from Asia Unbound

Can Thailand Move Forward in 2014?

January 07, 2014

Riot policemen wears gas masks as they stand guard at the Thai-Japan youth stadium in central Bangkok on December 26, 2013. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Courtesy Reuters)
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Having just returned from Thailand, where the anti-government protest movement continues in force, and plans to shut down Bangkok again in two weeks, I can’t say I am optimistic about the Kingdom’s prospects for 2014. Although I do not think the anti-government protests planned for January 13 will draw as many people as those in December, simply because it is hard to continue to turn out such large numbers, the core of the demonstrators have become more and more willing to use aggressive, violent tactics. The increasing hard-line nature of the protests hardly bodes well for January.

In addition, although the caretaker government has thus far been relatively restrained in its response to the demonstrations, my interviews with police in Thailand suggest that a few policemen who are generally sympathetic to Puea Thai and resentful of the army are itching to use greater force against the protests. Indeed, on January 2, the police commander told Thai newspapers that some of the sketchy “men in black” who appeared on top of a building during the violent fights between protesters and police on December 26 were policemen. Some of the “men in black” appeared to be trying to instigate violence and may have fired down into the crowds of protesters on the 26th who massed in Din Daeng. See here  for the police commander’s comments.

As the date moves closer to the planned election in February, and if there has been no army, judicial, or independent agency coup in early January, I think the protesters are only going to become more openly aggressive, trying to spark such a significant police response that it forces more outbreaks of violence in Bangkok, and makes it harder for the army and the palace to stand on the sidelines. And while some police commanders (and senior politicians in Puea Thai) understand that using significant deadly force against protesters would be entirely counterproductive, I also think that neither the government nor the top police commanders have very good control of mid-level ranks. So, the prospect for a major clash in Bangkok in January remains very high.