Thailand’s Premier Becomes an Unlikely Peacekeeper

Given the thousands of protesters who stormed his office Tuesday, it’s pretty obvious that Thailand’s Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is in trouble. This time, however, he has the unlikely potential to emerge as a positive force for once, rather than as a villain – if he continues to play his cards right.

In any political situation in Thailand there are wheels within wheels, but the way Samak handles the uprising in Bangkok may determine whether he stays on as prime minister and has enough clout to break away from the impression that he is a mere proxy for ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Samak appeared to have stood aside as a Thai court Wednesday issued arrest warrants on the behalf of the police for nine leaders of the People's Alliance for Democracy, which is spearheading the protest. The nine also could be charged with conspiracy to commit insurrection, assembling 10 or more persons to cause a public disturbance, and ignoring a lawful order to disperse.

The current unrest stems from long-running protests that began on May 25 by the PAD, which accuses the Samak government of being Thaksin’s stalking-horse. The alliance, partly led by the Thai publisher and stormy petrel Sondhi Limtongkul, also vehemently opposes plans to amend the constitution and is now agitating for a royalist, partially-appointed parliament because of anger over what is perceived as an inability to get rid of Thaksin-tainted politicians.

Samak has so far uncharactically shown restraint, which has not always been the case in the past. He has yet to invoke the emergency decree that would suspend democracy and call out the military. Instead he has left the handling of the situation up to Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister General Kowit Wattana, who is in charge of the police. In a press conference on Tuesday Samak simply said that the government’s patience had run out and protestors who had broken the law would be arrested.

After a brief confrontation between riot police securing Government House and protestors early Wednesday morning, the police backed off. Samak told foreign journalists Tuesday that he would starve the protestors out rather than use force against them. This was a result, he said, of an audience he had with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who told him to “enforce the law with extreme caution” and to be “soft and gentle.”

The utterances of the king carry strong weight in Thailand and these words can be interpreted as a continued royal endorsement of the Samak government.

Although he has received some criticism for lack of action, Samak can only hope to win from showing restraint. A violent crackdown would add to his well-deserved image as a brutal hardliner and cause wider resentment. If Samak can quell the protests peacefully or with a modicum of force, he may gain the goodwill of the population at large, many of whom, especially in Bangkok, are fed up with the protests.

The alliance’s moves Tuesday certainly hurt the PAD's image, irritating urban Thais in Bangkok. The forceful takeover of the NBT television station, in addition to the storming of Samak’s office, upset the Thai media. A positive image is something Samak will need in what is looking to be a looming confrontation within his own party, which may split.

This is a marked difference to past performances. Samak, then a right wing cabinet minister with close ties to the military, played a pivotal role in the violent suppression of October 1976 student protests in Bangkok in which scores of students were massacred. Although Samak attempted to deny his role in an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this year, witnesses and reports say that he helped to incite violence against the protesters with broadcasts over military radio. During the same interview Samak claimed only the only one “unfortunate” individual was killed despite an official death toll of at least 46.

During the 1992 suppression of pro-democracy protests by the military government of Suchinda Kraprayoon, which Samak served as deputy prime minister, he justified the violence by saying that if the US could send troops to kill people around the world, then the Thai government also had the right to kill people. Samak has continued to hold the position that the government is justified in using force to restore law and order against “troublemakers.” He dismissed the 2004 deaths of protesters in Tak Bai in Muslim southern Thailand who were stuffed into police vans for hours in the sun by saying the victims were weakened because they were fasting for Ramadan.

He came in for more criticism in late May when he threatened to call in the police and military against alliance protesters. The remarks only served to swell the ranks of the dissenters, something he seems to have learned from.

His government has also come under fire for attempting to amend the constitution for its own benefit, especially to ward off the dissolution of the ruling People’s Power Party due to election fraud. Accusations of lack of attention to the economy, poor handling of the rice crisis and ignoring the continued violence in the South have also been leveled against the Samak.

The main immediate challenges to Samak’s hold on office are two cases before the Constitutional Court. The first case stems from charges that he was earning extra income from two television cooking shows he continued to host after becoming prime minister. Under Thai law politicians are not allowed to draw an income from outside sources while in office. A guilty verdict would only depose him temporarily since the law does not stipulate that he cannot be reappointed and his party has vowed to vote him back in.

The other more important case centers around the July disqualification of former PPP executive member and House Speaker Yongyuth Tiyapairat who was found guilty of electoral fraud by the Supreme Court. Under Thai election laws a political party can be dissolved by the Constitutional Court if its executive members are found guilty of wrong doing.

Samak has also been asked by the National Counter Corruption Commission to explain his role in the reinstatement to the army of Duang Yubamrong, son of former interior minister Chalerm Yubomrong. Duang is infamous as a bad boy for fights and shootings at nightclubs, one of which culminated in charges of murder for the killing of a police officer in 2001. Although he was dismissed from the service for desertion while fleeing from arrest over the charges, he was later acquitted.

With Thaksin again in self-imposed exile, many observers believed Samak would finally have the room to maneuver to set his own agenda and to move the country forward without the shadow of the former prime minister. Although Samak had previously acted in ways that ran counter to Thaksin’s perceived wishes, he was usually reined back in. However, instead of reducing the pressure, the flight of the former prime minister has put Samak in the hot seat with his supposed allies.

The prime minister was attacked by members of his own party for showing disloyalty to Thaksin by allowing the police to display arrest warrants for Thaksin and his wife throughout the country. An open letter was sent to Samak on August 18 by around 200 pro-government MPs criticizing him for not protecting Thaksin. It apparently took several phone calls from Thaksin in London to faction leaders to calm the situation. Thaksin requested that party members stand behind Samak. The ex-premier’s move gave him the opportunity to flex some muscle from abroad, although his influence is likely to fade the longer he remains in exile.

The criticism apparently has put Samak on notice that when it comes to Thaksin he should consider his moves carefully. The next two big issues are whether to revoke Thaksin’s diplomatic passport and to request requesting his extradition from the United Kingdom. So far, Samak has sidestepped the passport issue. He also announced on August 22 that there were no plans as yet for an extradition request.

Thaksin’s calls for unity will likely only calm the situation temporarily. With him gone it is widely believed the party will eventually split and Thailand will return to the pre-Thaksin era when politics was dominated by coalitions of many small parties.

Prior to Thaksin’s flight to England Samak had been named as one of a “Gang of Four” that was plotting to set up their own party should the Constitutional Court dissolve the PPP and force new elections. Although he controls none of the factions and is distrusted by his coalition partners, his longstanding connections to the military and the palace make Samak a valuable partner in any coalition. Until that time, however, the grouping, which also contains the politically banned but still very powerful Newin Chidchob, looks content to set itself up as a powerful faction in opposition to some hard-line Thaksin supporters, including Thaksin’s sister Yaowapa Wongsawat.

The “gang” aroused considerable ill-feeling in the party by its supposed domination of a recent cabinet reshuffle that saw key positions go to their supporters and other factions lose out. Thaksin is said to have played no role in the reshuffle. The bitterness and disappointment are unlikely to disappear simply due to a phone call from Thaksin.