Is this the end for Thailand’s ultra-nationalist yellow shirts?

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 26, 2013

As leaders of the ultra-nationalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) announce they have quit their roles in the movement, is this the end for Thailand’s yellow shirts?

It was a Friday and the end of a rather tumultuous political week with long parliament debates on constitutional amendments almost coming to a grinding halt because of the antics by opposition Democrat Party that ultimately couldn’t stop to vote.

From the outermost sidelines of the Thai political playing field, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – the ultra-nationalist, anti-democratic and anti-Thaksin street protest group also commonly known as the yellow shirts – announced that it would make a televised statement later that Friday evening.

A “change in its stance” was touted by the movement. The question was in which direction it was heading. Would the yellow shirts return to mass street protests they have given up on in 2012? Would the Democrat Party return to the fold after their break-up and following ridicule by the PAD?

In the presence of all key yellow shirt leaders such as Sondhi Limthongkul and Chamlong Srimuang – most of whom have kept a rather low public profile in the recent past – from the movement’s own TV studio, a spokesman read out a slightly surprising 30-minute statement:

Core bosses of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) announced last night they have quit the movement’s leadership (…)

Their decision, which was broadcast on the satellite-based ASTV station, came after it became clear Democrat Party MPs would not quit parliament to join a campaign to push for political reforms as had been suggested earlier by one of the PAD leaders Sondhi Limthongkul. (…)

The PAD leaders, who face a number of charges as a result of anti-Thaksin Shinawatra protests, claimed their ability to conduct political activities was being curbed by court orders.

If they were to bring about political reform, they would have to violate those court orders but there were no guarantees that their “sacrifices” would pay off in the long run.

They said the PAD alone was not powerful enough to bring about change. The Democrats, however, have the resources and are not restrained by any court orders, they said, but the Democrats have turned their back on Mr Sondhi’s proposal.

By rejecting the PAD’s offer, the Democrat Party showed that it was only aiming at discrediting the government and, like other political parties, hoped to use other groups for its own political gains, the statement added.

Top PAD bosses resign en masse“, Bangkok Post, August 24, 2013

The leaders further lamented in their Friday night announcement the ‘vicious cycle’ of politics. Even if the current government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (which they perceive as a proxy government of her brother Thaksin) is overthrown, the ruling Pheu Thai Party would comfortably win again in a reelection scenario. Any other political party would also act purely for their own political gain, their statement continued.

The yellow shirts have put their hopes in their former fellow anti-Thaksin protesters from the Democrat Party (both have large overlapping supporter groups mainly consisting of middle class Bangkokians), but they have moved on and created their own street protest groups. Furthermore, the opposition politicians would also not want to risk their political careers and quit parliament, which was a condition demanded by the PAD for them to join.

It was an admission of failure for the PAD in their mission to ‘free’ Thai politics of the influence of Thaksin (also a former business partner of Sondhi before ties between two soured) and everything the yellow shirts believe he stands for, among them a corrupt democratic system that needs to be done away with – preferably via a military coup and replaced with appointed representatives instead of elections.

What began as a broad urban anti-Thaksin alliance in 2005 and the (re-)introduction of street politics to Thailand and reached its climax in the 2008 airport siege (their trials have been postponed countless times), became more and more marginalized over the years. All that is left of the movement is the ultra-nationalist and anti-Thaksin core from the beginning.

Will this mean the end of anti-Thaksin protests? Far from it! The sentiments against Thaksin have only run deeper in Thailand over the years, as the various affiliated off-shoot protest groups such the ultra-royalist multi-colored shirts, the short-lived Pitak Siam and the recently emerged ‘White masks’ have shown. What all these groups have in common – apart from near-facist political leanings – is that while they have identified what they hate, they rarely have offered a proper political solution to the ongoing polarization.

The leaders’ resignation wants to be understood as something temporary rather than a complete breakdown. A return of the yellow shirts to the streets is never really out of the question given the right circumstances. However, with Friday’s announcement the People’s Alliance for Democracy have become a complete misnomer: they do not have enough the mass support they require, nor have they allies such as the Democrat Party and the military, and they certainly do not stand for democracy.