Explainer: In Thailand, why yellow and red clash

The protests in Thailand follow a familiar pattern as supporters and opponents of Thaksin Shinawatra vie for power

An anti-government protester shows her distaste for the powerful Shinawatra clan.
Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters

Thailand is no stranger to political tumult. Since the end of absolute monarchist control in 1932, the country has experienced 18 coups, 23 military governments and nine military-dominated governments, according to a Human Rights Watch count.

And in 2014 — like 2013, 2010, 2008 and 2006 — demonstrators filled Bangkok’s streets, demanding the government step down. With a beloved king in fragile health, a still-powerful military at odds with the current government and no love lost between the leading political parties, stability is not likely to come to Thai politics any time soon. A clear pattern of protest and unrest has emerged since the ouster of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra eight years ago.

In November 2013, anti-government protesters took to the streets of Thailand’s capital, and by December the raucous crowd had grown to over 200,000. The demonstrators — who still protest in Bangkok's streets, though in smaller numbers — say Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is merely a pawn of her elder brother, Thaksin.

An amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand sparked the current protests, and even though that bill has been shelved, protests against Yingluck's government have continued unabated.

Thaksin, who has been in self-imposed exile since 2006 when he was ousted by the military in a bloodless coup, remains the central divisive figure in Thai politics.

Elected in 2001, Thaksin, a telecom billionaire, instituted a range of policies popular in rural Thailand, including microfinance schemes and fuel subsidies. Thaksin quickly became venerated by much of Thailand’s rural poor, especially in the densely populated north and northeastern parts of the country.

As a result, Thailand's power center began to shift from the cities and the south to the country's north and northeast. Thaksin's supporters became known as red shirts.

Opponents of Thaksin, who wore yellow shirts, say Thaksin's five-year tenure was marked by nepotism, corruption and the creation of an unprecedented rift in the country. In 2006, following massive street protests from yellow shirts and an election win for Thaksin’s party, the military staged a coup, setting the stage for a nearly decade-long, sometimes bloody back-and-forth, power struggle.

Fast-forward to 2013, faced with massive street protests composed mostly of Bangkok’s urban middle class, Yingluck called a Feb. 2 election to reassert her electoral mandate and deflate the protest movement.

Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party is an overwhelming favorite to win a sixth consecutive victory, due primarily to Thaksin’s continued popularity among the rural poor.

The protest leaders are boycotting the upcoming elections and demanding nothing less than “wiping out the Thaksin regime.” They have called for an unelected “people’s council” to replace the current democratically elected government.

Protesters, experts say, want to create such disorder that either Thailand’s military or judiciary intervenes, and tensions have been rising.

Ahead of February’s polls, Yingluck declared a state of emergency on Jan. 21. The decree gives the government broad powers against the protesters, including the ability to censor media, impose curfews, detain suspects without court permission and declare parts of the capital off-limits to demonstrators.

It’s the same decree that a different government issued in 2010 to quell protests by the pro-Thaksin red shirts. Immediately following the 2010 decree, government security forces cracked down, often violently, on protesters, leaving nearly 100 dead.

Yingluck’s government has promised to avoid unnecessary violence, but the declaration suggests a more aggressive stance toward the demonstrators and raises the possibility of violence.

So far, the military has been sitting on the sidelines, at least publicly. But pressure is mounting for them to end the political crisis, which threatens to keep foreigners away from the country's lucrative tourism industry. In 2013, Bangkok was the world's most visited city.

Thailand's army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, told reporters on Jan. 22: "If the situation escalates to a level where it cannot be resolved, the military will have no choice but to solve it."

With Thailand averaging a coup every four and half years, this should sound familiar. If this happens, supporters of the Shinawatras, a clear majority of the still largely rural country, would likely vent their anger — probably in the streets of Bangkok. And so the cycle of protest and unrest would continue.

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