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Thai Economy May Become Victim Of Political Unrest


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's go next to Thailand, a country in turmoil. Last night, at least two people were killed and 20 wounded in clashes in the capital city, Bangkok. Protesters have been camped out there since last November. The protesters are backed by the country's wealthy elites, and they are demanding the removal of a democratically-elected government. This chaotic situation worsened last week. That's when Thailand's top court removed the populist Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for abuse of power.

Michael Sullivan is in Bangkok.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: This is the leader of the anti-government protesters. His name is Suthep Thaugsuban.

SUTHEP THAUGSUBAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: For months now, Suthep has been relentless in pursuit of his goal to bring down the democratically-elected government, and replace it with an unelected government of the people, even though the party he comes from hasn't won an election in nearly two decades. Suthep's tactics have included occupying key intersections in the capital for months, and having his supporters prevent people from voting in February's general election, all of which have led him to formally charged with insurrection.

Michael Montesano is a longtime Thai watcher at Singapore's Institute for Southeast Asian Studies.

MICHAEL MONTESANO: Under normal circumstances, virtually anywhere else in the world, Suthep would have long since been arrested and thrown in jail.

SULLIVAN: But, in fact, Suthep is holding court in the prime minister's compound, which he and his supporters occupied a few days back.

THAUGSUBAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: The police did nothing to stop him. His supporters now sit in the middle of a normally busy street, under huge awnings to shield them from the heat. There's plenty of free food and drink and regular entertainment. A lot of the crowd, if not most, has been bussed in, some say rented. Suthep's real backers, the money, are from a different social strata captured in this memorable "Vice" video last month, of two young rich men in a hot car called "Driving Ferraris with the Thai Royalists."


SULLIVAN: It's a fight that's been going on ever since Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister and harnessed the political power of Thailand's rural and urban poor with populist schemes that got him elected repeatedly, then eventually deposed in a 2006 coup for abuse of power, a coup engineered by the elite who saw him as a threat.

The coup didn't accomplish all that much. Parties loyal to Thaksin have won every election since. And every time, it seems the royalist-friendly Constitutional Court finds a way to get rid of him, one famously for hosting a cooking show while prime minister. Thaksin's sister Yingluck, the latest victim, removed last week for illegally replacing her National Security Chief. But that's still not enough for Suthep and his supporters. They have rejected the idea of new elections. And they want the Thaksin family and their associates eradicated from Thai politics forever - too corrupt, they say, to stay.


SULLIVAN: Thais don't agree on a lot of things these days, except that the system is broken, so broken, said respected academic Likhit Dhiravegin during a recent talk show, that there's no telling what's right or wrong anymore.

LIKHIT DHIRAVEGIN: (Through translator) Anything can be done in Thailand. See a cat, and say it's a dog. See a dog, and say it's a hen. You can issue laws retroactively. There are no rules and law.

SULLIVAN: No rules, no law, and a coup-prone army that this time seems unwilling to step in, and there does not appear to be anyone in the middle that both sides trust.

Michael Montesano puts most of the blame on Suthep and his supporters.

MONTESANO: Given their refusal to allow an outcome via the normal means - which would be holding an election - and given the agenda that they seem to have for so-called political reform, there's precious little space for compromise

SULLIVAN: Little space for compromise, a tanking economy and more and more talk of a possible civil war.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan, in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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