Fortuitously, we decided to skip Thailand for our winter vacation this year and go to the Galápagos Islands instead. Fortuitously because peaceful, tranquil, beautiful Thailand is engulfed in a spasm of political violence right now. Yesterday, one of our favorite rental portents sent out offers for half-price stays:
Protesters are demanding that the country's prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of deposed right-wing populist Thaksin Shinawatra, resign. Bangkok is filled with demonstrators and police have been escalating the use of force. So far at least three people are dead and over a hundred injured. This evening opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban of the People's Democratic Reform Committee met with Shinawatra in person and gave her an ultimatum of two days to step down. He's calling for a nationwide strike by civil servants and government employees on Monday. The problem is the widespread corruption that is draining Thailand's economy.
This wave of political unrest started with a blanket amnesty bill pushed through the lower house of parliament in October, which many saw as a ploy to allow Thaksin to return from self-imposed exile.23 countries, including the U.S. Canada, the U.K., Russia, Germany and Sweden have warned their nationals that Bangkok isn't safe. Tourism accounts for over 7% of Thailand's GDP, about $28 billion. Travel agencies and tour operators are changing their clients itineraries. So far most tourists who were planning to spend Christmas there seem to be keeping to their plans, although I suspect a lot of people are very nervous right about now.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets daily, blowing whistles and calling for the bill to be scrapped. Bowing to public pressure, the Thai Senate voted it down Nov. 11, but by then, political scars had reopened, and adversaries of Thaksin saw an opportunity to press their cause.
Thaksin's main opponents come from Bangkok and the south and represent the traditional bureaucratic elite of Thailand. His supporters are largely drawn from the rural, northern parts of the country, where his populist economic policies such as public health care and agricultural subsidies have won him a devoted following.
Once a negligible political force, his base has grown to represent the electoral majority, as Thaksin and his related parties have won every election they've entered since 2001. In 2006, a military coup ousted Thaksin, then the prime minister. And in 2008, Thailand's Constitutional Court dissolved the People's Power Party (PPP), composed primarily of Thaksin allies, over charges of electoral fraud.
In the most recent election, in 2011, Yingluck won in a landslide with a margin of more than 4 million votes out of 26 million cast.
The opposition claims Thaksin has rigged the electoral system and buys votes. Other observers say the traditional elite of Thailand have not come to grips with the reality of a changing country.