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Thailand's Red October

by Bertil Lintner

Posted October 8, 2008

Troops in the streets of Bangkok, teargas against demonstrators, two dead and hundreds injured. Thailand's political crisis took a turn for the worse on Tuesday, Oct. 7, when thousands of protesters, who have occupied Government House since Aug. 26, left the area and began marching on the Parliament. Their target was Thailand’s new prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, who they see as a crony of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a coup in September 2006 and now lives in exile in London. Mr. Somchai’s wife, Ms. Yaowapa, is Mr. Thaksin’s younger sister.

The military has so far stated that it will not stage a coup, a pledge reiterated by army chief, General Anupong Paojinda, after the recent clashes. “I can confirm that the army remains strictly neutral,” the Bangkok Post quoted him as saying on Oct. 8. But it seems clear that the People’s Alliance for Democracy is trying to provoke the military to intervene, or perhaps even a royal intervention.

Thailand’s highly respected monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is the ultimate arbiter when the country descends into chaos—but he intervenes only when there is severe violence in the country, as in 1973 and 1992. The situation has not yet reached that level of anarchy, which means that the stalemate will most probably continue. The PAD will not give up Government House, and the government is now operating from premises at Don Muang Airport, Bangkok’s former international airport. Mr. Somchai has also rejected calls for his resignation and dissolution of the elected House of Representatives.

Although Thai sources are reluctant to discuss the matter, it appears clear the demonstrators want to prevent Mr. Thaksin from coming back at a sensitive time when the issue of succession to the throne could become urgent. The king will turn 81 in December and there are speculations about his health. During his time as prime minister, 2001-06, Mr. Thaksin at times acted as if he were head of state. According to Danish anthropologist Mikael Gravers, writing in the December 2007 issue of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies’ journal, Asia Insights: “He [Mr. Thaksin] became more and more autocratic and challenged the old elite and the moral power of the king … (for instance) … [Mr.] Thaksin appointed an interim Buddhist patriarch of the Sangha—a prerogative of the king who normally appoints a monk from the royally related Thammayut sect. The king blamed Mr. Thaksin for suing his critics and for Mr. Thaksin’s placing himself above critique, an exclusive royal prerogative. At the culmination of the crisis, former prime minister and president of the royal Privy Council, Prem Tinsulanonda, cited the king saying that “only persons with moral goodness should rule and that bad people should be kept from rising to power.”

But the question is also whether Thailand can afford a crisis of this magnitude, both in terms of loss of revenue from tourism and effects on the country’s investment climate. Pramon Suthivong, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement on Oct. 7 that, “foreigners fear closures of airports (and that) rail and port services will happen again, and coupled with the U.S. financial crisis, it would eventually force more layoffs in the future. The Thai economy and exports are already beginning to suffer from the world-wide financial meltdown.”

A possible way out of the crisis could be a government of national unity, which would include the main ruling party, the People’s Power Party, as well as opposition figures and independents. And there were signs of a dialog with the new deputy prime minister, Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyuth, sending out feelers to the PAD. But Gen. Chavalit resigned in the wake of the Oct. 7 clashes.

Two of the main PAD leaders, Maj.-Gen. Chamlong Srimuang and Chaiwat Sinsuwong are in custody on charges of insurrection. Before he resigned, Gen. Chavalit had offered to pay Maj.-Gen. Chamlong’s bail to defuse the situation—but the offer was turned down.

Mr. Somchai became prime minister almost by default after the courts forced his predecessor, Mr. Samak Sundaravej, to resign on Sept. 9 for appearing in a televised cooking show while in office—considered a conflict of interest—and is not seen as a strong statesman. He is a lawyer by training and has served as a judge in several provincial courts. And, like Mr. Samak, Mr. Somchai could also be disqualified from his premiership. Mr. Ruangkrai Leekijwattanaon, an opposition senator, has filed a complaint on whether he violated the constitution by holding shares in Thailand’s CS LoxInfo PCL, an Internet service provider that is a contract partner of the Communications Authority of Thailand, a state-owned telecommunications-service provider. (It is against the Thai constitution for parliament members to hold shares in companies that do business with state enterprises.)

But it is too early to say whether a forced resignation of Mr. Somchai would end the crisis. After the recent violence, the wounds in Thai society appear too deep to heal and there seems to be no solution in sight. Meanwhile, local businessmen and foreign investors are getting increasingly worried about the state of the already troubled Thai economy.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, October 8, 2008

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