Thailand: cold comfort for a prime minister in dire need of support
Cold weather is not something many people associate with Bangkok, a south-east Asian metropolis that swelters and sweats its way through much of the year.
Over the last few weeks however, city residents have been dusting off their jackets and re-discovering their jumpers in an attempting to ward off the unusually low temperatures.
The weather is not the only thing causing discomfort though.
Thailand’s political crisis is well into its third month and the mood between the main protagonists is getting increasingly icy.
Today, the embattled administration of Yingluck Shinawatra imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok in what may be an attempt to assert more control over the country’s capital city.
Anti-government protestors have been occupying roads and major intersections, holding large rallies and directing and redirecting traffic for the last couple of weeks.
The emergency decree gives the Prime Minister a range of new powers – like imposing curfews, arresting and detaining suspects and even demolishing buildings – but protestors did not seem to take any notice of it today.
One group of demonstrators marched to Royal Thai Police headquarters, destroying signage and spraying graffiti on walls outside the complex.
Elsewhere in the city, protestors marched to a defence ministry building where Ms Yingluck was meeting with her security team, forcing her to leave for another, unknown location.
Herein lies the big problem with the government’s state of emergency — the demonstrators, who accuse the Prime Minister and her billionaire brother Thaksin of corruption, do not think the she has the will – or the even the ability to use it.
Ultimately, Yingluck would require the army to enforce the decree, but with some senior officers thought sympathetic to the protestors, the fear in government circles is that a prolonged bout of violence on the streets would invite a military coup.
The head of the Thai military, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, did little to dampen speculation about such event today, when he told reporters: “if the situation escalates to a level where it cannot be resolved, the military will have no choice but to solve it.”
The government’s policy of non-confrontation was in full effect as we exited Bangkok this afternoon.
There were no police or military personnel to be seen, in this shivering, upside down city – just protesters in parkas, holding rallies, and holding court in the centre of town.
Yet it is important to remember that the anti-government movement, propelled by the middle and upper classes in Bangkok, form a minority in this country.
The majority in Thailand consist of the rural and semi-rural poor – people who live and make their livings well outside the capital.
The Shinawatra family has worked hard to win them over, with populist policies like food subsidies and virtually-free health care and in return, they have been rewarded with five successive election victories.
But Yingluck Shinawatra wants to stay in power, she is going to need their support more than ever.
On the first day of our travels through Thailand, we found mounting discontent with Prime Minister Yingluck and her Pheu Thai party.
Not unlike the capital, small protests have been popping up around the countryside with Thai farmers complain that they have not been paid under a flagship rice subsidy scheme. We found one such group, holding up traffic on the six-lane “Asia Highway”.
Their leader told me that some farmers have not been paid in over four months.
The government has long been able to count on the support of farmers but these protests come at a crucial time. With national elections called for 2 Feburary, Yingluck needs a ringing endorsement from the electorate in rural areas.
Her influence and very legitimacy in any future negotiations (with her political opponents — or the army) will depend on the number of people willing to demonstrate their support at the polls.
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