The political standoff took a new twist Tuesday when the Thai government’s declared state of emergency to counter the ongoing anti-election protests. With additional developments in the background, the wheels in this political crisis are about to spin faster.
With the mass anti-election protesters’ campaign to “shutdown” the capital Bangkok entering its second week, the Thai caretaker cabinet decided to declare a state of emergency (SoE) on Tuesday evening as a response to the continuous targeting of government offices and banks by the protesters. The move also comes after explosions on Friday and on Sunday injured over 60 demonstrator and killed one. The suspects are still at large and police have set a 500,000 baht bounty on the perpetrator of Sunday’s blast.
The 60-day state of emergency, starting on Wednesday, will last until March 22 and covers Bangkok and in parts its surrounding provinces Nonthaburi, Thonburi, Pathum Thani and Samut Prakarn. While the emergency decree is significant in principle – potentially expanding the power of security forces to include searches, arrests and detentions people with limited judicial and parliamentary oversight and also censor media coverage – details of which regulations are being issued had yet to emerge as of publishing.
The announcement also includes a restructuring of the government organization tasked with handling the demonstrations. It now officially called the “Center for Maintaining Peace and Order” (CMPO) or “ศูนย์รักษาความสงบ” (ศรส.) in Thai.
Tuesday’s announcement brought a familiar face in Thai politics back to the front line with the Pheu Thai MP Chalerm Yubamrung, who announced the CoE, assuming the position as CMPO director, while police chief-general Adul Saengsingkaew and defence ministry’s permanent-secretary Nipat Thonglek acting as operating directors.
Chalerm is a veteran politician known for his bullish appearance and his reputation of being a blowhard, to put it mildly. When he was reappointed from deputy prime minister overlooking national security to labor minister in a reshuffle last year, he bemoaned his apparent political downfall. But when the current protests kicked off last November, somehow Chalerm managed to wrestle his way back into the headlines when he seemingly single-handedly took charge of monitoring the rallies led by opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban – practically his political counterpart and arch-nemisis. Weeks later, Chalerm even boastfully and colorfully announced that he’s “****ing back!”
The CMPO declared that the rallies by Suthep – who in April 2010 as deputy PM issued the last SoE declared in Thailand during the red shirt protests – have “constantly violated the law, especially in closing down government offices and banks and harassment against civil servants to prevent them from working.” But at the same time they insist there are no plans to crack down on the protesters and are hoping that Suthep will surrender himself to the authorities. A notable sight during the televised announcement was the toned down presence by military officers, normally front and center at such announcements, even though many hold positions in the CMPO.
As the effects of the state of emergency declaration are yet to take effect, the government of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has taken a proactive role after months of a hesitant, non-confrontational approach by police. Protest leader Suthep was unsurprisingly defiant, as he called the authorities to “come and get us” and still insists that his movement is “peaceful” despite riots and threats by its militant wing. Suthep says that the protests will continue with a view to stopping the February 2 election.
In related news, the Election Commission (EC) – still very reluctant to hold the February 2 polls – has asked the Constitutional Court to review the possibility of postponing the election. According to the constitution, a general election cannot be moved to another date, but by-elections can. However, with the SoE declaration affecting only Bangkok and surrounding provinces, the court may actually find a reason delay the vote because of these special circumstances. Moreover, candidacy registration has been disrupted by anti-election protesters in over 20 districts in the deep South.
With the state of emergency declaration the tense standoff between protesters and caretaker government goes to the next level and is less than likely being resolved anytime soon, since the government seemingly determined to hold the February 2 election and Suthep most likely now even more determined to stop it. Adding to that the EC’s ongoing efforts to delay the February 2 elections, the National Anti-Corruption Commission’s investigation against 308 mostly Pheu Thai lawmakers for their role in the proposed constitutional amendments and another probe directly targeting caretaker prime minister Yingluck for her rice subsidy scheme, the current political crisis in Thailand could be in very real danger of spinning out of control.
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and reports for international news media like Channel NewsAsia. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.