Like classic adversaries in a game of brinkmanship who lose control and then have no choice but to follow through on their threats, Thailand’s two major opposing political groupings now have gone too far to retreat. On Friday the Puea Thai Party pushed the controversial amnesty bill through the lower house of Parliament, with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra reportedly calling in all Puea Thai MPs and telling them they had to vote for the bill, even though some had reservations about how it provides amnesty for security forces involved in killing red shirt protesters in Bangkok in 2009 and 2010. Today, the bill will almost surely pass the Senate.
The prime minister was warned many times in recent months—by red shirt members of Parliament, by foreign observers, by several Thai academics—that the amnesty bill would not only simply whitewash human rights abuses going back to the 2006 coup, a reason that on its own would make excellent cause to toss the legislation in the bin. Many warned Yingluck that the bill made bad political sense for her as well: Ramming the legislation through Parliament would give the opposition—which had been unable to gain traction against Yingluck, has not won control of Parliament in an election since the 1990s, and has little idea how to change to appeal to rural, working class Thai voters—a real issue to rally around for the first time.
The opposition Democrats, and various Bangkok-based, middle/upper class groups allied with the Democrats, have been holding anti-government rallies on and off since virtually the day Yingluck was elected in 2011. At one point, the demonstrators donned Guy Fawkes masks—inspired by the film V for Vendetta—to protest the government’s supposed corruption and disregard for the monarchy, apparently not realizing that Guy Fawkes was not exactly a noted monarchist. But most of the protests, until now, have drawn only a few hundred people at most, the same hard core that refused to accept that a democratic Thailand meant a shifting political climate.
But the prime minister paid no heed to counsel, and now has pushed the amnesty bill through, making it seem that she was willing to forgive all the abuses committed by security forces, as long as her brother Thaksin would be cleared by the amnesty and could return to Thailand. Now, she essentially has offered the opposition the chance to draw far larger street protests, protests they clearly hope will cause chaos in Bangkok and, potentially, paralyze and even bring down the Yingluck government—as similar protests helped bring down the previous iteration of Puea Thai in 2009. Today, the opposition has reportedly drawn over 10,000 people into the streets to demonstrate against the amnesty legislation, and several opposition legislators have resigned from Parliament to participate in protests and try to create as much havoc as possible. Though the Democrats usually draw significant electoral support from Bangkok, they seem unworried that their demonstrations could shut down the city and potentially cause serious property damage.
So, Thailand now has returned to the dangerous street politics that have plagued it since 2006, leading to reprisals upon reprisals, protests after counterprotests. Neither the prime minister nor the opposition looks ready to blink.