What is behind the Thailand democracy protests?

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Answered by: Alan, An Expert in the East and Central Asia Category
One part of an increasingly divided Thailand will vote in a national election this Sunday, while the other part will either boycott or attempt to shut down the polling places.

The parliamentary election is just the latest crisis in a Thailand democracy protest that began almost three months ago, but which has been building for 13 years.

The current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai ("For Thais") Party are certain to win the elections. That is why Suthep Thaugsuban, a former national politician turned protest leader, wants so badly to block the voting.

Last Sunday, hard men from Suthep's self-described People's Democratic Reform Committee fanned out across Bangkok and southern Thailand to block access to polls set up for advance voting. They succeeded, usually by force, although one of the Committee's leaders was shot dead during a confrontation with equally determined, pro-government "red shirts."

The current crisis began in early November. Yingluck's parliamentary majority shoved through an ill-considered amnesty bill that would have legalized the return from Dubai exile of her divisive big brother Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin was elected premier in 2001, promising and delivering populist reforms and programs for those in the poorer regions of the country, the North and Northeast. His heavy-handed government and favortism for "up-country" Thais over Bangkok residents started a mostly regional division that only has got worse through the intervening years.

From 2005, a serious anti-government protest movement delivered up to 500,000 demonstrators on Bangkok streets in a rolling series of "yellow shirt rallies."

Thaksin was ousted by a 2006 military coup, convicted of illegal use of political influence in 2008, and fled to exile. He is widely seen, by supporters and by Suthep's opponents, as still the key man behind the scenes, through his sister.

Suthep, more than leading a popular revolt in Bangkok and his native southern Thailand, has tapped into the anti-Thaksin feeling.

Suthep claims Thaksin is corrupt, but Suthep has been named in several national corruption cases. Suthep claims to be the defender of democracy, but he opposes elections and wants an unidentified "national council" to lead the country and oversee the writing of anti-corruption reforms.

Thailand democracy protests date back to 1973, when student-led demonstrations toppled the long-time army stranglehold on political power. The 21st century protests, however, have come closer to civil conflict.

Indeed, the army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the only man with the forces necessary to actually take over government again, warned early this year that, "The divisions are everywhere, and the situation could trigger a civil war."

The current faceoff between Prime Minister Yingluck and the former Democrat Party deputy leader Suthep is the most tense yet. Suthep wants Yingluck and her cabinet to resign but he also demands she and her siblings and their families actually leave Thailand.

At the polls and in the streets, the "red shirts" and Yingluck supporters out-number Suthep and his "people democrats." But Suthep and friends can turn this Sunday's election into a series of violent confrontations with those trying to get to the polling stations.

Come Monday, Yingluck's certain election win may already be turning into Phyrric victory. Suthep's refusals to negotiate with the government mean more confrontations, in a political tinderbox that could become seriously bloody at any time.

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