IS THAILAND HEADING TOWARD A COUP THIS WEEK?

For Vice News.

Today, in their latest attempt to force caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office, Thailand’s anti-government protesters are calling for a shutdown of Bangkok’s commercial center.

Mass protests, made up largely of middle-class urbanites, have been taking place in Bangkok since November of last year. The demonstrations are in reaction to Shinawatra's party, the Pheu Thai Party, trying to rush an amnesty bill through parliament, which, if passed, would see her brother—controversial former PM, Thaksin Shinawatra—being able to return from exile.

Because he was widely viewed as a corrupt leader, owing predominately to the fact he wassentenced to two years' imprisonment for corruption while serving as prime minister, protesters don't want that to happen, and their plan is to oust the ruling party and replace them with an unelected people's council. Their newest plan to ramp up the pressure is to move their main rally site from Bangkok’s historic quarter to the heart of the capital, sparking concerns ranging from traffic gridlock to a fear of bloodshed and military intervention.

According to protest leader and former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsbuan, "We will dismantle our stage, break our rice pots, move our kitchen, and open a new battlefield to take over the capital." But as the protesters prepare to move, the Royal Thai Army—generally considered to be sympathetic to the anti-government movement—has been busy ferrying troops and tanks into the city. The generals said it is in preparation for the annual Armed Forces Day, which is to be held later this month (as it is every year). However, many are sceptical, and Bangkok’s rumor mill has worked itself into a frenzy over what the influx of troops really means.

Just in case tanks and imminent city shutdowns weren't enough, the protest movement’s own astrologer has apparently nominated the 14th of next week as an auspicious day for a military takeover, which has many convinced that a coup is inevitable. That said, much of the talk about coups and the potential for violence has come from the current government and its own supporters, happy to drum up a bit of fear into the rest of the country over what they say the protesters are planning. But a bit of fear is perhaps not entirely misplaced.

There have been almost nightly attacks on the current protest camp, and fears that this will continue when they move to the city center have left many demonstrators nervous. On Saturday, at least seven protest guards were injured when unknown gunmen on motorcycles reportedly opened fired with M16 assault rifles. The day before, battles had taken place in a town just north of Bangkok when anti-government and pro-government supports clashed, leaving a number of people injured.

In almost every situation where supporters from both sides have confronted each other, violence—often involving guns—has broken out almost immediately. These outbreaks of violence stoke fears that the move further into Bangkok is a provocation designed to escalate violence, thus opening the door to military intervention—an accusation that the protesters firmly deny.

In an interview earlier this week, Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha said that, "The military does not shut nor open the door to a coup. Anything can happen, depending on the situation." Other army spokespersons have since tried to allay fears of an imminent coup, but considering Thailand’s history (18 coups in the last 80 years), not many of those fears have been quelled.

The reality is that a coup is entirely possible, if not likely. It could come in the aftermath of potential chaos next week, or following an indecisive outcome in the upcoming elections, which are scheduled to be held on February 2. The elections are being boycotted by the opposition, and (if they take place at all) are unlikely to produce the required number of parliamentarians to fill the house. In this scenario, the army may well feel justified in taking over the running of the country.

However, we might not need to wait that long. Last week, the National Anti Corruption Commission found evidence for 308 lawmakers to be charged for supporting a bill that looked to amend certain workings of the government. According to at least one interpretation of the constitution, all those members are now—or will be—suspended, leaving a vacuum that, again, the army may feel obligated to fill.

And the rumours don’t stop at coups. There is talk of civil war, of a divided country: the north, run from Chiang Mai (where Yingluck lives when she's not in Bangkok), versus those in the south, in Bangkok, the power base of the opposition and current protest movement.

It could happen. It could all spiral out of control and there could be widespread bloodshed. But it's unlikely. This isn’t a grassroots revolution where the masses are rising up against the ruling, power-hungry elite. These are heavily invested, largely middle-class members of society who would have nothing to gain from a crumbling nation.

According to long-term observers of Thailand's political landscape, this whole affair is about more than removing the present government. They suggest it's wrapped up in what will happen when the current—and deeply revered—king dies, but due to Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law, not much more can be said on the matter.

Internationally, Thailand is too deeply integrated into the global community for it to fall into bloody conflict unnoticed. It’s not a pariah state, nor a country shielding itself from globalization or the winds of international opinion. Earlier today, for the first time, it was reported that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been holding talks between Yingluck and the leader of the opposition party in an effort to help them bridge their differences.

Ultimately, though, nobody knows what is going to happen. The city has been busily preparing itself for the shutdown, with schools closing, public transportation routes bolstered, and measures underway to help maintain some semblance of normalcy. The US Embassy in Thailand recently updated their own travel advice, suggesting that their citizens living in Bangkok stock up on food and supplies for the next two weeks. However, most people are just waiting to see what happens, with few precautions being taken by local businesses and no reports of a rush on shops.

So the shutdown could be a major inconvenience and nothing more, or it could be the start of a whole new violent chapter for Thailand. At the very least, next week should provide a little more clarity on where Thailand is headed amid its current political turmoil.

Vice News - http://www.vice.com/read/is-thailand-heading-for-a-coup-this-week

OPPOSITION LEADERS ARE BEING SHOT DEAD IN THE STREETS OF BANGKOK

For Vice News. 

Tensions in the Thai capital Bangkok are on the rise, as anti-government protesters continue to paralyze the city. Their protest camps are being attacked and activists have been gunned down in broad daylight. A state of emergency declared last week hasn’t calmed anything down and the opposition is vowing to disrupt the election slated for the 2nd of February.

The current impasse was initially sparked by the so-called “amnesty bill”, which would have allowed for the return of the divisive exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But the protests soon morphed into something much bigger, as the “yellow-shirts” – middle-class supporters of the Civil Movement for Democracy, who are royalist and ironically negate the results of every election that doesn’t go their way – are demanding the abolition of the Shinawatra family in politics and for widespread (and largely unspecified) reforms to be implemented by a non-elected “people’s council”. This would be chosen, in effect, by a Bangkok-led minority to which they belong.

The so-called “Bangkok Shutdown” – which has involved turning key roads and junctions into Occupy-style protest camps and barricades – is now entering its third week and there are signs that the protest leaders are feeling less at ease in the heart of the city. Various marches to government buildings have been cancelled on “security grounds” and opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban has put a temporary halt on his fundraising marches.

The protest camps have been the target of harassment since the beginning of the shutdown. Last night, one site was reportedly shot at while another was fired upon with an M79 grenade, launched from the elevated expressway above. The night before, a VICE News crew was at a site in the historic quarter of the city when the crowd of protesters, comprised largely of old men and women, came under a similar attack involving “ping pong” bombs – small, home-made explosives packed with gunpowder and with a short fuse – and apparently gun shots. There was little cover and the protesters inside were ordered by panicked security to lay flat on the ground as they scoured the buildings overlooking the site using flashlights. According to one account, the opposition’s security team also sent up an aerial drone to search the area while onstage one of the leaders announced, rather colourfully, that “the wolves were out playing and we’re going to go and hunt them”.

In the end, they didn’t catch any "wolves", and they likely never will. Even the allegiance of the attackers isn’t clear. Politically motivated accusations and counter-accusations are often levelled between the different factions. One possibility is that the attackers were "red-shirts" or some fringe, extremist group affiliated to that pro-government movement. But I honestly couldn't tell you for certain and neither, it seems, could anyone else. The situation in Thailand is an incredibly messy and convoluted one at present.

This chaos had bled through from Tuesday, when – at a rally outside the Royal Thai Army Club – an undercover police officer reportedly shot a protester and was in turn badly beaten by a watching crowd before both men were taken away in ambulances. Only 100 metres away, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra sat with Election Committee officials to discuss whether or not the contentious elections should go ahead. The eventual decision by the government was that the elections, scheduled for Sunday, the 2nd of February, should proceed as planned. The decision enraged the opposition who see the polls as a challenge to their own demand of “reform before elections”.

That night, in one of his frequent speeches, Suthep vowed to paralyse Bangkok and force closures of polling booths on the day of the election. “We will make all the roads in Bangkok ‘walking streets’, picnic streets, and we will eat in the middle of the road,” he said.

Last week, on an “early voting day”, we caught a glimpse of what that ostensibly quite twee threat might look like made flesh. Groups of opposition protesters blocked voters from casting their ballots across the capital, despite promises they'd made the day before not to stop anyone from having the chance to do just that. It was a day that, like so many recently, ended with a shooting. Suthin Taratin, a yellow-shirt leader, was shot dead in broad daylight as he addressed a crowd of supporters.

If Suthep and his followers do break their word, again, then election day Sunday could see widespread violence. Some elements of the red-shirts have said that they will send groups of supporters to protect the polling booths, but it’s hard to see this happening without clashes that would allow the army to step in, something the red-shirts don’t want.

For now, the all-important military has continued its stance of apparent neutrality, often acting as a mediator in talks between protesters and police. But the army is always prepared to step in and take over and if the generals see the situation escalating out of control, then nobody is any doubt that they will act. What would happen then is anyone’s guess. 

So, the shutdown continues, the government remains defiant, and the army is poised. There are few forseeable scenarios that would result in a happy ending. If the opposition don’t get their way, they’ll continue their protests and the frustration will mount. If they do get their way, the pro-government red-shirts will respond, perhaps with violence. Even if the elections are successful – which is a big "if" – it’s unlikely that things will change. The yellow-shirts probably wouldn’t accept the result and would take to the streets once more. It doesn’t look like the army will act against them and the police seem unable to. A resolution to the mess is a long way off. Chaos reigns in Bangkok.

Vice News - http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/bangkoks-shutdown-is-not-solving-anything