Saturday, November 16, 2013

Takin' It to the Streets

An anti-government protestors at Democracy Monument Friday evening.

The Pheu Thai led government of Yingluck Shinawatra tried to pass a sweeping amnesty law earlier this month. The bill sailed through the lower house of the Thai Parliament and passed by a landslide, largely because the opposition Democrats walked out of the parliament before the vote was taken.

The bill is widely seen as a way of whitewashing the alleged crimes of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (he’s Yingluck’s older brother). Thaksin is very popular in the rural areas but he’s despised by Thailand’s Democrat Party, the moneyed elite and many in Thailand’s middle class. Bangkok is the base of the Democrat’s power and they never have a problem whipping up a crowd in the capital. 

The protests started as soon as the bill passed the house. There were large protests near Phan Fa Bridge and Democracy Monument, site of violent Red Shirt protests in 2010, and a rolling motorcade and march of protests through Asoke, Ratchaprasong and Silom, in Bangkok’s financial and shopping districts. The protests pretty much gridlocked a city that is on the verge of gridlock almost every day. 
Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva makes a phone call during the protest at Democracy Monument. He was defeated by Yingluck Shinawatra in the 2011 election.  

The Prime Minister appealed for calm and then withdrew the bills and the Senate, the upper house of Thai parliament, voted down the amnesty bill, effectively killing it for at least six months. 

I was still in the US when the bill passed and I missed the first week or so of the protests. Even though the bill was voted down by the Senate, Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Deputy Prime Minister when the Democrats controlled the government and one of the core leaders of the protests vowed to continue until the “Thaksin regime was eradicated.” 

Suthep called for a three day nationwide general strike that was ignored by almost everyone and has vowed to start a campaign of civil disobedience  until Yingluck Shinawatra and Pheu Thai is out of office. 

It’s not clear what the next step is. A period of civil disobedience could damage an already fragile economy (the Thai economy has slipped into recession) and scare off tourists. Shutting down the infrastructure (like closing airports) would cripple the country’s export based manufacturing industries. 

It seems to me that Yingluck Shinawatra and her advisors didn’t think the amnesty issue through. It’s been a goal of this government to broker an amnesty bill for Thaksin Shinawatra practically from the first day of their administration. And the opposition has made it clear that they won’t accept an amnesty under any circumstances. 
The protestors’ stage at Democracy Monument is reflected in a woman’s sunglasses.   

Although Yingluck and Pheu Thai control an absolute majority in the lower house, they don’t control the Senate, which is made up of appointed members and more conservative than the lower house. Pheu Thai also doesn’t control the Constitution Court, where any amnesty bill will almost surely land if it does pass both houses of the parliament. The constitutionality of an amnesty bill would be decided by the same courts that have already banned earlier iterations of the Pheu Thai government. 

There are more photos of the protest in my archive or available from ZUMA Press.

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