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Asia

New elections may be ahead as a tumultuous year ends in Thailand

Thailand has faced its most turbulent year in politics in over two decades as mass anti-government rallies gripped the capital. Efforts to reconcile competing political groups remain the main challenge.

Demonstrations and violence marked the year 2010 in Thailand's capital city

Demonstrations and violence marked the year 2010 in Thailand's capital city

Thailand’s anti-government protest rallies led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship or UDD led to a major political confrontation lasting two months between March and May. The UDD, also known as Red Shirts, supports former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 coup and forced to live overseas. UDD leaders hoped to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government and refused government offers of early elections.

After the military cleared the protest site at the commercial area of Rajaprasong in central Bangkok, 92 people had died and almost 2,000 had been injured – both civilians and soldiers – in the worst political violence in 20 years. Up to 400 people remain in jail, including UDD leaders charged with terrorism offenses.

Thai soldiers were a constant presence in Bangkok in 2010

Thai soldiers were a constant presence in Bangkok in 2010

Change has started, but not finished yet

Chris Baker, an author and commentator on Thai politics says 2010 marked a shift in Thailand’s political landscape. He says it has been a very tumultous year and, "it’s been a year that in retrospect I think will be seen as the year of great change – but of change that has started but not really finished yet. The politics have really changed quite a lot – the mass of people who came into Bangkok were something really very, very new and quite surprising."

The protests highlighted deep divisions in Thai society. Many analysts say they first came to the fore with Thaksin, who has relied on the poor, rural voters. Many of them supported him for his populist policies as prime minister.

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra

Baker says more people now feel they have a stake in national politics. But he also warns that many in the governing class and elite feel the situation has returned to normal. This view, he says, is set to lead to problems in the future.

Reconciliation efforts

The government established several committees investigating the violence. Human rights lawyer Somchai Homla-or is a member of the Truth for Reconciliation Commission and is optimistic. "We have found that the Prime Minister himself always responds positively to what we recommend and what we ask for. Now we get more support from UDD leaders and UDD members too. I believe the majority of them do not want to use violence and they have the same position to strengthen our democracy."

In a nationally televised address on Christmas Eve, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva set the ground for national elections highlighting the government’s achievements since 2008.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is ready to call a new election

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is ready to call a new election

He spoke of rising economic growth, expanded trade, higher agriculture prices and education and social reforms. Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn sees an election coming and says, "The prime minister is very clear. He is sending out a signal to the Thai people to be ready." Wattanayagorn says the remaining factor will be how to guarantee a peaceful and stable election. "If we can do that – if we go to the polls without having a bloody election, a very confrontational election – the prime minister said he is ready to call a new election."

Red Shirt leaders say they will press ahead with protests but they will remain peaceful. For its part, the government recently lifted the state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding provinces.

Author: Ron Corben (Bangkok)
Editor: Sarah Berning

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