In Thailand, rallying cry is against too much democracy

Thomas Fuller
Thai anti government protesters attend a rally at the Democracy monument in Bangkok on December 15, 2013.

In a world now accustomed to democratic upheavals, including the Arab Spring and the Saffron and Orange revolutions, the weeks of political upheaval in Thailand stand out for one main peculiarity: Protesters massing on the streets here are demanding less democracy, not more.

From their stage beneath the Democracy Monument, a Bangkok landmark, protesters cheer their campaign to replace the country's Parliament with a "people's council" in which members are selected from various professions rather than elected by voters.

The embattled prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has proposed holding new elections as a solution to the turmoil. But that is exactly what the protesters do not want.

(Read more: Thai political strife is far from over)

"I am one of the people who will not allow this election to take place," Suthep Thaugsuban, the main protest leader, told a group of business executives in Bangkok on Thursday. Continued protests "might hurt businesses," he said, "but just in the short term."

In today's fractured Thailand, a majority wants more democracy, but a minority, including many rich and powerful people, are petrified by the thought of it.

Thai democrats have 'shot themselves in the foot': Pro

Ms. Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party has won every election since 2001. Members of the main opposition party, the Democrat Party, resigned en masse from Parliament on Sunday, joined the street protesters, and have not yet said whether they would contest in February.

That Thailand is being convulsed by an anti-democracy movement is somewhat surprising. The country was one of the earliest in Asia to adopt democracy, and both women and men were allowed to vote in local elections in 1897, more than two decades before the 19th Amendment in the United States banned voting rights discrimination on the basis of sex.

The anti-democracy protests, which have been some of the largest in Thai history, call into question the commonly held belief that a rising tide of wealth in a society will naturally be followed by greater demands for democracy. Thailand today is much richer than it was two decades ago, but it is also much more divided.

To outsiders, some of the rhetoric of protest leaders seems to come from a different era — and is in jarring contrast to the image of Thailand as a cosmopolitan country open to the world.

(Read more: Thai Prime Minister calls snap election, protesters press on)

At the Democracy Monument, in the heart of Bangkok's historic district, tens of thousands of protesters gather nightly to speak of their skepticism of the notion of one person, one vote. One block over on Khao San Road, a street legendary with generations of Western travelers, tattooed and tanned backpackers watch English Premier League soccer, drink beer and enjoy $7 foot massages.

On the face of it, the crux of the protest appears to be a classic power struggle between a dominant majority and a minority frustrated that its voice is not being heard.

Why parliament dissolution won't solve Thai tensions

But the political turmoil today is also tightly intertwined with the fact that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country's 86-year-old monarch who during more than six decades on the throne has been revered to the point of quasi-religious devotion, is ailing, and the country is bracing for his passing.

The nostalgia surrounding his reign and the respect for the king is so profound among protesters that some speakers in recent days have labeled the abandonment of the absolute monarchy in 1932 a mistake.

Protest leaders have called for a royally appointed prime minister.

The royal anthem is played nightly at protests, and marches are led by protesters holding his portrait aloft.

A crucial undercurrent in the demonstrations is the protesters' claim that the king and the institution of the monarchy have been undermined and threatened by the popularity of Ms. Yingluck's elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister and patriarch of the Shinawatra clan, Thailand's most powerful political family.

(Read more: Violent protests expose cracks in Thai economy)

"This is a war between Thaksin and the king," said a 64-year-old corn farmer from central Thailand who gave her name only as Muai and was among the thousands of protesters in the streets on Thursday. "Thaksin has been insulting the king for far too long."

Mr. Thaksin has never publicly spoken ill of the king, but many of his supporters have been convicted by the authorities for lèse-majesté.

A 2008 United States diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks offered a rare insight into Mr. Thaksin's perception of his relationship with the king.

According to Eric G. John, who wrote the cable and was then the United States ambassador in Thailand, Mr. Thaksin said he "had enjoyed a good relationship with the king during his first term as prime minister" but that the relationship soured after he won re-election in 2005.

"Thaksin said many figures at the palace felt threatened by his political power and his popularity with rural Thais," the cable said.

Anti-government protesters demonstrate outside the Ministry of Interior, November 26, 2013.
Getty Images

Mr. Thaksin was removed in a military coup in 2006.

Respect for the king, and the notion of his near infallibility and beneficence, are deeply ingrained in Thais from the earliest years of schooling. Many Thais look to the king as a spiritual anchor and someone who can steer the country far better than politicians.

More from the New York Times:

Four Times a Charm?
Protests Continue in Thailand After Election Is Set
India's Aspirational Volcano

Yet the king's ailing health appears to preclude any role in mediating this conflict. He did not specifically mention the protests in his annual birthday address to the nation a week ago.

Hopes for a negotiated settlement to the political standoff still seem distant. Mr. Suthep, the protest leader, was asked by business leaders on Thursday whether he would reach out to his opponents in the governing party and their allies.

"We are ready to listen to people from every sector," he said. "But we don't want to negotiate."

(Read more: This Asian nation faces a growing crisis from aging)

Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was charged with murder Thursday in connection with the 2010 deaths of protesters killed during a crackdown on antigovernment demonstrators, The Associated Press reported from Bangkok.

Mr. Abhisit, of the opposition Democrat Party, denied all the charges in the brief court hearing. His government approved the use of live ammunition under limited conditions and deployed sharpshooters and snipers during the 2010 demonstrations. His deputy at the time, Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the current protests, was also expected to face charges Thursday, though he has asked that his hearing be postponed until January.