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Society in upheaval

Rodion Ebbighausen / cmk
December 3, 2013

Violent protests have engulfed Thailand. The opposition is calling for the elected government to step down. But the protests go against the will of the majority, which wants the government to remain in power.

Anti-government protesters remove barricades and razor wire blocking a gate to the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) in Bangkok November 30, 2013. Police tightened security in Thailand's capital on Saturday as thousands of protesters rallied outside a state telecommunications group and vowed to occupy Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's office to paralyse her administration. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha (THAILAND - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Image: Reuters

Thai flags wave in the angry crowd, as protesters advance on key government buildings in Bangkok in an attempt to bring down the government. Surrounding the buildings are several rows of riot police standing in the way. The situation is confusing and stretched to the breaking point – and then stones and tear gas grenades fly through the air. Security forces advance, pushing protesters back with water cannons and rubber bullets. In other parts of Bangkok, more rioting flares up. Four people were killed over the weekend (30.11.2013-01.12.2013) and more than 100 injured.

Thai society is in upheaval. Just over three years ago, in early 2010, more than 90 people were killed in violent political protests. The reason behind these long-running disputes: Thailand is a country in transition.

"It's about a new social contract," said Marco Bünte, a senior lecturer in international studies at Monash University of Malaysia. "The existing contract has until now been riddled with feudal elements and must become more democratic in order to line up with the current social reality."

20 years of change, crisis

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra speaks during a nationwide television address at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, 28 November 2013. EPA/NARONG SANGNAK (zu dpa-Porträt: «Thailands Regierungschefin Yingluck im Schatten des großen Bruders») +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++ pixel
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra refuses to hand over power to an unelected councilImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Change began in 1992, when Thailand's first civilian government - after a long era of military rule - began strengthening democratic structures. That democratization process was boosted in 2001 when Thaksin Shinawatra was named Thailand's 23rd prime minister. During the election, he was able to successfully mobilize the majority of the population in the north and northeast of the country by promising a stimulus package for the rural population, and actually delivering after his victory.

"Thaksin stood up for the rural population, and also kept his political promises," said Bünte, adding that Thaksin's strategy secured his power base in the long term.

But Thaksin's campaign angered Bangkok's political elite. Up until then, they had been able to more or less rule the country on their own terms. With Thaksin's rise, two feuding camps also emerged: the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts.

The Red Shirts support Thaksin and his sister, Yingluck, the current prime minister. They come primarily from the northern and northeastern provinces, but lately also from Bangkok, which is why a third of the city's citizens backed Yingluck in the most recent election. They represent the social climbers and beneficiaries of Thailand's changing social order.

The Yellow Shirts, on the other hand, find their greatest support in the south of the country and the cities, among the bourgeois elite clinging to the old social order.

At the beginning of his time in office, Thaksin behaved as if he was the great hope for the future of democracy. But those hopes were soon dashed, said Rainer Adam, regional director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Bangkok.

"Thaksin then began removing, piece by piece, all the mechanisms belonging to a liberal democracy," said Adam. For example, he filled all the key positions in the government with his own supporters and gradually incorporated all the political parties in parliament into its own, so there was virtually no opposition.

Back and forth

In 2006, when Thaksin was at the UN General Assembly in New York, the Thai military staged a coup in mutual agreement with the Yellow Shirts. But at the next election in 2007, Thaksin's successor party came to power. Shortly afterward, the Yellow Shirts took to the streets and forced the Reds from power.

Protest leader and former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban answers questions during a news conference at the Government Complex where anti-government protesters have gathered in Bangkok November 28, 2013. Suthep has ruled out talks with the government or other parties.
Suthep has said he will not be satisfied with Yingluck's resignation or a new electionImage: Reuters

In 2010, it was the turn of the Red Shirts to demonstrate, calling for Thaksin's return. The Yellow Shirts fought back fiercely. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who today is once again leading the protests of the Yellow Shirts, is said to have arranged a police operation in 2010, which ended up killing 25 people and injuring 800.

Once the protests began to ebb, the Red Shirts were able to determine the outcome of the next election in 2011. Since then, Thaksin's sister Yingluck has been in power. But, as the most recent protests have shown, the Yellow Shirts are still vehemently opposed to the Red Shirts.

The constant back and forth of the last few years has shown that while the majority of the population regularly backs the Red Shirts, the minority Yellow Shirts have tirelessly, but unsuccessfully, tried to enforce their will. With their ultimatum to the government and their demand for an unelected "people's council" which would choose a new prime minister, the Yellow Shirts now protesting on the streets have once again shown their deep distrust of the people's will.

Conflict, according to Adam, can actually be good for a society. "Societies change when conflicts arise. But conflicts must, of course, be fought with the appropriate tools. They must be put into an institutional framework." But that's precisely what's lacking in Thailand. The trenches between the feuding groups have become so deep that dialogue is next to impossible.

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