News / Asia

Civil Court Issues Mixed Verdict on Thailand’s State of Emergency

Thai Protests Continue as Tensions, Violence Mounti
February 19, 2014 8:16 AM
Thai opposition protesters are stepping up their campaign against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, after clashes with police left five dead a day earlier.
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A civil court Wednesday upheld the Thai government’s emergency decree, which allowed authorities to detain protestors and hold them for a month without charges. But the judges warned the government against using the state of emergency as a pretext to use force against anti-government demonstrators.

The government declared a 60-day emergency period from January 21 amid continuing protests against it.  

It is not immediately clear what impact the court’s ruling will have on arrest warrants issued for protest leaders accused of violating the state of emergency.

Protests against Thai government continue

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, at the helm since her Peau Thai Party won a landslide election in 2011, has been struggling to hold onto power since opponents in November began street protests to oust her.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, said the court ruling will further tighten the noose, put the squeeze on the Yingluck government because the government is facing protests that demand Yingluck’s resignation.

"If the government is unable to resort to some kind of imposition of the law and order then they will look weaker and weaker," he said.  "And it will be in a straightjacket like a sitting duck and something else will come along to either depose it or see Yingluck’s resignation.”

The People’s Democratic Reform Committee was on the march again Wednesday, a day after a daylight clash with riot police along a major Bangkok avenue left at least five people dead and dozens injured.

The PDRC and its allied “yellow shirt” mass movement have taken over several major intersections and parks and surrounded some key ministries in their bid to force Ms. Yingluck from office. She remained on as caretaker prime minister since dissolving parliament in December.

Thailand's parliament cannot convene

Those forces allied against her - along with the opposition Democrat Party - boycotted the subsequent election earlier this month. And they prevented millions of people from voting, meaning not enough seats could be filled to convene a new parliament to vote for a successor prime minister. It is unclear when voting will be held in the approximately eleven percent of the electoral districts that were affected.  
PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban contends the electoral system is rigged in favor of the Peau Thai because of significant spending of public funds in the mostly poor Isaan region in the northeast, a stronghold for the party. He has repeatedly rejected calls to negotiate a compromise to end the stalemate.

Suthep, backed by the minority urban elite and those in the southern part of the country, wants to appoint an unelected people’s council to run the government for an indefinite period of time in order to cleanse a corrupt system. He has repeatedly ridiculed Yingluck and challenged her elder brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to return from self-imposed exile to confront him. Thaksin faces prison for a corruption conviction should he return.

Suthep, along with former prime minister Abhisit Vejijajiva, faces indictment for murder charges stemming from the 2010 crackdown on "redshirts," who form the core of support for the current government.

Suthep was deputy prime minister at the time and oversaw a special security force, implicated in the deaths of more than 90 people during street violence.

Support for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra May be Dropping

Until recently, Yingluck and Thaksin could depend on the critical support of the "red shirts," who have mainly stayed on the sidelines in the northern countryside during the recent upheaval.

But their enthusiasm for the billionaire brother and his sister is waning after the government bungled a rice-pledging scheme. The majority of farmers have not been paid for their crops.

Inter-bank lending this week to fund payments for the farmers has led to a massive net withdrawal of deposits at branches of the Government Savings Bank by concerned customers.

The bank’s president has offered his resignation to take responsibility for lending five billion baht (about $154 million) to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives.

Some farmers on Wednesday blocked access to the Commerce Ministry, demanding Ms. Yingluck’s resignation.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission on Tuesday ordered the prime minister to answer charges February 27th of dereliction of duty. The commission contends Ms. Yingluck was aware of corruption involving the rice scheme but failed to stop it.

Shortly before the NACC made its announcement, the prime minister appeared on television to defend the scheme, apologizing to farmers. She said they “are being taken hostage in an unfortunate episode by anti-government groups whose campaign makes it impossible” for the rice-pledging to run efficiently.

Many analysts believe her days in office are numbered.

“Staying in office we will see a prolonged crisis and confrontation in the streets," said Professor Thitinan. "We can see now that Bangkok is completely disrupted in terms of commute and transportation. It’s causing a lot of disruption in peoples’ ordinary lives. So this situation is untenable.”

Protesters keep pressure on prime minister

Anti-government protestors Wednesday gathered outside a defense ministry building in Bangkok where the embattled prime minister has moved her office.

Suthep, speaking at the location, vowed that Ms. Yingluck could no longer use the premises “as her hiding place and her office.”

His supporters will not stop, he vowed, “wherever she sleeps, we will go after her.”

Suthep speaks to demonstrators at length at protest sites scattered throughout the capital nearly every day, frequently declaring the next big rally is the “final” one to force out Ms. Yingluck.

In his latest public remarks he called for a boycott against companies and products linked to Thaksin, whom he says is still trying to run the country via telephones from Dubai.

Yingluck stays on the move

A military official said Yingluck and her Cabinet ministers did not show up at the temporary office in avoid escalating tensions. At times, recently, she has appeared to have run the government from an air force base on the outskirts of the capital.

The powerful Thai military has yet to demonstrate any significant moves of intervening on behalf of either side.

Some nervous government officials have expressed concern the armed forces, which have initiated 18 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, will take action against Ms. Yingluck as it did against her brother in 2006.

The king stays neutral

The nation’s frail 86-year-old King has also not intervened as he has done on several past occasions when the country has been paralyzed by political crises. Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, is the world’s longest serving current head of state and revered as a near deity in the country.

On his birthday, December 5th, 2013, in his most recent public utterance, the King, struggling to get through the short address, appealed for unity “for the sake of the public, for stability and security for our nation of Thailand.”

Some Thai analysts have hinted the current turmoil is part of a behind-the-curtain struggle among fractious elements of the royal family, the military and political power brokers to prepare for the era beyond Rama IX. However, open discussion of this in Thailand is muted because of strict lese majeste laws.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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