Thailand's Upheaval to Continue

Thailand's allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra raised the ante considerably on April 7 by storming the ornate gates of the parliament building, and the government raised it right back by declaring a state of emergency in Bangkok and nearby provinces. The attack on Parliament and the subsequent state of emergency forced Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva to cancel his April 12-13 visit to Washington, DC for a nuclear disarmament conference.

That is the latest indication that there is no end in sight for Thailand's paralyzed government after weeks of turmoil engineered by the Red Shirts, the popular name for the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. Both sides continue the cat-and-mouse game that began with rallies on March 12, with the Red Shirts vowing to bring 60,000 to Bangkok's streets again tomorrow.

The big question is whether Abhisit's Democrat Party-led coalition government continues to survive. Bloomberg reported that consumer confidence fell for a second month in March on concern the nation's economic recovery will be disrupted by escalating political unrest. However, the international investor community remains largely positive in the belief that the army and police can outwait the protesters. Despite the turmoil, the Thai market has been one of the region's best performers.

"It will only be a matter of time before they lose momentum as long as the police do not allow themselves to be provoked," said one observer from a multinational investment firm. Life in Bangkok has been relatively normal despite traffic jams because of the rallies and the Red Shirts' boisterous mass motorcades.

The Red Shirts draw support mostly from impoverished rural and urban Thais and others who opposed the military's 2006 coup. From the time they drew their own blood and poured it on government properties including the parliament gates, they have been attempting to provoke the authorities into an attack that would draw sympathy or pressure the government to immediately resign. The police have continued to try to wait them out, gambling that the tens of thousands of rural protesters eventually will tire of being away from home and retreat to their parched rural strongholds in Thailand's north and northeast.

On Thursday, the government closed Prachatai, the popular independent website. On March 31, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the Prachatai webmaster, was arrested and spent four hours in jail before being released on bail.

The Red Shirts have demanded elections within 15 days, but Prime Minister Abhisit has countered with a date nine months hence. When the thousands of Red Shirts stormed the Parliament, outnumbered police wearing riot gear mostly backed away while the protesters broke through the tall, wrought-iron gate. Frightened politicians and their bodyguards escaped by climbing on ladders over a wall, including some who boarded an army Black Hawk helicopter which whisked them to safety. Red Shirts seized a rifle, pistol and ammunition from one hapless security officer and forcibly escorted him to surprised police, and filed a complaint based on a prohibition against weapons inside Parliament.

The Parliament chaos ended peacefully, however, following which the Red Shirts returned to their two urban bases, where they have erected stages for political speeches and lively Thai folk music and dance routines to inspire the crowd. The assault was reportedly led by a former pop singer, Arisman Pongruengrong, an aggressive Red Shirt leader, who reportedly also helped lead the assault last April in the seaside resort of Pattaya when Red Shirts smashed their way into a hotel during an Asian summit, causing foreign leaders to evacuate by helicopters.

Their most important base illegally occupies a major intersection where five-star hotels, luxury shopping malls, tourist attractions and other facilities are located. That blockade has resulted in millions of dollars in lost revenue to businesses in the area. Their other illegal base is in Bangkok's older core, where several government offices are located.

The Pattaya assault resulted in a severe setback for the Red Shirts as rank-and-file Thais deplored the violence. The protests thus have mostly been peaceful despite the assault on the Parliament's gates. Throughout the sweltering night in Bangkok, Red Shirt protesters denounced the prime minister as a "puppet" of the military, and speculated about the government's next move after declaring a state of emergency.

"Protect the leaders. Resist this illegitimate government. Do not give up any ground. But above all else, do not react with violence. That is what they want," one shouted. Lalida Phanyang, a vocal Red Shirt activist, told her comrades: "Stay united, stay together, don't fight back" especially because there are "women and children among us" at their rally sites.

Red Shirts called for "reinforcements" to travel to Bangkok from elsewhere. Although some feared Thailand's army would attack their rally sites before dawn, the army remained behind the barricades, reluctant to use force.

"The government has tried its best to enforce the law, but violations of the law have increased," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a televised announcement of the state of emergency. "Our main goal is to bring the country back to normal and make our law sacred once again." The worried, mild-mannered, soft-spoken Abhisit has been sleeping and working in a Bangkok military base, the 11th Infantry Regiment, since the protests began. He recently came under scathing attack in the media for failing to clear the Red Shirts from Bangkok's streets.

The state of emergency allows for curfews, the banning of public gatherings by more than five people, an increase in existing media censorship, and detention of people without charge for up to one month. It comes on top of an earlier Internal Security Act, which also allowed sweeping powers of arrest and detention, but has not been enforced.

Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Anupong Paojinda has been supporting the government partly because he retires at the end of September and wants to ensure that Deputy Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Prayuth Chanocha is promoted to take over his post, according to analysts. Anupong and other military leaders staged a bloodless coup in September 2006, ousting Thaksin, who now flies around the world in self exile as a fugitive.

Based on Thaksin's previous popularity, his supporters predict their candidates would win if an election were held now. If that happened, many expect Thaksin would be allowed to return, enjoy amnesty for his crimes, have his fortune restored, and possibly be re-instated as prime minister.