BANGKOK - Thailand’s current political crisis, with street protests that have left at least four people dead and hundreds injured, has been years in the making.
The latest protests by the “Yellow Shirts” of Thailand’s color-coded politics echo similar demonstrations in 2006 against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
A coalition of royalists and the urban middle class accused the billionaire politician of corruption, and he was deposed by the army in a bloodless coup.
Thaksin fled into exile, but remains popular among working class Thais who liked his policies funding healthcare and education.
When an opposition Democrat Party leader was chosen as prime minister in 2008, it was the turn of pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” protesters to paralyze the capital. Made up of largely blue collar workers and farmers, they see their opponents as urban elitists, out of touch with the needs of rural Thais.
In 2011, Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, won election as prime minister at the head of the Pheu Thai party, successor to Thakin’s disbanded People’s Power Party and Thai Rak Thai party. After two years of stability, the political rift reopened over an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return from exile without facing prison for a corruption conviction.
The bill was withdrawn, but Thaksin's opponents continued to protest, demanding the government be replaced by an unelected “people's council.”
Throughout the dispute, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been seen as a crucial rudder.
As the country paused to mark his 86th birthday, King Bhumibol avoided direct reference to the current political crisis, but said Thailand has found peace and prosperity because everybody has worked together.
The King said that “every Thai should be aware of this and should perform their role for the benefit of the country, which is the stability and security of the country.”
Below the king, the second most influential entity is the military. The military has intervened in Thai politics often since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932; the country has witnessed 19 coups and attempted coups since that date.
National security advisor Sean Boonpracong contends the generals have been “strong supporters” of the current government.
“The military has, I believe, changed radically since the 2006 coup. They have worked with the prime minister in defusing the tension,” said Sean.
But others, such as Panitan Wattanayagorn, a professor and former spokesman for the Democrat Party government, think the military has been signaling sympathy towards the opposition and that might explain why police have grown increasingly reluctant to confront the protesters.
“The military say they are supporting the country. They didn’t say they are supporting the government. So that is a big challenge for Khun Yingluck as defense minister, trying to get total support, absolute support from the military. She seems to be not getting that,” said Panitan.
The national security advisor, a former spokesman for the red shirts, expressed hope that Thailand has entered an era where military intervention is relegated to history.
“I think the word ‘coup’ is, more or less… quite obsolete. But Thailand being Thailand, you never really discount that out,” said Sean.
One theme expressed by those on both sides of the political divide is that Thailand’s Buddhist culture, despite occasional flashes of violence, is one of tolerance.
That could explain why, despite insurrection charges filed against protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, there has been no move to actually arrest him.
It also can be seen in the move by police to remove barricades to allow the anti-government demonstrators to occupy, at least temporarily and mostly symbolically, key government facilities.
There has been demonstrable restraint on both sides in recent days, according to Professor Panitan.
“All sides are trying to refrain from using violence, including the police, the military, the demonstrators. If they keep it that way I think we have a new era of contestation. But, of course, we have to admit that we still have bad, destructive elements within every society, including Thai society,” said Panitan.
Whether Thailand can avoid further bloodshed remains unclear, but many hope the lesson has been learned from nearly a decade of political upheaval.