Written for The Diplomat
News of Thai protesters occupying several government buildings in Bangkok reminded many of similar provocative rallies which shook the nation’s capital in 2008 and 2010. Indeed, one way to analyze how the current crisis will unfold is to review how various political forces reacted in the past.
In 2008 the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) or Yellow Shirts conducted daring street actions for several months to force the removal of the elected government, whom they accused of being a proxy of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was removed in a coup in 2006 but his party has remained victorious in the polls.
PAD adopted the color yellow as its protest color in honor of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the most revered figure in Thailand.
PAD was able to occupy Government House in August. Protests continued until September when the group was able to disrupt railway operations and flights at Phuket International Airport. PAD upped the ante in November when they were able to surround the parliament building. They also paralyzed air travel in the country by occupying Bangkok’s two major airports. PAD withdrew from the airports after eight days when the country’s top court ordered the dissolution of the ruling party, which forced the prime minister to step down. Further, the court disqualified allies of Thaksin from running for public office again.
The victory of PAD led to the rise of the Red Shirts, who adopted the color red just to differentiate themselves from the Yellow Shirts. The Red Shirts were neither leftists nor anti-royalists, but many of them were supporters of Thaksin. They were vigorously opposed to the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva whom they denounced as illegitimate.
The Red Shirts adopted the tactics of their yellow counterparts in order to undermine the administration. They often mobilized in the streets in 2009 to call for a new round of elections. They even stormed the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But it was only in early 2010 that they were able to occupy various parts of Bangkok.
Next, the Red Shirts established protest camps in the city as they pushed for the resignation of Abhisit. After two months of protesting in the streets, they were forced to disperse when soldiers were deployed to disband the protest camps. Violence escalated on May 19 during the final assault operation of the military which led to intense street battles, riots and looting. The retreating protesters also burned several buildings in the city, including the country’s biggest shopping center, the stock exchange, two TV stations and several banks. Scores were killed and more than 400 were injured during the clashes.
Abhisit and some military officials were subsequently charged with murder for ordering the protest crackdown.
Abhisit’s party lost in the parliamentary elections and he was replaced by Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of Thaksin.
Since her first day in office, Yingluck has been ridiculed by her political enemies of being a mere puppet of her fugitive brother, who is in exile after a local court found him guilty of plunder two years ago.
She recently supported an Amnesty Bill, which critics believe would “whitewash” the crimes of her brother. The senate rejected the measure but it didn’t stop opposition forces from mounting large rallies in the capital last month.
Last week, more than 100,000 protesters stormed the streets of Bangkok calling for the ouster of Yingluck and the end of Thaksin rule in the country. Meanwhile, the Red Shirts also mobilized to show support for the embattled leader.
The ongoing protests highlight not just the deep political divisions in Thai society but also the unresolved issues that haunted the country when Thaksin was ousted from power. But while politicians vie for dominance, it is ordinary Thais who get hurt or killed in the street battles organized by the warring factions of the elite.
Indonesia Strike for Pay Hike; Thai Protest vs. Amnesty Bill
Written for The Diplomat
More than 100,000 workers have joined a nationwide two-day strike to press for higher wages in Indonesia. Meanwhile, approval of the controversial Amnesty Bill in Thailand’s parliament has sparked a series of protests throughout the country.
The October 31 strike in Indonesia was preceded by several weeks of labor actions, factory shutdowns, and union agitation in the country’s industrial centers. The strike gathered thousands of workers in the streets which disrupted production in some cities.
Aimed at pressuring the government to raise the minimum wage by 50 percent, the strike was partially successful since it only yielded a 9 percent wage increase for Jakarta workers. Earlier this year, the local government raised the minimum wage by 44 percent.
The Joint Labor Secretariat cited the income gap between workers and business owners in justifying the demand for a salary increase: “Even in our workplaces, although there is a mountain of profit for the business owners, there is not even a drop for us, except cheap wages, just enough to keep us alive for work the next day.”
But aside from the pay hike demand, the striking workers are also petitioning for universal healthcare, the abolition of outsourcing or contract employment system especially in state-owned enterprises, and passage of a law to protect domestic workers.
The last demand is also being lobbied by human rights groups which have decried the exploitation of domestic workers. There is no law in Indonesia which guarantees the basic rights of domestic workers, such as receiving minimum wage or a weekly day off.
The strike was generally peaceful although it once again confirmed that labor unrest is rising in the country.
While Indonesian workers were asserting their economic demands on November 1, their Thai neighbors on the other hand were decrying the passage of the Amnesty Bill which would give blanket amnesty to those who committed political offenses since the 2006 coup.
After a 19-hour debate and despite the walk-out staged by the opposition, the parliament was able to approve the bill last Friday. The senate will tackle the measure in the next few days.
The bill is supposed to promote reconciliation in the country but opposition emerged after it was reported that the amended version of the measure would benefit corrupt politicians and human rights violators.
In particular, the opposition said the bill will “whitewash” the crimes of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who fled the country after being found guilty of plunder by a local court.
Thaksin was deposed by a coup in 2006. His younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is Thailand’s prime minister today. According to Thaksin’s critics, the bill will allow the former leader to return to the country and recover his wealth which was sequestered by the government.
Interestingly, the Amnesty Bill is also being rejected by the allies of the government, namely the Red Shirts. The group feels “betrayed” since the bill will also grant amnesty to former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva (now leader of the Democrat opposition party) who is accused of ordering the bloody crackdown of anti-government protests in 2010. Almost a hundred Red Shirt members died during the violent dispersal in 2010.
In other words, the bill is being criticized by both the opposition groups and government supporters.
A protest, which attracted 10,000 people, was quickly organized while parliament was debating the measure. Thailand is bracing for bigger protests and intense political conflicts in the coming days as more groups continue to express opposition to the bill.