Stalemate in Thailand

 

THAILAND'S YOUNG democracy is seriously challenged in the revolt led by groups opposed to the government. They have occupied decision-making centres in Bangkok for the last week and are now defying the state of emergency called by prime minister Samak Sunaravej.

It is a complex conflict, interwoven by class and regional hostilities going back over the last decade. But the fundamental issues are clear. The rebel groups are trying to roll back the results of last December's general elections and reinstall rule by an urban elite traditionally backed by the Thai armed forces. Mr Samak deserves support in his efforts to face them down.

His decision to call the state of emergency came after fatal clashes obviously intended to provoke much more violence and encourage the military to intervene directly in the political crisis. Ironically Mr Samak is now relying on the army, traditionally the opponent of his movement, to use these special powers against his opponents. For their part, army leaders have little stomach for another coup and are reluctant to use force against the protesters. Such a stalemate cannot last, but the outcome will probably be decided by growing public hostility to the protest. International reaction is already badly affecting Thailand's volatile stock exchange and its tourism industry.

Despite its name, the People's Alliance for Democracy leading the protest argues that the Thai parliament should be reorganised into a chamber with 70 per cent of its members appointed and only 30 per cent elected. Its leaders believe the huge numbers of rural poor in northern Thailand, who support Mr Samak's People Power Party, are too uneducated to have the vote. They bitterly resent Mr Samak's predecessor, the populist telecoms billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who ruled for five years after the financial crisis in 1997-'98. He forged this electoral alliance and cemented it with better health care, social services and village loan funds - despite corruption and cronyism culminating in his recent flight to England to escape prosecution.

Mr Thaksin also challenged the monarchy's dominant role in Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadei helped to broker negotiations on a new constitution after the 2006 coup against Mr Thaksin, under which December's elections were held. He too is reluctant to intervene and has distanced himself from the protests in his name. But it may fall to him to encourage negotiations to scale down this crisis. Otherwise Thailand faces a very uncertain political future.