Tension Continues to Rise in Bangkok

With Thailand's political impasse showing no sign of ending, the country's citizens are beginning to fear for their future. The war of words between the government and the protestors on the streets has increased in recent days and the confrontation seems certain to worsen. There have been scuffles between supporters of both sides as the political temperature in the capital city soars, fuelling increased rumors of a possible military coup.

Concerns are growing that the current political battle can only end in further violence. Two people died and more than 400 were injured when the police charged thousands of demonstrators from the Peoples' Alliance for Democracy (PAD) outside parliament and hurled tear-gas canisters into the crowd.

"We fear the country is going to soon degenerate into more violence if the situation continues," Linth, a young activist leader with the newly formed Thai Peace Action Group, which is trying to get all sides to talk to each other, told Asia Sentinel.

Anti-government demonstrators have fortified their positions around Government House and plan forays into the city's commercial centre later this week to draw attention to their cause. Meanwhile pro-government supporters want a show of strength with a major rally planned for Saturday. The organizers hope to bring more than 50,000 people out on the streets of Bangkok in support of the government. On the same day the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, now a convicted felon, is scheduled to talk to the crowd by telephone through the government-owned television station.

Last week the Supreme Court found Thaksin guilty of abusing his power to allow his family to benefit financially from a land deal when he was prime minister. He was sentenced to two years jail in absentia and remains in self-imposed exile in England, having skipped bail in early August. He was ousted by a military coup in September 2006, but his supporters regrouped into a new party, the People's Power Party, and win elections last December to form the government.

But Thaksin's hand and money are suspected of being always there behind the government. That is the main complaint of the anti-government protestors led by the Peoples' Alliance for Democracy. Accordingly, for months the government has been besieged by protesters demanding that the prime minister and cabinet resign because it is the former premier's proxy. The current Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, is Thaksin's brother-in-law.

Many fear that the pro-government demonstration, with the participants wearing red to distinguish themselves from the opposition protestors who wear yellow in deference to the Thai king, may end in bloody clashes. Analysts believe Thaksin's address from London on the televised 'Truth Today' mobile political talk show Saturday could stir up emotions and create a volatile atmosphere among the Thaksin supporters.

Political commentators this week are all reflecting on the buzz of anticipation ahead of Thaksin's phone-in. "Like moths attracted to lights, his supporters and opponents are again falling prey and generating huge publicity by speculating on what Thaksin will say," mused the Nation newspaper's pundit, Avudh Panananda, in a column earlier this week. "The excitement of the anticipated message has conveniently diverted attention from the convicted wrongdoing and punishment meted out to him," he added.

This is not the first time the former premier and multimillionaire has used the phone-in ploy to generate publicity. After the 2006 coup, he frequently stole the limelight from the junta with his much-publicized calls to the anti-coup crowds gathered at Sanam Luang, the major royal ground where the King usually performs state ceremonies.

Thaksin seems to be returning to his old habits to defend himself against the court's corruption conviction, something he was not prepared in to do in person before the judges. Publicly, in a letter to the media, Thaksin has accused the courts of being politically motivated.

"I was convicted simply because I was a politician," he wrote. "In that case I was quite, quite guilty because I was quite a successful politician. I got elected twice as Prime Minister by the majority of the Thai people."

Privately though, a source close to the former Thai leader, Thaksin is said to be very upset by the court's decision and is feeling very hurt. He is described as feeling must vindicate himself.

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Many others in Thailand though feel that Thaksin's plans can only make the situation worse. Several academics have called on him to back down and not enflame the situation. "Thaksin should realise that the game is over and his supporters might face dire consequences if he continues to incite them to defile the judiciary," said Prinya Thewanaruemitkul, a law lecturer at Thammasat University.

Controversy continues to rage over the planned call. The host of the TV show seems undecided whether it will go ahead as planned – whether live or pre-recorded. The latest hints from the organizers of the show is that Thaksin's comments would be streamed on a special web broadcast but not shown on the actual TV programme.

This all serves to heighten expectations and increase fears that the most likely outcome will be violent clashes. As a result rumors of another military coup have increased in recent days as Thailand's political quagmire deepens.

"While the possibility of a coup cannot be completely ruled out, [the army chief] General Anupong [Paojinda] is very reluctant to move," Professor Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist and a security specialist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told Asia Sentinel.

There has been tension between the military and the government for some time, Panitan said, starting when the former Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, introduced a state of emergency in Bangkok against the army chief's advice. Anupong refused to implement the decree and it was withdrawn two weeks later. But the clearest evidence of the rift was two weeks ago when Anupong and other key military commanders appeared on a television interview broadcast by the military-controlled Channel 3 and called on the prime minister to stand down and take responsibility for the recent violence between the police and the protestors outside parliament.

"There have been talks between the government and the army chiefs, off and on, now for weeks," Panitan said. "The main hope to avert a crisis is that the army chief was able to convince the prime minister to defuse the political situation when they inspected the South [on Monday]," he added.

Somchai's government has been trying to be more conciliatory towards both the anti-government protestors and the army, in stark contrast to Samak Sundaravej, the previous prime minster, who was forced out by the constitutional court last month on the pretext that he had hosted a cooking show on television after he became prime minister.

"We have a strategy to neutralize the army and plans to unsettle Anupong," a senior media advisor to the prime minister told a group of journalists at the time.

At the same time, the government's plans for constitutional change seem to have been shelved, at least for the time being. The government had planned to change the constitution to make it easier for Thaksin and a hundred of his closest supporters, who are all banned from politics for the next five years, to more easily return to power.

"The government has dropped the draft charter amendments from this week's parliamentary session to avoid aggravating political tension," a senior PPP whip, Witthaya Buranasiri, told journalists on the eve of this week's parliament sitting. But the PAD seems to be in no mood to compromise "Negotiations are not a way out of the turmoil because righteousness is irreconcilable with political evils," said Pipop Thongchai, one of the protest leaders.

Parliament resumed Tuesday, with the economy and the fragile border situation with Cambodia the key topics of debate. MPs in both houses approved plans for negotiations with Phnom Penh over the dispute border near the Preah Vihear temple.

"These are both major issues which General Anupong has also urged Prime Minster Somchai to deal with as a priority," said Professor Panitan.

In the face of increasing food prices and a dramatic drop in tourism, the public mood is increasingly somber. "With the country collapsing around us, no one wants constitutional change, all everyone wants is an end to the current political crisis," a major Thai businessman said, on condition of anonymity.

Recent opinion polls show that most Thais now simply want peace and a speedy return to stability.

"The PAD has made its point, Thaksin is now convicted of corruption, and they should allow the government to get on with things," a young college student, Rung, said in an interview. "They are disrupting everyone, and no one is benefitting."

Businesses in particular are worried that the domestic political problems are increasing the potential economic fallout from the international credit crunch and the economic downturn. Small businesses are complaining that their trade has almost completely dried up in recent weeks. Bars, nightclubs and restaurants have been badly hit, with almost half their clientele disappearing. "Almost no one has visited my shop since Thaksin was found guilty a week ago," Chaiyapan, tailor in the main tourist area of Bangkok, said.

"Most urban Thais are fed up with the situation – especially after the SET [Stock Exchange of Thailand] has dropped below 400, losing more than half its value in recent months," a former British ambassador to Thailand, Derek Tonkin, said in an interview. "They have other concerns on their minds than politics in the present global economic crisis."

But much now hinges on the next few days, according to analysts. "It's only a matter of time before the Somchai government collapses," said Professor Panitan. "The army is on high alert, and may be forced to move if the planned pro-government rally and Thaksin's planned phone call are too provocative, or the mob elements on both sides instigate violence."

With royal funeral rites starting next week for the late Princess Galyani Vadhana, the King's sister, who died in January, followed by the King's birthday celebrations and the ASEAN summit in mid-December, the hope is that the two sides will bury the hatchet, at least for a few weeks. But if the political impasse is not resolved after that, there may be few options left.

"Alas, another coup seems almost inevitable," said Derek Tonkin. "The time for tougher action has come. It is ludicrous that the new PM cannot enter his own office," he added. But most Thais still hope that violence and another coup can indeed be avoided. Unfortunately it is difficult to see an alternative solution, so anything remains possible.