Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Global Geopolitics, Global Governance, Headlines | Analysis

THAILAND: Another Bout of Military Rule?

Analysis by Larry Jagan

BANGKOK, Oct 8 2008 (IPS) - The battle for Bangkok has entered a new and violent phase, the logical end of which can only be another bout of military rule.

So far, the army chiefs have been insisting that the government handle the situation and that soldiers have no place in politics. But many fear that if there is more violence – of the type seen on Tuesday – the army chief, Anupong Paojinda, may feel compelled to move in.

Three years after the foes of the former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, took to the streets to oust him and his government, Thailand’s political crisis is no closer to being solved. As country’s political deadlock deepens, analysts and commentators fear that only a military coup can resolve the impasse.

Soldiers are now deployed on the streets of Bangkok to help quell anti-government protests as police failed to disperse anti-government demonstrators who have vowed to stay on the streets until the government resigns.

“We will stay here until we win,” said Surachai, one of the demonstrators gathered here since the start of the protest some ten weeks ago.

“The battle has entered its final phase,” Sondhi Limthongkul, a media mogul and leader of the protest movement, that calls itself the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), told his supporters camped out in the grounds of Government House. “We are on the cusp of victory,’’ he added.

But the Thai press had a more sober assessment of the violent clashes between riot police and PAD demonstrators which left one woman dead and more than four hundred injured – some seriously. ‘’Bloodbath in Bangkok”, screamed the headlines on the front page of the English daily, ‘The Bangkok Post’.

In a separate incident, a man was killed when a car bomb exploded outside the party headquarters of the Chart Thai party which is part of the ruling coalition led by the Peoples Power Party, that replaced Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party disbanded by the Constitutional Court early last year.

For weeks the authorities tried to appease or ignore the thousands of demonstrators who have laid siege to Government House. But when the protestors tried to block access to the Parliament, before new Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was to make his maiden speech, outlining his party’s policies, the security forces were ordered to clear the legislature complex.

A fierce battle ensued as hundreds of riot police clashed with the demonstrators as they tried to clear a path for the legislators. The security forces fired volleys of teargas and lobbed stun grenades into the crowd, which reacted by hurling stones and firecrackers back at the police.

Several thousand protestors then regrouped and marched to the nearby police headquarters chanting anti-government slogans, while others fought with the police. “It was like a battlefield,” one of the protestors, Nualnoi, told IPS. “The police attacked unarmed civilians without warning – it was lucky it did not get out of hand,” she added.

The PAD has been relatively quiet in the past weeks, as Somchai’s government seemed to seize the initiative with talk of dialogue and compromise. There was a series of exchanges between the government and PAD leaders, according to senior sources in the PPP, often through intermediaries.

A bipartisan constitutional drafting committee was set up to help defuse political tensions. Somchai reportedly agreed to consider the PAD’s call for political change through possible amendments to the 2007 charter which were drawn up under a previous military government and ratified by a referendum more than a year ago.

The PPP government has been considering reviewing the constitution to make it easier for Thaksin to return to political life. He and more than a hundred other senior members of the Thai Rak Thai party were banned from politics for five years when the Constitutional Court disbarred the party last year.

PAD leaders believe that Thai democracy has been undermined by the billionaire Thaksin and his allies. The TRT easily won the last three elections, but through massive electoral fraud and vote-buying, allege anti-government protestors. The PAD is proposing what it calls “new politics” – under which most legislators would be appointed rather than elected.

Ranged against the supporters of Thaksin – who is charged with using his massive mandate from the rural poor to promote his business empire – are grandees drawn from the military, aristocracy, officialdom and the urban middle-class. For legitimacy, the PAD and Limthongkul claim to have the support of Thailand’s venerated monarchy, mainly through a shrine to Queen Sirikit erected on the grounds of Government House.

“Dialogue doesn’t really suit the PAD, as it deprives them of their power,” said Prof. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at the Chulalongkorn University. “This latest turn of events was intended to galvanise the movement and were meant to deliberately provoke the authorities.”

The PAD has upped the ante and is going for broke, according to other political analysts. The arrest of two of the PAD leaders in the past few days was the signal for a renewed campaign to topple the government, they say.

Chaiwat Sinsuwong and Chamlong Srimuang were detained on treason charges for their roles in the PAD-led raids on government buildings in August. Chaiwat was arrested last week after a private meeting with opposition leader Kraisak Choohaven at his Bangkok residence.

Chamlong was detained after he left the safety of the government compound surround by protestors to vote in the Bangkok governor’s elections on Sunday. There are many who believe that Chamlong orchestrated his own arrest to fire up PAD protestors whose enthusiasm for the battle has waned in recent weeks.

Thai society has never been so divided. Although the fault lines appear to be geographic – the South and Bangkok against the North and North-East of the country – the main rift is between those who oppose Thaksin and those who support him.

PAD supporters accuse Prime Minister Somchai of being a political proxy for Thaksin, his brother-in-law, who is currently seeking political asylum in Britain.

Similar street violence, last month, triggered a two-week state of emergency in Bangkok, but the army refused to enforce it and the measure was withdrawn after it badly damaged the tourist trade and the Thai economy as a whole.

This fresh outbreak of violence has raised fears that the military may be moving towards another coup. “While it cannot be ruled out, a coup would seem to be a remote option at the moment,” Thitinan told IPS. But many of Thaksin’s supporters believe this indeed is the PAD’s real game plan.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags