The seriousness of the political crisis that the Yingluck Shinawatra government in Thailand has been at pains to play down was conveyed to the world with its declaration of a 60-day emergency. The government justifies the measure as a way to restore peace on the streets. Despite the Opposition’s pledge to keep the protests peaceful and the government’s efforts to abjure violence, neither has been able to prevent bloodshed. Both anti- and pro-government agitators now run the risk of gunshots and grenade blasts from unidentified quarters. The resultant fear, suspicion and anger could destroy the precarious restraint that parties on either side of the political divide have shown so long. The promulgation of the emergency decree indicates that the government has been able to sense the subtle change of mood, but this is perhaps more an indication that the Shinawatra regime is shooting from the hip than actually trying to think through the muddle. The emergency decree gives the administration the power to impose curfew, ban public gatherings, detain suspects without trial and muzzle the media. For any government trying to pre-empt an anti-government movement, this would be a boon, but not for one trying to deal with a movement that has been growing on the streets for the past few months. There is no way that the government can implement these measures without risking violence, which it is averse to doing for the fear of bringing out the army. Ms Shinawatra’s labour minister may have been making a grudging admission of the lack of direction in the government when he said that there was no policy to disperse the protesters. In fact, the government was looking at negotiating with them rather than imposing curfew.
Just like the political amnesty bill that triggered the mass protests, the ill-thought emergency decree may end up stiffening the back of the anti-government protest movement. The emergency measure is perhaps the government’s way of minimizing disruptions to the February 2 elections. But the emergency itself has put the elections under a cloud. With the Opposition having promised to boycott the polls and the sharpening of the political divide, it is doubtful if the Pheu Thai Party will be able to do away with the huge question mark on its political legitimacy even if it manages to hold and win the polls.