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POLITICS-THAILAND: Back to Street Protests

BANGKOK, Mar 31 2009 (IPS) - Any hope of political peace returning to Thailand has been shattered by a week of street protests, exposing an emotional fault line that runs through this South-east Asian nation. What began in Bangkok on Mar. 26 had spread to 10 provinces by Mar. 30.

The script is familiar to what unfolded in 2008, when a right-wing, conservative, pro-royalist movement took to the streets to cripple the elected government of the day.

The latter was allied to ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been living in exile to avoid arrest for breaking the conflict of interest law and corruption charges.

Last year’s protestors, who were dubbed the ‘Yellow Shirts’ for the colour of clothing they sported during round-the-clock rallies that lasted months, withdrew after the pro-Thaksin government collapsed following a controversial court ruling in December.

It came after the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) forcefully took over the country’s major international airport for nearly a week in a show of force that made Thailand look as if it was ungovernable.

But the players are different in the 2009 version. Filling the streets with rage are anti-government protestors allied to Thaksin. The target of their anger is the coalition government led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, in power since mid-December thanks to large offers of cash to parliamentarians to strength its alliance and the influential role of the country’s powerful military.

The anti-government protestors, called the ‘Red Shirts’ for the colour of the clothing they wear to rallies, accuse the Abhisit government of coming to power through ‘’illegal means’’ and want the current administration to step down and call for fresh elections.

But such calls have been rejected by Abhisit, Thailand’s 27th prime minister since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The British-born, Oxford-educated patrician has also opted to avoid confronting his opponents on the streets by staying away from Government House, where the prime minister’s office is located.

Thaksin has exploited the presence of thousands of Red Shirts outside Government House by delivering nightly speeches from an undisclosed location. In one video broadcast beamed to the crowd, he appealed to his supporters to ‘’rise up’’ and combat the current coalition, led by the Democrat Party. On another night, he said, ‘’We will keep fighting until we get democracy back.’’

Yet, the former premier’s speech on Friday confirmed there were others besides the Democrat Party being targeted in the current campaign. Thaksin accused two advisors of the country’s revered monarch of being involved in the September 2006 military coup that ousted him from power.

The naming of Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda and Gen. Surayud Chulanont is seen here as an unprecedented attack on the Privy Council, a body that, according to law and tradition, is expected to be above politics.

‘’The stakes are the highest. Mentioning the two privy councillors means this is a new ball game,’’ says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. ‘’This is the first time that the privy councillors have been dragged into politics so openly.’’

‘’The whole establishment order is being challenged on multiple fronts,’’ he told IPS. ‘’By ratcheting up such rhetoric one can expect rocky times ahead.’’

Thaksin’s political party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai), won two consecutive parliamentary elections since 2001 and had a wide following among the rural and urban poor. The military that mounted the country’s 18th putsch replaced Thaksin with Surayud as the premier.

‘’You will see more attacks like this with the aim of informing people about the background stories behind Thai politics since the coup,’’ Jakrapob Penkair, a leader of the Red Shirts, told IPS. ‘’The aristocracy is now a target, not only the government as a dictatorship in disguise.’’

‘’We are planning a long campaign. We want the people to be well equipped with this knowledge,’’ added Jakrapob, whose protest group goes by the name of the United Front of Democracy and Dictatorship (UDD) and draws its support from the rural farmers, urban working class and a section of the middle-class.

‘’The supporters of the Red Shirts feel that they are up against an oligarchy and the only way they can respond is by calling for a functioning democracy, including elections to choose the government,’’ says Worapol Promigabutur, a sociologist at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. ‘’This political dynamic cannot be stopped by the oligarchy, only delayed.’’

‘’Most of them have learnt and now believe in the democratic ideology,’’ he said in an interview. ‘’This is a progressive step in Thailand’s growth as a democracy.’’

But the PAD, after three months of silence, has sounded a warning, calling on the Abhisit administration to silence Thaksin.

‘’[It] issued a statement warning the government to protect the monarchy, the Privy Council and the courts of justice by blocking the video link of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s phone-ins, cancelling his passport and having him extradited,’’ ‘The Nation,’ an English-language daily, reported on Tuesday.

Analysts fear that continued protests by the Red Shirts could prompt the pro-royalist Yellow Shirts to return to the streets, triggering off a replay of the pitched street battles that were witnessed in Bangkok late last year.

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