Find Other Sides of Thai Politic. Update you on the political turmoil in Thailand.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Under siege

The government in Thailand faces serious urban unrest

WHEN Thailand’s controversial former prime minister, Thaksin
Shinawatra, fled to Britain this month with his wife, Potjaman, to
escape corruption cases against them, some Thais hoped that this would
bring down the temperature of the country’s three-year political
conflict. But an anti-Thaksin street-protest movement, the People’s
Alliance for Democracy (PAD), insisted that it would not give up until
it forced the resignation of the pro-Thaksin government, led by the
prime minister, Samak Sundaravej. On Tuesday August 26th tens of
thousands of PAD supporters stormed government buildings and a state
television station in Bangkok, in what the group’s leader, Sondhi
Limthongkul, billed as “judgment day”.

As night fell in Bangkok the protesters were still surrounding
Government House. Mr Samak gave a warning that his patience with them
was almost exhausted. But they ignored his demand that they get out of
the government compound. The police said they would be seeking a court
order on Wednesday to let them remove the protesters. Mr Sondhi, with
his usual bravado, said they would have to kill him first.

What happens next is hard to predict. Mr Sondhi has said things like
this before only for the protests to fizzle. Likewise, Mr Samak has
talked of using force to end demonstrations, only to back down. But if
the police do use force there is a danger of bloodshed. This may be the
PAD leaders’ intention, so as to provoke the army into staging another
coup, like the one in 2006 that removed Mr Thaksin.

The army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, insisted on Tuesday that
his troops would leave the matter to the police. But the army has
historically had a low tolerance for public disorder and sees itself as
having a duty to intervene in such situations, regardless of whether
this means removing an elected government. Two years ago General
Anupong’s predecessor, Sonthi Boonyaratglin, had kept repeating that
there would be no coup right up until the evening that he put tanks on
the streets to remove Mr Thaksin’s government.

Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was disbanded in May 2007 but
regrouped under the banner of the People’s Power Party (PPP). In
December last year, after 15 months of inept and increasingly unpopular
military government, the PPP won by far the most seats in a general
election, since when it has governed in coalition. Rural Thais, in
particular, expressed their continued appreciation to Mr Thaksin’s
party for being the first in Thai history to deliver policies that met
their needs, such as cheap health care and credit. This inclined them
to overlook the strong whiff of corruption that surrounded the Thaksin
government, and its abuses of power, most notably a 2003 “war on drugs”
in which the police were suspected of thousands of extra-judicial

Mr Samak is so far determined to resist the pressure and stay in
office. He has sought to build bridges with the army and the royalist
Bangkok establishment. He recently appointed as foreign minister Tej
Bunnag, a palace adviser seen as especially close to King Bhumibol. The
PAD gets its supporters to dress in yellow, the king’s colour, and
claims to be saving Thailand and the monarchy from the Thaksinites’
supposed republicanism—though no credible evidence of this has
surfaced. Some of its supporters are genuine liberals, angry at the
Thaksin government’s abuses and at the signs Mr Samak and his cabinet
are turning out to be little better. But the movement’s leaders are
deeply reactionary: the “new politics” that they have been preaching is
in fact a return to old, pre-democracy politics with a mostly unelected
parliament and powers for the army to intervene when it feels like it.

With not much sign of compromise so far, there is not only the risk of
bloody clashes between the PAD and the police, there is also the danger
that Mr Thaksin’s supporters will hit the streets to attack his
opponents. There was a foretaste of this in late July when Thaksin fans
armed with clubs and axes attacked a demonstration by his opponents in
the north-eastern city of Udon Thani, injuring around a dozen.
Unsurprisingly, Thailand’s stockmarket and currency have wilted in the
heat of a conflict that shows no sign of ending.


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