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25 Nov 2008

Thailand's retro-radicals

Protester from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), courtesy of interactimages/flickr
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Protester from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in August 2008

An elitist and anti-democracy protest movement seeks to oust Thailand’s government, which it deems a corrupt puppet administration, Simon Roughneen writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Simon Roughneen in Port Moresby for ISN

Three months into a protest that has waxed and waned from mob violence to sit-down tedium, opposition demonstrators pushed the envelope a bit more with a Monday march on Bangkok's Parliament House, touted as a "final battle" to end Thailand's long-running political stalemate.

From there, the yellow-clad thousands representing PAD - the People's Alliance for Democracy -sought to belie their colors by moving on the government's temporary base at Bangkok Airport, despite the heavy security presence on the streets, as well as the Finance Ministry and police headquarters.

The marchers prevented a scheduled joint parliamentary session between the Senate and Lower House from convening. The anti-government group has occupied Government House since 26 August in a bid to topple Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's coalition government.

Appealing for calm, House speaker Chai Chidchob said the session was cancelled because most MPs had been unable to access the building: "I promise that there will be no violence today, not a single drop of blood will be seen," he told parliament radio. "I ask for all sides to stop the movement now. If you love the king, please return home."

There are fears that the protests will see a repeat of the clashes in October, which left two people dead and some 500 injured. It was the worst violence in Bangkok for 16 years, and followed on from earlier rioting and confrontations between PAD and red-clad pro-government supporters in August and September.

Thousands of police were out on the streets on Monday, but police chiefs said they were better prepared this time.

They have been offered 15 fire engines to use for crowd control, instead of the explosive tear gas grenades that caused such severe injury during the last demonstration.

PAD is led by media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, who was quoted by the Asia Times Online, when the protest first kicked-off, as calling for 70 percent of Thai MPs to be appointed, and saying "democracy is still a Western export."

Thitinan Pongsudirak is a well-known political scientist and Professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. He told ISN Security Watch that "[PADs] immediate goal is to galvanize their loyalists and foot soldiers into action but their ultimate objective is to rewrite the rules (i.e. constitution), which requires a stoppage of the democratic game by way of a military coup and/or government resignation."

"The PAD wants to guarantee disproportionate elite representation in parliament, which requires rewriting the rules to mandate a considerably appointed legislature," he said.

PAD believes that the current government is a front for the interests of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in 2006 after a military coup, which in turn was sparked by street protests led by PAD.

Current PM Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law, continuing a trend established during Thaksin's tenure, when he made his cousin Chaisit army chief, a faux-pas with the Generals that provoked the 2006 coup.

Now the stance of the army could, as is often the case in Thai politics, prove crucial. Thailand's army has not overtly intervened in the current stand-off, but with tourist numbers down and the value of the Thai stock exchange dropping, much more political strife may be untenable to the unusually recalcitrant generals.

General Anupong, head of the army, has remained on the sidelines, both during the PAD march and during grenade attacks on PAD earlier this month.

The ambivalent army stance has led to much speculation about real motives and allegiances, which as yet remains hazy. Anupong did not deal with Major General Kattiya Sawasdipol for his series of provocative statements made against PAD, including a bloodcurdling threat last week to use anti-tank rockets to dislodge PAD from the occupied Government House.

As the protest simmers on, it risks a nation divided along economic, social and regional lines. PAD is largely an urban, middle-class movement seeking to rescue Thailand from populist politicians who in turn use their position for self-enrichment.

However, PAD is seen by the pro-government supporters, especially those from Thaksin's Isaan backyard in the north, as elitist faction out to undermine the material gains that some of Thailand's less well-off in rural areas have enjoyed under Thaksin and his successors. Gains such as universal healthcare and a popular village loan scheme were unprecedented in Thailand, and made Thaksin wildly popular among his grassroots supporters.

PAD in turn sees this type of government as pork-barrel politics, enabling corrupt patronage to buy off votes of the rural masses, who then turn a blind eye to graft at the top.

A kind interpretation of PAD's aversion to democracy might be that a majority-appointed legislature would offset this type of politics. But how a system whereby MPs are appointed can manage to be transparent and above insider political trading, remains to be seen.

And corruption remains a problem. After being deposed in 2006, Thaksin later fled to London to avoid corruption charges against him and his wife in Thailand.

But his British visa was revoked this month after he was convicted in absentia by a Thai court on charges of abuse of power. He and his wife, Pojaman, divorced two weeks ago after 32 years of marriage, with the paperwork reportedly being completed at the Thai Consulate in Hong Kong. Thai media has speculated that the divorce was a ploy to try grab nearly US$2 billion in frozen assets, a majority of which are thought to be in his wife's name.

Whether or not the protests fizzle out remains to be seen. Perhaps the army is waiting things out, holding out for verdict. The Constitution Court decision will decide in the days or weeks ahead whether to disband PM Somchai's party on electoral fraud charges. This could potentially bring Thailand's troubles to a legalistic conclusion.

But the outcome could lead to some sort of appointed executive, and with perhaps a follow-up move to amend the constitution in line with PADs own, arguably anti-democratic wishes. Perhaps a counter-protest would be launched by pro-Thaksin factions, but how this would fare, again, depends on the attitude of the army, which perhaps is more likely to back a managed government along the lines PAD wants.

Conclusion? Maybe not. Thailand would be left riven along regional, economic and social lines, with those divides sharpened by a new political system that would keep certain groups from power, perhaps indefinitely.


Simon Roughneen is a journalist based in Southeast Asia. His website is www.simonroughneen.com.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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