Describing the movement to overthrow the Thai government as peaceful, a Bangkok civil court Wednesday sharply curtailed the powers of the authorities and barred them from dispersing protesters, a decision that a prominent legal analyst described as “one step closer to a full-scale judicial coup.”
The decision came one day after violent clashes between the police and protesters that left five people dead, including a police officer. After a series of confrontations in recent weeks and the wide circulation of photographs of heavily armed men among the protesters, the protest movement increasingly resembles an armed insurrection against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Samdin Lertbutr, a protest leader, said Wednesday on Thai television that “very professional” men with weapons were assisting protesters and “making the police retreat.”
The court, however, found that the protests were being carried out “peacefully without weapons,” and ordered that the demonstrators’ rights and freedoms “be protected according to the constitution.” The decision bars the government from using force or weapons to crack down on the demonstrators.
On Tuesday, protesters attacked the police with a grenade, an action that protest leaders initially denied, but then acknowledged when footage of the detonation circulated on the Internet.
The protesters, who blocked elections in Bangkok and southern Thailand earlier this month, are seeking a suspension of democratic procedures and the creation of an unelected “people’s council” that would replace the parliament. They resent the dominance of Ms. Yingluck, whose political movement has won every election since 2001.
There is a long tradition in Thailand of overthrowing governments, often through bloodless coups or what are termed “judicial coups,” in which a leader is removed by the courts. A prime minister in 2008 who fell out with the Bangkok establishment was removed because he received income from a televised cooking program.
But the current political crisis is far more intractable than those of previous years, and involves a power struggle by two formidable political movements. The protesters are backed by the elites in Bangkok, while the governing party’s power is rooted in a rural-based political movement founded by Ms. Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire tycoon now in self-exile who was ousted by the military in a 2006 coup.
The leader of the protests, Suthep Thaugsuban, who has been charged with murder for ordering the use of live ammunition against demonstrations when he was deputy prime minister in 2010, describes an all-or-nothing battle against the Shinawatra family.
The court on Wednesday allowed the government to maintain a state of emergency that it declared last month, but at the same time barred the authorities from searching or dismantling the areas where protesters are encamped at major intersections in Bangkok. The court also said the protesters had the right to block roads. The government can appeal the decision, but has not indicated whether it will do so.
Sunai Phasuk, a researcher in Thailand with Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter that emergency rule was “rendered meaningless” by the court decision.
Sawat Charoenpol, a lawyer representing the protesters, described the ruling as a
victory for the protest movement and said the government was “unable to do anything about the protesters.”
Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained lawyer and prominent commentator, said Wednesday’s decision allowed protesters to claim “pseudo-legitimacy to overthrow the government.”
Mr. Pariyawong said the court had relied on an earlier determination by the country’s Constitutional Court, which ruled that the protests were peaceful. But he said it was “legally illogical for the civil court to disregard the current situation,” a reference to the violence of recent days.
The larger picture for Ms. Yingluck’s government appears to be a slow strangulation of her power. The country’s anti-corruption commission has prioritized a case against her relating to a costly and deeply unpopular rice subsidy policy. Legal analysts say the case could end with her being barred from politics.
And the country’s election commission has been slow – critics says obstructionist – in completing plans for voting in areas blocked by protesters during the Feb. 2 general elections. Until the elections are completed, Yingluck leads a caretaker government that is tightly circumscribed by law.
“The noose is tightening around Yingluck and her situation appears untenable,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “It’s now a question of what comes afterwards. If it’s inclusive and agreeable to the main protagonists, Thailand may be able to muddle its way through. But if it’s not, it will be a recipe for more mayhem.”