On May 7,2014, a constitutional court ruling removed Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from power, inflaming political tensions that had been building since November of last year. Yingluck was found guilty of arranging a job transfer, which benefitted a relative. This was in violation of the country’s constitution. Along with the caretaker prime minister, nine cabinet members found to have been involved in the job transfer were also removed, though the courts stopped short of removing the government entirely. Until the next elections, still planned for July 20, the duty of caretaker prime minister will be taken over by Deputy Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan.
The day after the ruling, a protester threw a grenade at the home of a judge who sat on Thailand’s constitutional court. Though no one was injured in the attack, it became clear that the ruling had angered the Redshirts, Yingluck’s largely rural supporters, who believe that the courts are biased against government and want to topple it in a “judicial coup”. This is not entirely without base; after former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was booted from office in a 2006 coup, two more prime ministers with ties to the Shinawatra clan were judicially removed in 2008. That makes Yingluck Shinawatra the third prime minister linked to Thaksin to be ousted.
Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of the anti-government protest movement and secretary-general of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), insists that the current government is corrupt and illegitimate, and that the best solution is to dissolve it entirely and restore the power of the king. In order to explain the electoral successes of the Shinawatra-linked parties, Suthep accused them of buying rural votes through costly populist programs. The protesters also call for a new prime minister to be appointed by the courts, the upper house of parliament, and the election commission. Until recently, the protesters had been confined to Lumpini public park in Bangkok, but on May 9, they moved to a fresh location in order to begin their “final battle” against the government – the 11th “final battle” they have vowed to fight since the beginning of the protests.
At first, the majority of the mayhem was wrought by the anti-government protesters, but following a February court ruling that determined that the police did not have the right to break up anti-government protests on the grounds that they were peaceful, the backlash from the redshirts was significant. Since then, tensions between the redshirts and the opposition have been steadily increasing, resulting in hundreds of injuries and at least 25 deaths, all on top of widespread economic failure. The impeachment of the caretaker prime minister may have crossed a red line in the eyes of some government supporters who held a protest rally on May 10, vowing to defend the leader they voted for. The leader of the redshirts, Jatuporn Prompan, denounced the opposition at the rally, announcing that the redshirts will not accept a prime minister appointed by judges.
The redshirts and the Shinawatra clan as a whole embody a departure from Thailand’s traditional order and might have attracted the hatred of Thailand’s elites largely because of the challenge they pose to that order. As the royalists and the redshirts refuse to compromise their utterly incompatible missions, Thailand begins to inch closer toward civil war, though the conflict has already had unpleasant repercussions on the Thai economy. One estimate found that the protests have already cost Thailand $15 billion. If the conflict fails to end in time for the elections, Thailand’s economy is predicted to face negative growth for the first time in years. If the current trend continues, the remains of Thailand’s caretaker government may not be able to hold the country together until the election.