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A Thailand Riven By Politics

by Bertil Lintner

Posted September 5, 2008

Thailand’s political future could not look more uncertain as the crisis that’s gripping the country has reached a point of no return. Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has made it clear that he is not going to resign, nor dissolve the elected parliament. On Sept. 2, he even declared a state of emergency after pro-and antigovernment groups clashed in the streets of Bangkok, resulting in at least one death and dozens injured.

At the same time, his opponents in the People’s Alliance for Democracy continue to besiege and occupy government buildings in Bangkok and have vowed more action, including labor strikes and the airport blockades, to force Mr. Samak to quit. The noble Thai art of compromise seems to have given way to a state of unprecedented confrontation and divisions in society.

The anti-Samak demonstrations began in May and were carried out on an almost daily basis until the PAD in late August launched a massive and some would argue even militant "do-or-die" campaign to bring down the government. But despite criticism from his opponents and accusations of being aggressive and belligerent, Mr. Samak, according to most neutral observers in Bangkok, has—at least so far—shown remarkable restraint. An initial order to clear Government House—his office—of demonstrators was never implemented. Force was not used to disperse PAD sympathizers, who for three days blockaded three airports in the south, including those at Phuket and Krabi, two popular tourist destinations.

Arrest warrants have been issued for nine PAD leaders on charges of insurrection, unlawful assembly and refusing orders to disperse, but all of them remain at large. And, so far, the army has not been called in to restore order. As the review went to press, there were even few signs that the state and emergency regulations were being enforced. Antigovernment demonstrators continued to occupy the ground around Government House, although more than 20 police trucks were parked not far from the area.

Mr. Samak may be well aware of the grim reality that excessive use of force could further polarize the Thai nation and make it even make it even more difficult to find a solution to the crisis. But something has to be done before the economy begins to suffer; the protesters have threatened to shut down more rail services and even the electricity supply. So far, the Thai baht, has remained stable, although it has been slipping on an almost daily basis against the dollar, the yen and some other currencies. Investor confidence, which already is low, is bound to deteriorate even further the longer the turmoil continues.

It is also becoming clear that the confrontation is not only about opposition to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a bloodless coup in September 2006 and subsequently banned by the authorities from politics and his Thai Rak Thai party dissolved. Mr. Thaksin’s TRT won landslide victories in the 2001 and 2005 elections, challenged old elites and urban middle classes, which led to sharp divisions in Thai society. He was also accused of corruption and abuse of power, while he remained popular especially in the countryside because of almost free health care, generous support to village-development schemes and other populist policies. Only 10 days before the Sept. 19, 2006 coup, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, president of the Privy Council, had told the Bangkok Post that the nation is sacred and Mr. Thaksin had split the nation.

In February of that year, the PAD was formally established, and then brought together various interest groups whose lowest common denominator was opposition to the then Mr. Thaksin government. Its then five-person central committee consisted of media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul; Chamlong Srimuang, a former Bangkok governor and retired major-general with strong links to factions in the military; social activist and long-time pro-democracy campaigner Piphob Dhongchai; state enterprise labor leader Somsak Kosaisuk; and Somkiat Pongpaiboon, an academic.

Their rallies in 2006 led to military intervention in politics and the ouster of Mr. Thaksin. But the government the coup makers installed, led by former army chief and privy councilor Surayud Chulanont, failed to live up to the expectations of many in the anti-Thaksin movement. Thailand was not "purged" of Mr. Thaksin’s influence, although he was in exile in London and China for 17 months. TRT was disbanded, only to be resurrected in the shape of Mr. Samak’s People’s Power Party (PPP), which won the elections in December 2007. In February, Mr. Thaksin returned to Thailand, and the PAD, which ceased its activities after the coup, was re-established in March. Demonstrations began on May 25 at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok to protest a proposal to amend the constitution in a way the PAD thought would benefit Mr. Thaksin, and perhaps pave the way for his return to power.

But even if that had been the thought behind the proposed amendment, Mr. Thaksin’s chances of once again being at the helm of the nation were thwarted when, in July, he went on trial for corruption. On July 31, his wife Pojaman was found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to three years in jail. The couple was allowed to leave the country to attend the Beijing Olympics, but did not return. They continued to London, where they still remain, and the Supreme Court issued arrest warrants against both Mr. Thaksin and his wife for failing to appear in court; Mr. Thaksin has not been convicted.

The former prime minister is now a fugitive from justice, and nothing short of a miracle could bring him back into politics. Meanwhile, all his assets in Thai banks—totaling around $2.2 billion—have been frozen by the courts. Evidently in financial trouble, on Sept. 1 he sold the pride of his portfolio, the Manchester City football club, to the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment.

A Bangkok-based analyst argues that the departure of Mr. Thaksin has left a power vacuum, and brought the confrontation beyond the question of the former prime minister’s role in Thai society and politics. As various interest groups scramble for power and influence, the military has apparently become divided into pro- and anti-PAD camps, which has made the situation potentially even more explosive.

Given what happened after the last one, another coup is not a very likely scenario. In late August, Gen. Anupong stated, "The army will not stage a coup. The political crisis should be resolved by political means." But, given the volatile situation in Thailand today, a military intervention cannot be totally ruled out.

One possibility is a royal intervention, similar to that during the 1992 crisis, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej summoned Mr. Chamlong—then also a leader of the protests—and General Suchinda Kraprayoon, the nonelected prime minister they were protesting against, and told them to halt the confrontation. Mr. Suchinda subsequently resigned and Mr. Chamlong, at least for a while, later retreated to an organic farm and a "leadership school."

Another scenario is that the demonstrations fizzle out. It may be hard for the PAD to maintain the momentum much longer, especially as support for the movement among the middle class in Bangkok appears to be dwindling. The storming of a television station, and other militant acts including an attempt to take over police headquarters in the capital, have been condemned even by groups which, in the past, were critical of Mr. Thaksin. In August, a poll conducted by Bangkok University showed that 68% of respondents in the capital disapproved of PAD’s siege of government buildings.

But if the demonstrations do not peter out, it is quite likely that the pro-government camp may mobilize its supporters against the PAD. Smaller, pro-government rallies have been held in Bangkok recently and they did clash with the PAD in the morning of Sept. 2. It is also well-remembered that a 1,000-strong group of people armed with knives and wooden clubs in July attacked a PAD rally in Udon Thani, in the northeast of the country. More clashes in the capital are possible if the pro-government rallies grow bigger and the participants bolder.

Finally, it is still possible that Mr. Samak may have to resign and call fresh elections even without a royal intervention. A caretaker government, led by a neutral, senior statesman, could then take over until those are held. But that would only bring the situation back to square one. PPP in one shape or another is very likely to win. This is perhaps the reason why the PAD, despite its name, has publicly declared that it is not in favor of a one-man-one-vote system. The PAD argues that "Western-style democracy" gives too much weight to the rural majority, which it considers unsophisticated and susceptible to vote-buying. Instead, the PAD wants the country to be ruled by an assembly of whom only 30% would be elected and 70% appointed from various professions. Thai politics have entered a dangerous phase where anything could happen. But whatever happens, Thailand is likely to be marred by political instability for the foreseeable future.

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

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