Thailand facing acid test of its democratic principles

Thailand facing acid test of its democratic principles
An anti-government protester waves a Thai national flag as riot policemen stand guard outside the Constitutional Court in Bangkok.

The newspaper images from Sunday's massive rally in Bangkok spoke loud and clear. People from all walks of life and every political hue shared one goal: to exercise their right to protest against an "unjust" government. The massive rally was one of the largest in Thai history, but the tens of thousands who gathered proved they could do so in peace, regardless of numbers. It was an especially impressive moment in Thai politics, proving that mass protests against the government don't have to end in violence.

Yet any admiration for Sunday's controlled demonstration is fading fast following protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban's announcement of escalation in the goals. A day after the so-called "million-man march", the former Democrat Party Cabinet minister led protesters to government ministries in a bid to topple the Yingluck Shinawatra administration. The demonstrators stormed parts of the Finance and Foreign ministries, a move that dismayed many observers, including their supporters and some in the Democrat Party. The seizure of government offices tarnished the image of the until-then restrained protest.

Even though Suthep has stressed that protesters occupied the ministries without causing any damage, their actions are unlawful. Preventing government officials from working is a bad move. Veteran journalist Somkiat Onwimon, a critic of the government and the "Thaksin regime", has called Suthep impatient and questioned his ability as a leader. "A man who wants to achieve victory by civil disobedience must be very patient," he said. Social critic Sulak Sivaraksa questioned whether Suthep genuinely understands the history of civil disobedience as a passive and principled resistance. Suthep seems to be deaf to the criticism, though, hearing only the roar of a crowd bent on "victory". "I do this for the people, not for the Democrat Party," he said after the seizure of the ministries.

It was also puzzling when Suthep said he would continue the protest even if Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra resigned or dissolved the House. His only goal now is to get rid of the "Thaksin regime", though the rallies started as a campaign solely against the amnesty bill. Suthep should know better than to force the issue in this way, having experienced first-hand the violent political protests by red shirts in 2010.

These latest protests are taking a typical direction for anyone familiar with Thai history. An unjust and corrupt government brings protesters out on the streets, hoping to bring about change with prolonged rallies. But it ends in bloodshed or a military coup. The people's protest against General Suchinda Kraprayoon ended with "Bloody May", while the People's Assembly for Democracy rallies against the Thaksin Shinawatra government eventually saw democracy struck down by a coup. The latest incident in this cycle of violence saw more than 90 people killed during the 2010 protests by Thaksin's red-shirt supporters in Bangkok.

Not surprisingly, then, there's a feeling of déjà vu among Thais right now. They recognise the pattern: one side is egged on by leaders who want to escalate conflict. The protesters march and seize or destroy property. The government declares a state of emergency and protesters - some perhaps armed - clash with police. The government, finding it difficult to function, charges protest leaders with breaking the law, and events proceed inevitably towards violence.

Adding more fuel to the fire this time is that the two sides are holding parallel rallies. The red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship has vowed to stay put in support of the government, claiming that they too are fighting for democracy and a rightfully elected government.

Our biggest challenge now is to learn from, rather than repeat, history.

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