Thailand’s fragile government battled for survival on Sunday, a day after clashes between the army and political protesters hostile to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva left 21 people dead and 678 injured.
Late on Saturday night, in a televised address, Abhisit said that his government had reached an understanding with protesters that they would restrict themselves to a few sites in Bangkok if he suspended the army operation that led to the deaths.
The Eton and Oxford-educated Abhisit is the global face of a coalition government that was put into place in 2008 after protesters had taken over Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport and brought the country’s tourism industry to a standstill.
Those demonstrators were known as Yellow Shirts after the clothes they wore and were united by their hatred of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Ever since he was ousted by a military coup in 2006, Thaksin has been banned from contesting elections and has lived in exile.
Nevertheless, he remains widely popular and at the first election held after the coup, Thaksin’s supporters won power. The Yellow Shirt protests were directed at the Thaksin-backed government and eventually, in the face of public anger in Bangkok and the hostility of the army, that government fell.
Had fresh elections been held, Thaksin’s supporters would probably have won again. But a new coalition government was formed after encouraging defections from various parties with the support of the army and Abhisit was installed as prime minister.
Thaksin is regarded with derision in Bangkok and is bitterly opposed by the elites that have dominated Thailand for several decades. But he is extremely popular among the poor and especially in the rural areas.
His supporters began calling themselves Red Shirts and have spent the last year constantly demonstrating against Abhisit’s government and even forced the cancellation of an ASEAN summit due to be hosted by Thailand. The latest round of demonstrations began nearly a month ago when thousands of Thaksin supporters arrived in Bangkok.
The situation escalated last week when the demonstrators took over a popular area in the centre of Bangkok’s commercial district, forcing several malls (including Siam Paragon, Gaysorn Plaza and Central World) to close and blocking access to such hotels as the Hyatt, the Intercontinental and the Four Seasons.
At first, Abhisit adopted a wait-and-watch strategy. Then, seemingly under pressure, he reversed this policy and ordered the Saturday crackdown that led to the deaths.
On Sunday afternoon, the Red Shirts seemed to be recovering from Saturday’s battle. At their main rallying point near Gaysorn Plaza, they played music, ate food from hawker’s stalls and cheered as speakers attacked Abhisit.
It is anyone’s guess how this stand-off will end. Abhisit seems reluctant to give in to demands for an immediate election. But if the pressure grows, he may have no choice.
And Thaksin could be back in charge.