Thailand’s Turmoil May Claim a Prime Minister

Thailand’s political crisis continues to deepen daily, as the country’s beleaguered government faces further anti-government protests, dissension within its own ranks and a worsening economy and growing concerns that eventually the military, which so far has sought to stay out of the fray, might stage yet another of the country’s serial coups.

As many as 20,000 supporters are reportedly in their way down from the north of the country to support the protest in the capital. On Monday the anti-government protestors, led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), blocked the commercial centre of Bangkok for an hour, denouncing the government’s crackdown on protestors two weeks ago which left two dead and more than 100 injured.

The PAD march was peaceful as the protesters distributed books and CDs of photos they said showed police brutality. “Wanted: Somchai Wongsawat, Murderer,” read one placard, referring to the present prime minister, whom the PAD accuses of ordering police to disperse the crowd that had gathered in front of the parliament to protest on 7th October.

The PAD protestors have occupied Government House for more than two months and have vowed to continue their demonstrations until the prime minister and his government resigns.

“PAD did not expect the prime minister to resign immediately,” Chamlong Srimuang, one of the leaders of the alliance, told journalists on the weekend. “But we will continue to pressure the government to resign.”

Pressure is continuing to mounting on Somchai from many sources. The army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, also added to the prime minister’s problems, when he launched what has been called a “television coup” last week, recommending that Somchai stand down and take responsibility for the deaths of the two protestors.

For his part though, the leader of the governing People’s Power Party remains adamant that he will not resign or dissolve parliament. But time is running out for Somchai, and his options are continuing to narrow.

“The government is unlikely to survive much longer,” an insider with the People’s Progressive Party, which leads the government, told Asia Sentinel. “Somchai may have to give up before the end of the week.”

This week is certain to add fuel to the crisis, as the confrontation between anti-government protestors and government supporters is set to escalate. Already the PAD is beginning to sense victory as the government continues to fumble around for solutions to the country’s political impasse.

More demonstrations are planned for later this week, after two forays into the center of the capital city – the business districts on Friday and the commercial center on Monday. But Wednesday may be the watershed, as former policemen plan a mass rally in support of the police action and the government.

“A violent clash between the red and yellow on Wednesday would effectively put an end to Somchai’s government,” Kavi Chingkittavorn, senior political analyst with the daily English-language newspaper, the Nation told Asia Sentinel. PAD protestors are dressed in yellow as a sign of respect to the country’s king – who is legally above politics – and the government supporters wearing red bandanas and handkerchiefs.

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The Supreme Court’s verdict on corruption charges against the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra and his wife Kunying Pojaman, scheduled to be handed down on Tuesday, may also be another nail in Somchai’s political coffin. This could be the first time Thaksin has actually been convicted, after the authorities have brought scores of cases against him.

As Thaksin’s brother-in-law, a guilty verdict would make Somchai’s position increasingly untenable, according to many Thai political analysts.

“Finding Thaksin guilty would also reduce Thaksin’s credibility and support,” according to Kavi. “It would prove people, no matter how powerful, are not beyond the reach of the law – and will be brought to book,” he added.

“No matter what the verdict, the court’s decision will increase the political temperature in the community,” according to the head of the Chulalongkorn department of government, Chaiyan Chaiyaporn. Whatever the verdict, one side or the other – either the anti-government protestors or Thaksin’s supporters – will not accept it and turn to street protests to vent their feelings.

“Supporters from (the) eight northern provinces won’t organize local protests, but join the main rally in Bangkok,” said Somchoke Chanthong, PAD’s northern coordinator. They plan to gather at the court to prevent pro-government protestors disrupting the judges’ verdict.

“Somchai will have no alternative but to resign after this week,” Kavi told Asia Sentinel, “but it may drag on until the end of the month – as everyone is keen to avoid any non-constitutional change,” he added. The army chief continues to rule out a coup – but has added his voice to those calling for Somchai to stand down. The military is solidly behind its commander, according to military sources. And although many commentators believe the general was ill-advised to publicly call for the prime minister’s resignation on television, the prime minister knows that he no longer enjoys the military’s support – if he ever did, that is.

The army chief’s main problem was that he had no obvious answer to solving the political crisis. It is clear what the military does not want – Somchai as premier – but there is no clear clue as to what they favor instead. There are hints that what is needed is a National Unity Government led by the main opposition political party, the Democrats. But for their part the Democrats leaders have continually urged the prime minister to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections.

“They have no other option but to publicly call for that,” said Kavi. “They really can’t be seen to said Somchai resign and put us in power,” he added.

Last week the PPP leaders seriously considered a snap election and going to the polls to resolve the current political crisis, according to party insiders. But few favor this option at the present time – partly because of the enormous cost that would be involved, at time when the country is facing its most serious economic crisis since the Asian economic collapse in mid-1997, as a result of the growing world economic recession and credit crunch and Thailand’s own political uncertainty.

“The prime minister should not resign because of external pressures,” according to former deputy prime minister and banned executive of the Thai Rak Thai party, Chaturon Chaisang. “He should not give in to the street rabble but adhere to the constitution and avoid the use of force violence.” Easier said than done.

“A snap election is no longer an option – parliament would have to be dissolved 45 days before the polls and this is no longer possible,” said Kavi. This means an election could not now be held before the end of December as campaigning could not take place until then because of funeral rites for the late Princess Galyani Vadhana, the king’s sister) starting on 14th November, the king's birthday celebrations and the Asean summit in mid-December.

By then Thailand’s political map may have been well and truly redrawn. The constitutional court is currently deliberating on the electoral commission’s recommendation that the PPP and several other coalition partners, be disbanded for electoral fraud in last December’s polls. Indications are that the court will follow the electoral body’s position, according to many Thai political pundits. The PPP government would then fall – with at least 10 senior members of the party banned from politics – leaving the way open for the Democrats to take power constitutionally.

While this seems to be the most likely scenario, Thai politics remains uncertain and anything could happen. What is certain is this week could be a major turning point in contemporary Thai political history – and may yet be Prime Minister Somchai’s last week in office.