If the masses that thronged major Bangkok intersections Monday are any indication, Suthep Thaugsuban came close to his goal of drawing a million Thais onto the capital’s streets in a new phase of protests designed to hound caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office. Hundreds of thousands of cheering, flag-waving anti-government citizens occupied, blocked and otherwise disrupted key thoroughfares and intersections, from Pathumwan to Lad Phrao to Victory Monument.
The shutdown of Bangkok is underway. Many businesses closed Monday. People stayed home, and there was little sign of New Jersey-bridge-scandal-style traffic gridlock. Ridership on public transport fell significantly. Sandbags and other barriers erected by protesters kept citizens off a number of multi-lane roads.
So what happens next for Thailand?
Nothing much, it seems—at least for now. The government has decided to hang in there. The Nation newspaper quoted sources saying that on Sunday Yingluck came close to acceding to demands that she resign, but changed her mind after receiving a call from her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup, and now lives mostly in Dubai—and is the source of almost all the acrimony in the nation, where he’s reviled and beloved at the same time. Suthep, leader of the so-called People’s Democratic Reform Committee, insists the crowds will stay put indefinitely— “every day until we win,” he told frenzied disciples. And Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha still maintains the military will remain “neutral.”
But it’s looking increasingly dire for the beleaguered prime minister. “The logic of confrontation favors the PDRC because it takes an absolute position of a complete and unyielding victory at al costs,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University and well-known political analyst. “The Yingluck government has been on the back foot all along, from dissolution of the lower House, election, reform for a year, and now maybe election postponement.”
Indeed, Suthep’s drip-drip, water-torture escalations, culminating in the shutdown, seem to have weakened Yingluck’s resolve. The government has signaled it is willing to discuss postponing the February 2 national election—as demanded by protest leaders, who clearly believe Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party would win again. Yingluck previously had insisted the vote would proceed as scheduled.
Much will depend on the patience of ordinary Thais. And on the military. The Army, which has been the key player in the 20 or so coups d’etat the country has endured in recent history, has been looking on with detachment, albeit with concern. That hands-off policy also was in place in 2008, when anti-Thaksin “Yellow Shirt” protesters seized Bangkok’s international airport. But the neutrality was less evident in 2010, when the Army raided an encampment that pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” protesters had set up in the Ratchaprasong business district. About 90 people were killed. The opposition Democrat Party was in power during the 2010 violence. Some critics claim the Army tacitly backs the Democrats, who are largely aligned with Suthep’s protest movement—and have vowed to boycott the February 2 election.
Regardless of questions about how deep military neutrality really goes, opinion is mixed about whether—or when—the military will step in.
“The Army wants to stay out because it has learned from the past and because its commanders want to retire well rather than have blood on their hands,” Thitinan tells me.
Bangkok Post columnist Voranai Vanijaka, has a slightly different take. “If the military has no good excuse to come out, it won’t come out,” he tells me. “Then the protest will eventually die down. But the term ‘good excuse’ differs. Depends on whom you ask.”
Asking ordinary Thais about the shutdown also yields ambivalence.The shutdown is “good to show how we are acting to move to a new thing; people power, which we never had in Thailand,” says Kitti Sittiyot, who has been in some of the protests. But he adds, “I do not 100 percent support Suthep, and this time I think it is 50 percent. I still don’t know the way how it will work in the future.”
Dr. Wiroj Suyapieang, who previously voiced cautious support for efforts against what he considers a corrupt government, is now offended by the festive nature of the protests. “I have started to wonder about the shutdown today,” he says. “There are so many street-vendor businesses getting better, benefiting from this, while shops are forced to close and people forced to take time off without pay. Some people seem to have found fame by dressing up in drag, and others in outrageous costumes. So many people enjoyed the concerts during the protest as well. What about the real reason for these protests?”
Montien Nimsawad, who runs a popular bar in the Silom district, says a Suthep win could be good for the country, but stresses that he wants to see an end to strife for the good of the country. Ultimately, though, he wants the rule of law, normality—and a good business environment. “Everybody who lives here or around this protest feels its effect,’ he explains. “Mine too. I just want this to end up where the Thais who live in Thailand can be one, love each other and have no more red, yellow, or any protest. I want a calm and stable city.”
And so support for Suthep’s gladiators will likely wane if protests drag on and begin to seriously damage the bottom line. An association of merchants in the Ratchaprasong district, where huge shopping malls were shuttered for weeks during the 2010 protests—and a large chunk of the Central World center burned—have issued a statement that underscores business concerns: It is “the duty of all Thais to maintain confidence among foreign investors, business persons and tourists,” the statement says.
Suthep has the upper hand for now, and his uncompromising campaign could well force the military’s hand. But he has a limited window in which to act.
“The shutdown will make many people feel it’s untenable and unbearable, and thereby forces some kind of catalyst to break the deadlock,” says Thitinan. “So the brinkmanship will worsen, with near-term odds stacked in PDRC’s favor.” But, he adds, “the long-term risks are stacking up against Thailand’s well-being.
If Suthep doesn’t soon achieve his big get—the ouster of the hated Shinawatras and “the Thaksin regime” —he could see the wave of anger he’s now riding turn against him.