Thai Government Moves To Crack Down On Protest Movement

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This past weekend Thai protesters were largely successful in nullifying the attempted election by closing polling booths and refusing to participate. Still, Prime Minister Yingluck remains in power and with protests continuing to threaten the nation’s economy and stability, the government is now ramping up its efforts to shut down the movement.

In January, the government passed strong security laws that would allow them to arrest people without cause, banned gatherings of more than five people, censor the media, and impose curfews. Still, the government has largely declined to take aggressive action against protesters. Since mid-January, however, the protest movement has largely succeeded in shutting the city of Bangkok and many of its important offices and buildings down.

Arrest warrants issued for key leaders

The Thai Department of Special Investigation has issued arrest warrants for anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former member of the parliament, and 18 of his closest supporters. This follows earlier arrest warrants issued in December by the Criminal Court for insurrection. So far no one has been arrested, but owing to the increasing threat of the protests, the government may be pushed into action.

Meanwhile, Suthep has continued to stage protests in spite of the government warrants. Thronged by tens of thousands of supporters and his own personal security detail, seizing Suthep in public may prove impossible. As the de facto leader of the protest movement, however, Suthep will remain a prime target.

Foreigners coming under increasing scrutiny

So far, the protests in Thailand have largely been a domestic affair. A few foreigners, however, are believed to have participated in them and now are increasingly becoming a target of scrutiny. Satish Sehgal, the Indian chair the India-Thai Business Association, is now facing deportation after allegedly taking part in protests.

Mr. Satish admitted to attending protests and even giving speeches, but claims that he did so only before the January 21st emergency decree. Mr. Satish claims that nothing he did was illegal. The Indian national has lived in Thailand for 55 years and owns a printing business.

Thai economy suffering

Thailand’s economy is now suffering due to the protest movement. Once one of the darlings of South East Asia, Thailand is quickly losing its luster. Both foreign and local businesses have been hurt, and there is a risk that continued protests will scare off foreign direct investments.

The Chinese New Year wrapped up last week, and Bangkok has long been a popular destination for tourists, but due to the protests, tourist visits have been plummeting. This has put a crimp on retail sales, hotels, and other tourist oriented services. Thailand’s Central Group, a retail and real estate conglomerate, reported that sales have been down 10% through both December and January and is expecting soft sales through the first half of the year.

Thailand facing a critical juncture

With protests only increasing, Thailand finds itself in a difficult position. Yingluck’s policies have bought her the loyalty of many of Thailand’s working class individuals, which has made her difficult to defeat in elections. At the same time increasing discontent among urban and middle class voters has all but shattered the fragile stability in the country.

If protests continue, Thailand’s economy and regional clout may take a serious hit. Thailand is one of South East Asia’s emerging political and economic powers, being home to nearly 70 million people and having enjoyed strong economic growth over the past few years. Still, foreign investors may get spooked by protests, while domestic businesses are already struggling.

Meanwhile, even if the protests succeed in pushing Yingluck from government or forcing the military to step in, there’s always the risk that Yingluck’s supporters could start large scale protests of their own. With Yingluck having already won the support of majority of Thais through her populism policies, her supporters could quickly emerge as a potential force of disruption.

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