Can Thailand’s Prime Minister Cling To Power?

With deadly protests pushing Thailand’s army and judiciary towards intervening in the country’s political crisis, analysts question how long the prime minister can hold on to office.

02.19.14 10:45 AM ET

Deadly clashes between police and anti-government protesters in Bangkok on Tuesday—the same day that Thailand’s anti-corruption agency decided to bring charges against caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra—have raised a critical question: how much longer can the beleaguered premier and her increasingly marginalized government cling to power?

A police officer and four protesters were killed as riot police moved to clear demonstrators from Pan Fah Bridge, one of seven sites occupied for weeks by protesters with the self-styled People’s Democratic Reform Committee and affiliated groups in an effort to force Yingluck out. Earlier this week authorities announced they would reclaim the sites, whose occupation has triggered massive traffic jams around the congested metropolis. The Pan Fah operation was interpreted as a bid to allow the prime minister to return to her offices in nearby Government House, to which she has not had access for weeks. On Tuesday, protesters—whose leader Suthep Thaugsuban had vowed that ''Yingluck Shinawatra will have no chance to return to Government House in this life or the next''—apparently fired guns at teargas-toting cops. At some point a grenade was detonated in the scuffle. In addition to the four fatalities, at least 60 people were injured.

The lethal melee was a blow to the government’s efforts to carefully manage the long-running standoff with protesters without violence, but the decision by the National Anti-Corruption Commission to essentially initiate impeachment proceedings against Yingluck poses an even bigger challenge. The panel, whose move was not unexpected, charged the premier with dereliction of duty and negligence, saying she failed to heed warnings that corruption and damage would occur in a rice-subsidy program her government launched in 2011. The program paid Thai formers above-market rates for rice, but became bogged down in a financial morass. If the corruption charges are upheld, Yingluck—loathed by Thais who see her as a proxy for her even more despised brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled from the premiership in a 2006 coup—will have to resign.

Yingluck’s associates insist she will fight on, and blast her enemies’ “undemocratic” tactics. Sean Boonpracong, a national security adviser to the PM, told The Daily Beast: “She absolutely will not stand down. She’s not just another prime minister; she’s a prime minister who was elected with a mandate by a wide margin. By resigning she would be letting democracy down.” He said the premier abhors violence and has avoided it because “she does not want to be known as the butcher of Bangkok”—a restraint, he added, that protest leaders have not shown. “One thing is clear,” he said. “The protesters are armed.”

PDRC spokesman Akanat Promphan told The Daily Beast the police used “excessive force” in what started out as a “process of negotiation” and that a compromise had already been agreed in which protesters would “free up parts of the site but said they needed to keep a portion for demonstrations.” But he said police then began to beat protesters with bats and shields. Police opened fire around noon and were fired on by “unidentified people” around the protesters, he said. “This was a deliberate act of violence by the police,” he said. “They were not using rubber bullets.”

Korn Chatikavanij, a spokesman for the main opposition Democrat Party—which has come out in support of the protesters and boycotted recent national elections—disagreed. “We’ve seen evidence the police are armed with military weapons and I think that’s over the top and not necessary,” he told me. “The protesters have been peaceful; why force the issue?’

Speculation remains rife that violence of the sort that erupted Tuesday will soon force Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to stage a military coup. Just two weeks ago, Prayuth felt compelled to deny that senior figures in the country had pressured him to oust the government. A source who watched some soldiers vote in the Feb. 2 election suggests there is another reason the general may not be eager to attempt a coup: “He may not be sure he’ll have the support inside the Army. I doubt he wants to see soldiers firing on each other.”

But even if the prime minister dodges a coup by gun, she and her flailing government could still fall prey to what a former U.S. diplomat who is now retired in Thailand calls “a silent rolling coup by the judiciary.” If so, she would not be the first. In 2008, the nation’s Constitutional Court removed the late Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej—seen by many as the first Thaksin surrogate—on the ground that his weekend cooking show violated the constitution’s ban on premiers having a second paid job. His successor, Somchai Wongsawat, had to step down after the court banned him from office and found his party—a precursor to Pheu Thai—guilty of electoral fraud. “And now the action of the anti-corruption commission portends the removal of the prime minister by means of a third judicial coup,” the retired diplomat said. The diplomat laughed when asked if the premier is likely to be indicted and said: “There’s nothing impartial about the judiciary system in this country.”

The PDRC’s Akanat dismissed such assessments. He told The Beast “the Thaksin regime” has been willing to abuse and manipulate a variety of government institutions, but accuses others of using pressure and influence. “It’s funny that when the Constitutional Court rules in their favor, they don’t say anything, but when the ruling goes against them the courts are not impartial,” he said. “The rice-pledging scheme is another symbol of the problems Khun Thaksin has caused. This NACC decision is a blow to Khun Yingluck on top of everything they’re experiencing right now.”

What the government is experiencing, according to the U.S. ex-diplomat, is being placed “literally on the run” through the efforts of “an iron triangle”—an alliance among “the permanent bureaucracy and the courts, the military, and the royalists.” Indeed, the prime minister has been forced to shuttle from temporary office to temporary office, including at the Defense Ministry and the Thai Royal Air Force, as she remains locked out of Government House. The interior ministry, occupied by protesters, is effectively closed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reportedly has been unable to issue or renew passports. By some reckonings, as many as 50 ministries, departments and agencies have been shut down through the actions of protesters. The Government Savings Bank faced failure when depositors withdrew more than $1 billion after the state-run institution decided to lend the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives money that apparently was to be used to save the rice-subsidy program. The run on the GSB was widely seen as an orchestrated campaign against the government.

All this, says the American former diplomat, amounts to a “day-by-day divestiture of government authority.” The protesters “by forcing the dissolution of Parliament deprived the government of its ability to govern; now they’re depriving of its ability to administer by depriving it of the funds necessary,” the ex-diplomat told me.

The moves and countermoves appear set to continue, if not accelerate. The prime minister must appear before the anti-corruption commission on February 27 to answer the malfeasance charges. Police operations to take back protest sites are supposed to continue—although the authorities actually lost ground in Tuesday’s attempt. All eyes will be on what happens at those sites, but if insiders are to be believed, the real action is happening at military headquarters and in corporate boardrooms.