Samak’s Shaky Hold on Power

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej’s government appears to be on its way out, no matter what he does. By calling the army back onto the streets Tuesday only eight months after the country’s return to democracy, he probably wrote his own eviction notice.

In addition, Samak’s People’s Power Party (PPP) received another blow on Tuesday when the Election Commission ruled unanimously that the PPP committed electoral fraud during December 2007 elections and should be dissolved. The case must now be submitted to the public prosecutors office for action. The process will take months, but the effect on anti-Samak protesters already smelling blood could be more immediate.

Invoking the emergency decree effectively put Thailand back under military control, although only temporarily, according to Samak, until democracy and law and order are reestablished. The state of emergency was announced after clashes in Bangkok between the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy and recently assembled pro-government supporters. One person was killed and as many as 44 were injured in fighting that involved machetes, clubs, slingshots and at least one firearm.

Once seen as one of Southeast Asia’s more stable emerging democracies, the events of the past week highlight the instability that has beset the country since the military overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006.

Over the longer term, a decision to dissolve the PPP, which has remained popular despite ‑ or perhaps because of ‑ its association with Thaksin’s populist sheen would open up the possibility of the opposition Democrat Party – long seen as favored by the Bangkok elite and the royal family ‑ forming a coalition government.

Indications of probable Democrat Party involvement in the anti-Samak protests, although circumstantial, are already growing. Democrat Party MP Somkiat Pongpaiboon is a leading member of the PAD and is facing a warrant of arrest for treason. Key PAD leader, Sondhi Limthongkul, told reporters on Saturday that he backs the Democrats to run the country.

The PAD has vowed to stay put with protest leader Chamlong Srimuang, claiming that there are not enough prison cells to hold all the protesters.

The state of emergency puts army commander General Anupong Paochinda at the head of an emergency committee with National Police Chief Police General Patcharawat Wongsuwan as his deputy. Under the emergency decree, the army has the power to ban gatherings of more than five people, detain and remove people from any location, deploy troops to reinforce the police in maintaining order and impose restrictions on media that it feels is threatening public security. The first task of the committee will be removing protesters from the Government House compound they have occupied since August 26.

Anupong has so far appeared reluctant to use his enhanced powers. On Tuesday afternoon he told reporters that he would not use force and would instead try to negotiate with the PAD. He insisted that soldiers would only be armed with shields and batons and not guns. He also said that while broadcasting by television stations NBT and ASTV were biased, he would negotiate with the stations rather than censor broadcasts as allowed by the decree. Earlier attempts by Samak to invoke the emergency decree were reportedly rebuffed by Anupong.

During his announcement of the emergency decree, Samak stated that he would disperse the pro-government protesters involved in the previous night’s fighting. The pro-government Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) announced later that they would disband since the emergency decree showed that the government had the situation under control. PAD supporters claim the group was organized by Samak in the first place.

The PAD and other critics have long viewed Samak’s party as a mere proxy for Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party that was banned following the September 2006 coup. The removal of the PPP has been the central demand of the PAD since protests began on May 25. Thaksin, who has been charged in several cases of corruption and abuse of power, jumped bail earlier this month. To the PAD, the Election Commission’s ruling is more proof that the PPP is not fit to be in government.

Already the group is planning to increase pressure by calling for a general strike on Wednesday. Sawit Kaewwan, secretary general of the State Enterprise Labor Relations Confederation, claiming the support of 43 unions representing 200,000 workers, announced that the strike will begin with the cutting of water and electricity to government offices and police departments. This is to be followed by cutting telephone lines to government agencies and the homes of cabinet ministers. Eighty percent of Bangkok’s buses will supposedly stop running. The Thai Airways International union has said it will delay flights to Suvanabumi International Airport in Bangkok, a major regional air hub.

Thailand’s vital tourism industry is already hurting from the temporary closure of Phuket, Krabi and Hat Yai airports and the possibility of more violence. The three southern airports are the gateway for tens of thousands of tourists each year. Tourism accounts for 6.5% of Thailand’s GDP. Railway services were also disrupted by a rail workers strike that stopped trains on the northern, northeastern and southern lines. The north and northeastern lines were reopened on Tuesday, but southern trains remain halted. (It may be worth noting that the south is the traditional political stronghold of the Democrat Party, while the north has favored Thaksin.)

Thailand’s stock exchange, the SET closed down 2% on Tuesday. This marks the SET’s lowest level in 19 months. Financial analysts say that this trend is likely to continue with potential investors shying away from Thailand due to political instability that has continued since the 2006 coup. The Baht also fell to 37.41 to the US dollar, the lowest in a year.

Samak has resisted the temptation to launch a crackdown on the protesters, a stance seemingly at odds with his more hard-line advocacy for crushing protests in 1976 and 1992.

Observers note that the takeover of the seat of government, a state-run television stations and attempts to take over the national police headquarters would have resulted in widespread arrests, if not baton charges and even shootings by most governments in the world. Samak, however, appears unable to do this either. The one incident of violence between police and protesters on Friday resulted in widespread condemnation from the public. Perhaps this tying of his hands may be the reason for pushing the army into resuming control.

Politicians, academics, media groups and business leaders have called for the lifting of the decree. Samak insists that he will not step down and that the emergency decree is the only way to maintain public order, but his resignation may be the only way out.

The vexing issue for the traditional elites in Thailand is how to engineer a solution they would presumably favor. Dissolving parliament would likely just result in the reelection of the PPP or a party very much like it – a substitute called the Puea Thai party has reportedly already been organized, should the PPP be dissolved. That would leave the shadow of Thaksin lurking in the background since his electoral base in the populous northeast has remained steadfast.

Many Thais are already calling for a national unity government under royal endorsement to run the country until the political situation can be worked out. This has worked in the past to reestablish normalcy after various Thai coups, most recently under Anand Panyarachun following a bloody crackdown in 1992 against demonstrations opposed to the military rule of General Suchinda Kraprayoon.