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This could be a very violent year in Thailand. But it’s still safe to vacation there.
BANGKOK — Another year in Bangkok, another messy crisis in the streets.
After so much unrest, political uprisings are joining sunny beaches, spicy food and sleazy nightclubs in the tableau of Thai stereotypes.
Bangkok is now under a “state of emergency,” a label that suggests a slide towards wild lawlessness. In fact, most of the Thai capital is carrying on normally.
The government, however, is not. Invasions of key ministries, paired with protest leaders’ repeated threats to abduct the premier, have forced the elected ruling party members to run the country from scattered offices and even move out of their homes.
The new emergency declaration offers more power — if the government chooses to tap it — to ban public gatherings, enact curfews and aggressively crack down on protest blockades at key Bangkok intersections.
But so far, authorities have proven lenient. Despite insurrection charges, the uprising’s leaders roam free. Crowds surge by the thousands to blockades to hear revolutionary screeds in which the ruling party is likened to “hellish animals” or “cancer.”
They are determined to stop an upcoming election on Feb. 2, and have powerful figures on their side — including members of Thailand’s election commission.
Here’s a primer on Thailand’s latest uprising: who the protesters are, what they want and why you shouldn’t let the specter of a coup screw up your vacation plans.
The protesters’ demands are drastic
If they succeed, Thailand will be run by an unelected council vowing to scrub the country of corruption. Though reluctant to use “coup” at first, this crusade’s leaders now speak of an attempted “soft coup” without weapons, or a “coup by the people.”
They promise to restart elections at an indeterminate future date once the country is corruption-free. That’s a lofty goal, and not one guaranteed to succeed — especially considering the uprising's leader, an ex-deputy premier named Suthep Thaugsuban, can hardly boast a squeaky clean record.
But this isn’t only about corruption
The protesters embrace phrasing such as “democracy” and “anti-corruption,” values welcomed by pretty much anyone who isn’t a dictator or a mobster.
But this crusade really translates into a war against one of Thailand’s most powerful and popular political families: the Shinawatras. This fabulously wealthy Thai-Chinese family controls a political network that has redefined power dynamics that existed even during the absolute reign of kings.
Historically, power in Thailand emanates from the capital city. But the Shinawatra network has gained control by catering to the upcountry, a land of paddy fields and poor Thais aspiring to reach the middle class. Populist policies — like village loans and $1-per-visit health care — have led this network to victory in every major election for the past decade.
The current premier is the mild-mannered Yingluck Shinawatra, 46, a former telecom executive. Her older brother, Thaksin, is a cop-turned-tycoon who masterminded the family’s ascent to power. The opposition plausibly accuses Thaksin of dictating policy from Dubai, where he’s exiled to flee corruption convictions; his sister says he’s simply an advisor.
Team Thaksin is resilient. It has weathered multiple court-ordered party dissolutions and even a coup. Unable to beat this powerhouse political family at the polls, their opponents, like America’s Tea Party, resort to disruption and sabotage under the banner of rescuing the nation from doom. Protesters deride the Shinawatra clan as “tyrannical” with a sprinkling of “slut” and “dictator” and, of course, plenty of Hitler comparisons.
This is not an uprising of the downtrodden
The uprising has drawn from all walks of life. But much of its rank-and-file are middle- to upper-income Thais with habits that would be familiar to suburban Americans.
Their rhetoric speaks of a “final battle” against a “tyrannical regime.” Their protest sites, however, are more Lollapalooza than Tahrir Square. There are live bands, selfies galore and stalls selling all manner of protest kitsch — including protest-themed hard drives and iPhone cases. Key protest sites are situated outside Bangkok’s slickest malls, where guys and gals wearing ironic shirts that read “traitor” can refuel at food courts and Starbucks.
The uprising could potentially lead to an army coup
Protest leaders contend they don’t want the army to seize power and deliver them to victory. But their speeches can suggest otherwise.
“Soldiers, my brothers and sisters, fear not the tyrant government. For they have betrayed all the citizens of this country,” said Chitpas Kridakorn na Ayutthaya, heiress to Thailand’s Singha beer fortune and a nightly presence on protest stages. She and other leaders have ambiguously beckoned the military to “stand beside” those aiming to topple the government.
Coup rumors are rampant in Thailand, where senior military officers have staged at least 18 successful and non-successful coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. The army brass aren’t fond of Thaksin (after all, they staged a coup against him in 2006) but they also appear reluctant to stage a takeover.
Many of Thailand’s top generals are more familiar with golf courses than battlefields. A takeover would burden them with the unenviable job of managing a political nightmare — all while fending off international condemnation and perhaps even an armed resistance movement.
This uprising could also lead to a civil war
Thailand is a political powder keg. If the elected ruling party is ousted by tanks or less brash means — such as orders to dissolve, issued by the politicized judiciary — a match would be lit that could engulf the country in conflict.
The current ruling party was elected soundly in 2011. Voiding the electoral voice of millions will provoke an angry backlash to say the least. Unlike the last coup, which replaced Thaksin with a military council, there is now an organized resistance movement ready for the summoning.
The 2006 coup gave rise to the “Red Shirts,” a Shinawatra-aligned movement that has proven its temerity on the streets. In the spring of 2010, one year after a Shinawatra-led party was dissolved over corruption charges, the faction seized glitzy parts of Bangkok, erected bamboo fortresses and held their position even as the army set up “live fire” zones in which protesters were picked off. Nearly 100 lay dead before they were defeated.
In April 2010, an army raid into a protest camp was repelled by a shadowy militia, which emerged to defend the Red Shirts with assault rifles. Guns were yanked from soldiers’ hands, a commander was killed and multiple armed personnel carriers were dismantled.
This is just a taste of the conflict that could break out following another coup. Various academics and Red Shirt sources have suggested to the Thai press that counter-coup strategies are already in place.
But don’t cancel your ticket to Thailand
These scenarios are worrisome, viable, but not-at-all certain.
Strolling through a protest zone in the dead of night — when shootings and bombings have occurred — is inadvisable but still arguably safer than a midnight jaunt through America’s slums. (So far, nine deaths are attributed to the protests, which are ongoing for nearly three months.)
In fact, under the midday sun, key blockades are often all but deserted with only a few dozen or so men guarding tire forts. Police could easily overwhelm the blockades — so could a few pick-up trucks full of soccer hooligans for that matter — but the government strategy is to wait for the uprising to fizzle out on its own.
Even at dusk, when protesters return to blockades after working hours, the rhetoric is fierce but the crowd is filled with secretaries, grandparents, Thai hipsters and so on.
Also, Bangkok’s chief international airport is located far from the protest hotbed, as are many of the Thai capital’s most frequented attractions. The crystal-sand beaches and the idyllic hills are nowhere near the action. Tourists who ignore the news will likely see few signs of Thailand’s political crisis.