BANGKOK – Anti-government protesters in Thailand are blocking key intersections in the heart of Bangkok to pressure the prime minister to quit and bring the government to a standstill. Here are some questions and answers about the latest round of political unrest:
Q: Why are demonstrators in Thailand demanding that the prime minister resign and that elections scheduled for Feb. 2 not be held?
A: They claim the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is corrupt and that her party uses money to influence voters and cement its power. Before any election is held, they would like to implement political reforms.
Q: What measures are the protesters suggesting as a remedy?
A: Protest leaders, who call themselves the People's Democratic Reform Committee, want the government hand over power to an unelected "people's council," a body of 300 people chosen by organizations representing various professions and 100 of their own nominees. The council would amend laws to fight corruption in politics and institute other reforms, while an appointed prime minister would help administer the country for up to two years.
Q: Why do they want to force Yingluck to quit?
A: They regard Yingluck as a stand-in for her billionaire brother, former Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra, who went into self-imposed exile in 2008 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a conflict of interest conviction.
Q: How long have these protests going on?
A: The latest round of protests started about two months ago. But Thailand has been riven by political tension and periodic protests ever since 2006, when a peaceful military coup removed Thaksin from power amid protests against allegations of corruption and abuse of power.
Q: What is the government's position?
A: The government says it is willing to hold talks immediately with all parties on political reforms, and begin a defined process to institute them if re-elected.
Q: What kinds of reforms are being proposed?
A: Aside from the direct election of provincial governors who are now appointed by the central government, and vague suggestions about making the police more accountable to the people, the protesters are not specific on what reforms they would implement. Yingluck's administration sought to make the upper house of parliament fully rather than partially elected, but courts and so-called independent state oversight agencies, which share the protesters' anti-Thaksin sentiments, scuttled the proposal.
Q: How much support do the protesters have?
A: As many as 200,000 people have turned out for the biggest of the opposition protests in the past two months, Thailand's largest protests in decades. The demonstrators are mainly middle class, and generally backed by big business and the financial elite. They include a large contingent of people from southern Thailand, a stronghold of the opposition Democrat Party, which is closely allied to the protest movement and boycotting the election.
Q: Who are the government's supporters?
A: Thaksin and his political allies have easily won every national election since 2001, with Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party winning a majority of lower house seats in 2011. Pro-Thaksin "Red Shirt" activists staged their own disruptive protests in Bangkok in 2010 against a Democrat-led government. Thaksin draws support from the lower and lower middle class, mostly rural people who benefited from his populist policies, including virtually free health care.
Q: Where does the military stand?
A: The army has been a potent force in Thai politics, staging about a dozen successful coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. But its last two interventions, in 1991 and 2006, destabilized the country and hurt its own reputation. Army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has declared the military neutral in the current political tussle, but his disinclination to suppress the sometimes violent protests shows a tilt against Yingluck's administration.
Q: How violent have the protests been?
A: Eight people have been killed over the past two months, including police and Red Shirt supporters. Although the protesters profess to be nonviolent, they have thrown rocks and small homemade explosives at police. Their tactic has a twofold purpose: to elicit a violent response by police to win public sympathy, and to make the situation so chaotic as to serve as an excuse for the army to step in to restore order.
Q: How will the conflict be resolved?
A: The protesters have said they refuse to negotiate at all with the government. Yingluck says her government is legally obliged to carry on its duties and hold the early election she has scheduled. Even if the polls are held as scheduled, the protesters blocking of candidates' registrations in several provinces may prevent parliament from convening for lack of a quorum. A military coup remains a possibility, but more likely is a "judicial coup" by the courts that could force Yingluck from office for alleged corruption or violations of the constitution.