’re primarily in Bangkok and are the groups that have historically held power.

Now it’s worth pointing out that everyone involved in politics in Thailand is a monarchist; respect for the king ties the country together. On paper, however, the king has no real political power. (What’s actually the case is murky.) The Yellow Shirts’ position, as explained by their leader Suthep is that the king should have more power; they would prefer that there be less direct democracy (including voting for members of parliament). This would, in theory, mean an end to the wealthy buying votes; it would return rule in Thailand entirely to the urban elite.

Now! That’s who’s fighting; this has been the central argument in Thai politics for the past decade. The reason that protests started was initially because Yingluck introduced a bill that would have provided amnesty to politicians convicted of crimes; it would have allowed Thaksin to return to the country (and to politics). The bill was remarkably unpopular but stayed in play for longer than it should have; it was withdrawn this past week. But ire at Thaksinism was touched off, and the Yellow Shirts took up blowing whistles as loudly as possible at government buildings. The protests haven’t dissipated. In the past few days, things have escalated, as Red Shirts have been bused in from the countryside to launch counter-protests. The Yellow Shirts have been occupying government buildings with little effect; things do seem to be heating up, and the first real violence happened at a Red Shirt rally this evening.

That said, I’ll stress again that we’re in no real danger. Getting foreigners involved is advantageous to no one. A big player that hasn’t yet been involved is the military; there’s a good chance that this will end with a coup. Historically – coups happen regularly here – the involvement of the military makes that happen. December 5th is the king’s birthday, and everyone will take a break for that. The week after that should be decisive.

We’ve seen very little to indicate that anything will happen. This afternoon we passed a bunch of Red Shirts on their way to a rally at the national stadium; last week I mistakenly walked through the end of a Yellow Shirt rally, having imagined it was a street fair. Here’s a mural outside of Silpakorn University, the art school:


Maybe some explanation is useful. The crab is Yingluck – her nickname, a fairly common one, is Poo, which means crab. The vampire fangs are a nice touch. The hand controlling her is her brother, Thaksin; the bottle of Coke is the U.S. And it’s probably worth noting that just because this is anti-Thaksin, it’s not necessarily pro-Yellow Shirt: there are plenty of reason for people to be upset with the Shinawatras.

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