A Grim Political Battle in Thailand
With Thailand’s Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, and his cabinet holed up in the northern city of Chiang Mai, fearing a coup or something worse, Thailand is slipping slowly towards civil war as the country’s political crisis deepens further. Now Bangkok is bracing itself for a bitter battle between the Red Shirts and the Yellow shirts with the country effectively divided into two – the government ruling from its northern base and the protestors in control of the capital city.
Government supporters, dressed in red as a show of strength, have congregated in the center of Bangkok and are preparing to do battle with their opponents, the protestors -- dressed in yellow to signify their support for the King. The protesters have occupied the country’s two main airports since the beginning of last week, virtually cutting the country off from the rest of the world.
In the meantime, what is usually the most important part of the political equation in Thailand – King Bhumibol Adulyadej – continues to remain silent, although many are hoping the King’s Speech, usually made on the eve of his birthday celebration, may be the signal for the two opposing sides to find a compromise. Much may depend on what he has to say on Thursday evening – if the precarious peace lasts that long.
That is because Bangkok is set for a major clash sometime this week, whether by the red shirts or the police, when the Constitutional Court rules on the country’s electoral commission’s recommendations that the People’s Power Party, which holds government power, and two of its partners be disbanded for vote fraud.
The court, widely viewed as a pawn of those wanting to overthrow the government, is expected to order the disbandment of the parties and bar at least a dozen of their top executives from power, including Somchai. More than 200,000 Red Shirts are expected to take to the streets if the courts ban the party, according to Chaturon Chaiseng, a senior Thai politician close to the PPP. “We will fight back, unlike after the last coup, starting in Bangkok, so a lot of people are likely to end up being killed.”
Certainly, while the PAD seems to be able to act with impunity – its nine leaders have been charged with various accounts of causing social and remain at large on bail without fear of being re-arrested -- the tide appears to be turning against the anti-government protests. Public opinion, even in Bangkok – where the protesters used to enjoy solid suport – has declined dramatically in recent weeks. Many of the ordinary protestors, convinced that they were saving the country, have fallen away, analysts say.
The anti-government demonstrators more than a week ago seized the airports and forced the cancellation of all flights in and out of the capital city, stranding more than 100,000 furious travelers and costing the country millions of dollars a day. The government appears helpless to stop the protestors, while the army watches from the sidelines, refusing to act. Many analysts strongly believe a military coup may be the only way out of the current impasse.
Because of the protests and the closing of the Bangkok airports, Prime Minister Somchai and his cabinet are operating out of Chiang Mai, where he was forced to land on his way back from the APEC conference in peru when the protesters took over the airports and required the diversion of his flight to the northern city. Chiang mai is a stronghold of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra who was toppled by a military coup in September 2006. Thaksin is now banned from politics and convicted of abusing his power while premier – but he remains a strong influence behind the current coalition government led by the People’s Power Party.
“It’s going to be a decisive week in Thai politics,” said Sunai Pasuk, who monitors Thailand for the US-based group, Human Rights Watch, in an interview. “This is the climax to six months of struggle for the movement to oust the People’s Power Party. Unfortunately the signs are ominous – the country is sliding towards chaos. The violence is increasing daily and I fear it can only end in real bloodshed. It’s unclear if Thai democracy can survive a battle between the Red and Yellow Shirts – law and order has given way to mob rule.”
At Suvarnabhumi Airport there seems to be no end to the stalemate. The police have repeatedly ordered the protestors to leave, warning them that under the state of emergency declared last week they are breaking the law by remaining and face arrest and jail. But the police have so far refused to launch a full-scale assault on several thousand protestors who have dug in at Suvarnabhumi and are refusing to move.
“We will stay here until Somchai resigns,” said one of the protest’s leaders, Somsak Kosaisuk. “We are prepared to die for the cause,” he insisted.
The anti-government protests are led by an umbrella group calling it self the Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which seized Government House more than three months ago and are trying to topple the government, which was elected last December, charging it is corrupt and a Thaksin proxy. Somchai is Thaksin’s brother in-law.
In the past week there have been several violent incidents. Last week members of a small pro-government mob brutally killed an elderly father of one of the anti-government leaders in Chiang Mai. There have also been several bomb blasts in various parts of Bangkok over the past four days. More than 100 have been injured in these attacks. In the worse incident so far, more than 50 antigovernment protestors were injured when a hand grenade was thrown into a compound early Sunday near Government House -- which remains the main PAD base. While no one has claimed responsibility, it is widely believed to be the work of some of the hotheads among the Red Shirts.
Every day there are more explosions and injuries reported. Most of these incidents appear to have been attacks on the PAD, a police officer at the scene of one blast, told Asia Sentinel on condition of anonymity.
“This is what the PAD wanted all along – to create enough violence and chaos – to force the army chief to seize power,’ said Chaturon. “Instead the army should act against the PAD and restore law and order to the country – that’s their duty,” he said.
In the meantime, Thailand’s citizens are getting fed up. In one national poll, 92 percent of those interviewed wanted both sides to respect the law, while four of every five described the political turmoil as a national shame. Two of three of those interviewed by the ABAC poll said they sided with neither side. In another poll, just under half of those interviewed wanted to see a speedy end to the political crisis – whether by coup, snap elections or negotiations. One in four interviewed in the Suan Dusit Poll thought it was necessary for the military to intervene to end the crisis.
This has begun to tell on the PAD support base. The movement’s broad base and urban appeal are waning, according to political analysts. “Only the hard-core supporters remain,” said Supong Limatanakool, who teaches foreign relations at Bangkok University. “Their two top leaders are also at loggerheads over what to do.”
One of the key leaders, the strongly religious former general, Chamlong Srimaung, says he is prepared to negotiate with the government – but that there would have to be face-to-face talks with Somchai in Bangkok. The others simply resort to rhetoric in the belief that they are on the verge of victory and any negotiations would delay the inevitable.
The parliamentary opposition, the Democrat Party, has also been urging a negotiated settlement. Their leader, Abhsit Vejjajiva recently offered to act as a go-between. But the Democrats also seem to have been sidelined, as the battle is between the street protestors and the government. Time for negotiations is fast running out according to the Democrat’s spokesman, Buranant Samuratak. “The country is fast heading for unprecedented violence and bloodshed,” he warned.
The army remains on full alert, but is refusing to get involved. Last week, the army chief, Anupong Paojinda, urged the government to resign and to for fresh elections to be held to help clear the air. The prime minister, though, firmly rejected the army chief’s advice and instead declared a state of emergency covering both airports, resulting effectively in a political stalemate. Over the past two days, heavily armored riot police with batons and shields have formed formations on the outskirts of the main airport, threatening to advance on the protestors – only to stand down a little later.
“The police are playing a game of bluff, trying to unsettle the PAD people in the airport and frighten them out” a western intelligence officer told Asia Sentinel on condition of anonymity. “But it’s clearly not working.”
No one wants to make the first move for fear of a pitched battle in which there would be many injuries and even deaths. No one wants to be responsible for any carnage that might result, especially in the days before the King’s birthday celebrations.
“The government is helpless and it is simply not functioning at all,” said Chaturon. “The police must act and implement the law – we want it to be finished, and the longer the occupation goes on, the more damage it does to Thailand’s international reputation. We may never recover from it.”
But more ominous, according to most analysts, is the government supporters, who call themselves the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD). They are threatening to clear the airports if the police fail to act. DAAD leaders have called for Thaksin supporters to show their strength and assemble in Bangkok. More than 100,000 supporters are expected to come to support the government in the next few days.
The Red Shirts are also assembling in various parts of the country, especially their traditional strongholds in the north and north-east of the country. Each northeastern electorate plans to send 20,000 people to rally in Bangkok on Tuesday to fight the expected dissolution of the PPP, said Kwanchai Praipana, a DAAD organiser in the major north-east provincial city of Udon Thani.
In Bangkok the DAAD are clearly spoiling for a fight, some making hundreds of Molotov cocktails, according to reliable eye-witnesses. Heavily armed with axe-handles and sticks, the “Thaksin Army” -- with black bandanas around their heads -- has also been training in preparation for a possible assault on the airport, according to a military source close to the group.
“We are heading for civil war – we have sections of the air force and navy on our side, as well as many in the army,” boasted an advisor to the prime minister. “Led by the PPP MPs, the party will take control of as many provincial centers of possible, and take-over local radio stations, including community broadcasters. We have a detailed plan in case there is a coup – whether military or judicial,” he said.