Thailand's anti-govt protests: Suthep 'rides the tiger' into chaos

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 29, 2013 With repeated escalations and seizing of government buildings, the rallies led by former deputy prime minister and veteran Democrat Party politician Suthep Thuagsuban have captivated the general public and also the international media. They are increasingly upping the ante on the ruling Pheu Thai Party and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra - but where will it end, when the protesters have apparently no clue either?

How to make sense of a week, where Thailand's political crisis hit a new low point, almost laughably ridiculous and yet so dangerously close chaos? And how to make sense that a questionable veteran politician like Suthep has suddenly become the self-styled face of an anti-corruption campaign?

The anti-government protests were about to lose steam after the failed amnesty bill push that the Pheu Thai Party has horribly mishandled, when Suthep revealed the true intentions of the rally to topple the government and "eradicate the Thaksin regime". That was his first escalation. However, a call for a national strike failed, so he had to escalate the protests even further.

The siege of the Finance Ministry on Monday marked the beginning of Suthep's endgame against the Yingluck government, her brother Thaksin and everything 'evil' that it stands for. But one has to wonder if he really thought it all through. His nightly rabble-rousing is mostly clear on the goal, but vague in its executions - deliberately, so that he can maintain the supporters' spirit and numbers.

While most of the hostile takeovers and protests were non-violent - with the (instigated) mob assault on German photojournalist Nick Nostitz being the notable, yet unacceptable exception - the means and the goals to "eradicate the Thaksin regime" are calling for chaos that would ultimately result in a country even more divided than it already is and several steps backwards from a true democratic system, which has suffered numerous setbacks in the past decade.

Suthep is also forced to keep up the momentum for several other reasons: while these anti-government protests are very reminiscent to the anti-Thaksin protests in 2006 and 2008 in both tone and motive, there are no immediate signs of a military intervention (2006), a 2008-style 'judicial coup'  has yet to be set in motion and other extra-parliamentary interventions are not likely either at this moment.

The longer he has to wait for the odds to change to his favor (which were not really good to begin with), the more erratic his appearances and actions become. It appears that he keeps stumbling forward, but without really going down. That of course, emboldens Suthep. So much so that he doesn't shy away to slam his fellow Democrat politician Korn Chatikavanij, who earlier criticized the protests' escalation. What this apparent "split" between the protesters and the Democrat Party will mean has yet to be fully revealed.

Some of Suthep's plans to reform Thai politics appear plausible (e.g. elected provincial governors - but where does the sudden embrace of decentralized power come from?) and common sense (e.g. "wipe out corruption!") - others are ambiguous (a "people's council" - elected or appointed?). Nevertheless, it should not deter from the fact that like its likeminded, affiliated or direct previous incarnations (e.g. the "People's Alliance for Democracy" or "Thai Spring"), this newly-minted "Civil Movement for Democracy" (CMD) and the 'Democrat Party' itself (which is meandering on its stance at the moment) are an utter misnomers!

This campaign not a sincere push for true, sustainable political reforms - this is an undemocratic power grab! By rejecting re-elections, a resignation by the prime minister and even talks between the warring factions, Suthep clearly shows that he's not interested to play by the rules anymore (arguably, in his own words, because of Pheu Thai's rejection of last week's Constitutional Court ruling, they don't play by the rules either) and wants to get rid of his political opponents no matter what it takes and what damage it does to the country.

This series of escalations is the result of pent-up frustration at the electoral invincibility of Thaksin-affiliated parties and the failure to adapt to the changing political and social landscape - which is partly reflected by the views of those taking part in the protests - and thus also the contempt against the democratic system. The personified political hatred against Thaksin has been siphoned by Suthep for his anti-democratic drive, while the real issues are beyond these two men and their parties - they're much more in the system and the mechanics both in and outside of the democratic institutions.

It is the cruel ironic conundrum of Thailand's polarized politics that a man like Suthep can stylize himself to be the 'savior' of the country against an equally overzealous Thaksin. Suthep is currently riding the (Thai) proverbial tiger, that could become a dangerous, uncontrollable rodeo. What will his next escalation be and how will the last one look like, when the tiger has thrown him off?