Thai democracy enters dangerous new crossroads
Protesters waging a surreal political fight to oust Thailand's elected prime minister are trying to establish what amounts to a parallel government - one complete with "security volunteers" to replace the police, a foreign policy of their own and a central committee that has already begun issuing audacious orders.
Among the most brazen: a demand Tuesday that caretaker premier Yingluck Shinawatra be prosecuted for "insurrection," and another calling on the public to "closely monitor" her family's movements.
Leading academics have slammed the scheme as undemocratic and unconstitutional. Critics have called its leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, delusional. But the ex-lawmaker's bid to seize power is backed by many in Bangkok and could become reality if the military or the judiciary intervenes, as they have in the past. Analysts say this Southeast Asian nation is at a dangerous new crossroads that could drag on, and end with more bloodshed.
"This is a combustible situation. We cannot have two governments in Bangkok running Thailand," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn's Institute of Security and International Studies. "Something will have to give."
Yingluck is desperate to end weeks of political unrest that has killed five people and wounded nearly 300 more. On Monday, she dissolved the lower house of Parliament and called for elections, now set for Feb. 2. But neither move defused the crisis, and a 150,000-strong crowd pressed on with a massive march against her in Bangkok.
Yingluck said Tuesday she would not resign despite a nighttime deadline issued by Suthep. But there was no hiding the nation's precarious state. Asked how she was holding up, tears welled in Yingluck's eyes.
"I have retreated as far as I can," she said, just before turning and walking quickly away.
The protesters accuse Yingluck's government of abuse of power and say her party has used its electoral majority to impose its will on a minority. They say Yingluck is merely a proxy for her billionaire brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction but still wields immense influence from abroad.
Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 army coup that laid bare a deeper societal conflict. On one side are Thailand's largely urban upper and middle classes, who along with staunch royalists want to end the Shinawatra family's grip on power. On the other side are the rural poor, who back the Shinawatras because they benefited policies that have brought them everything from electricity to free healthcare.
The coup triggered years of political upheaval and dramatic changes in government have underscored the power of Bangkok's elite.
Controversial judicial rulings removed two pro-Thaksin prime ministers in 2008, one of whom never set foot in his Government House office: He worked for 10 weeks out of the VIP lounge of the capital's old airport until protesters evicted him from there, too. The same year, army-backed parliamentary maneuvering allowed the opposition Democrat Party - a minority that has not won an election for more than two decades - to take power for several years.
Yingluck led the ruling Pheu Thai Party to victory in 2011 elections. But anger against her government swelled after the lower house passed an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return without going to jail. The measure was rejected in the upper house, and Yingluck has said it will not be revived.
Protesters say Pheu Thai lost its right to rule because of its support of the amnesty bill and other legislation they oppose. Yingluck and other members of her party say the constitution does not allow her to resign before elections are held - a ballot both sides know Pheu Thai would win.
Suthep, the protest leader, said late Tuesday that as of now, "there is no government." He said his People's Democratic Reform Committee would nominate a new prime minister to fill the vacuum, although it has no legal authority to do so.
The bespectacled 64-year-old career politician also ordered the head of police to order all his forces to return their posts within 12 hours and said soldiers should take responsibility for protecting government offices.
Government spokesman Teerat Ratanasevi dismissed the threats, telling The Associated Press on Wednesday: "We confirm that we are still the government. We are still running the country and things are normal."
Suthep had laid out other details of his plan Monday. Citing a clause in the constitution stating that "the highest power is the sovereign power of the people," he claimed his movement was assuming some government functions and called on civil servants to report to it.
He said a new constitution would be written that would ban populist policies, bar corruption convictions from being pardoned and ensure that "a single party cannot control things." He also said the movement will "fully respect our sovereign obligations and maintain good relations with all states and international organizations."
The reality, for now, is that no parallel government exists, and that protesters hold less ground than they did at the weekend. Ahead of Monday's march, they withdrew from the Finance Ministry and part of a vast government complex they had occupied for a week.
Still, Thitinan said, the momentum is on the side of Suthep, whose uprising has already triggered the legislature's dissolution and reduced Yingluck's power.
The government is "at a disadvantage because they're not backed by the establishment and the powerful people in Bangkok," Thitinan said. The army has vowed neutrality, but when push comes to shove, they will side with the protesters, he said.
Thitinan said Suthep is "a front man for larger forces behind him, for the powers that be" among the elite. He said they want to "seize the reins of government because they want to preside over the transition ... we're talking about the monarchy, the succession, the constitution, the entire future of Thailand."
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, has suffered health problems for years, and anxiety over his health has grown in tandem with the country's deepening political divide. Thaksin, the ousted premier, was accused of disrespecting the king, in part by trying to curry favor with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the throne.
Thitinan added, however, that if Yingluck is deposed, her supporters "will come back to the streets" just as they did in 2010, when pro-Thaksin "red shirt" protesters erected bamboo barricades around a vast swath of the capital's glitziest shopping district and occupied it for two months.
A brutal army crackdown eventually dispersed the crowds, but not before more than 90 people were killed and the city's skyline was engulfed in flames. Suthep, who was deputy premier at the time, ordered the crackdown and is facing murder charges for his role in it. He also faces an arrest warrant - for insurrection.
The army and the courts have had opportunities to dislodge Yingluck's government but have not taken them.
The conflict is likely to "go on and on until all sides sit down and negotiate a compromise," said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political science professor in Bangkok.
"That's going to take a long, long time," she said. "There is no easy way out."
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Grant Peck, Papitchaya Boonngok, Sinfah Tunsarawuth and Jinda Wedel contributed to this report.
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