Troubled times in 'Land of Smiles'

 

Thailand is facing an increasingly uncertain future after the latest spate of street protests pushed the country to the brink of political and economic collapse, writes CLIFFORD COONANin Bangkok

THE WINDOW OF the taxi turned suddenly grey as a group of giggling children threw a bucket of water mixed with talcum powder from the roadside, celebrating Thai New Year, or Songkran, in the traditional way.

It’s the hottest time of year, and a dousing with water is quite welcome given the 34-degree heat, and all along Silom Road in downtown Bangkok, people were soaked and happy. The water is said to wash away bad luck, and anyway the water pistols are a much happier option than the live rounds fired by soldiers during anti-government riots which killed two and injured 135 people.

This year Bangkok residents were even more cheerful than usual, because the latest political crisis to damage the country was finally over, at least for the time being. These are troubled times in the “Land of Smiles”.

“The trouble is very bad, very bad for Thailand. We need tourism,” said one young man, his face caked with water and rice powder, another tradition at this time of celebration.

With its balmy climate, beautiful beaches, great food and friendly people, Thailand is one of the world’s greatest tourist destinations, hosting 14 million tourists last year, including many from Ireland.

Thailand had barely recovered from the tsunami in 2004 when the political disorder began and the last five years have seen a series of protests and a coup which saw former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra ousted by the military.

More recently, the tourism industry was slowly recovering after a one-week shutdown of Bangkok’s airports by protesters opposed to Thaksin late last year – a government run by his brother-in-law was in power – when the protests again brought the attention of the world to bear on the bitter conflict that undermines what is one of Asia’s most successful and stable democracies.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is a good-looking, Oxford-educated economist, a fan of Britpop and English football, but who critics believe lacks a common touch. When he was appointed in December he became Thailand’s third prime minister in as many months, and expectations were not very high that he would survive the crisis.

The crisis had moments of high drama, and for a while it looked like the trouble on the streets of this city of 12 million could have developed into full-blown civil war. In a country that has seen 18 coups in the past six decades, there were also fears that the army might again be tempted to take control to restore order.

At the ASEAN summit of Asian leaders in the beach town of Pattaya, protesters overwhelmed riot troops and stormed part of the conference venue. Some of the 15 visiting leaders had to be evacuated by helicopter. The debacle was hugely embarrassing for Abhisit, who had made great efforts to reassure his regional counterparts that everything would be fine for the meeting.

At another point last week, about 50 protesters forced their way into the interior ministry with Abhisit inside. He escaped, but his secretary-general Niphon Phromphan was dragged from his car by red-shirted protesters and badly beaten.

At the height of the protests, the boulevards around Government House were transformed into a war zone. At the Wang Daeng intersection, protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails, and set buses on fire before propelling them at high speed into the ranks of riot police.

THE RIOTS LEFT scores of people injured and two people from the Nang Loeng market district were killed when residents turned on the protesters.

On one side in the conflict was the “yellows”. Last year, thousands of yellow-shirted protesters took to the streets, demanding the ousting of two successive governments led by allies of Thaksin.

These demonstrators were made up mostly of business community leaders, former soldiers, supporters of the royal family and the urban middle class. They had also protested in 2005 and 2006, and their action ultimately triggered a seizure of power by the army.

Even though they billed themselves as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), they were actually seeking to control the appointment of a percentage of the country’s parliamentarians because they believed the rural poor were not sufficiently educated to understand politics.

Meanwhile, the red-shirted demonstrators, who call themselves the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), oppose Abhisit because they believe he took power illegally.

The core support for the UDD, and for Thaksin, is among country people who benefited from a series of populist measures he introduced during his time in power, such as free health care.

The red-shirt movement had momentum for a while. Luck Lekhanethet, a popular astrologer in Thailand, said at one rally by the UDD that Mr Abhisit’s government would fail and he would have to dissolve parliament.

In the end, the protests collapsed with incredible speed as the “red” leaders opted to stand down in the face of the overwhelming firepower of the security forces.

The red-shirted supporters waved little plastic clapping hand toys and some of the women prostrated themselves in front of the soldiers, but the army stood firm behind Abhisit and were unmoved by the tears of frustration as the protesters passed through the checkpoints and headed for home.

“Neither one of these groups should be seen as a model for opposing a government as in less than five months they have devastated the country,” ran an editorial in the Bangkok Post.

Speaking by videophone to his supporters at Government House, the exiled Thaksin called for a “people’s revolution” and promised that he would lead the people in a popular uprising if there was a coup.

In his appearances on international TV networks, he claimed that many people had died, an assertion which later proved to be false.

Thaksin’s big gamble that the red-shirts would take on the army, or that the army would fold, didn’t pay off. He has now lost face because of this climbdown and because he has shown that he is prepared to support violence as a way of regaining power.

Furthermore, there is speculation that he moved some of his assets, which include investments in telecoms and the media, out of the country before he was ousted by a military coup in 2006.

Thaksin has won two elections, more than any other Thai leader, and by landslides. If elections were held tomorrow, he would probably win again, although the complicated system of coalitions in the parliament means that he would be unlikely to be able to form a government.

His family is among the wealthiest in Thailand, and in 2004 the US magazine Forbes ranked Thaksin as the 16th richest man in Southeast Asia.

Thaksin’s passport has now been revoked and a warrant for his arrest has been issued. He is in exile since his conviction on corruption charges, and rumours were rife that he was in neighbouring Cambodia, waiting to return if the protests he masterminded were successful.

Fund managers say that the cancellation of the ASEAN summit has damaged their confidence in the country, and foreigners are now expected to substantially reduce their holdings of Thai stocks and bonds.

Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said Thailand would spend more and borrow more to help give the economy a boost. He admitted that the unrest had done serious damage to the economy, which is now poised to contract by more than the three per cent already forecast.

“We were already anticipating a shortfall in the current fiscal year and that shortfall is almost certainly going to be larger now because of what happened in the last 72 hours,” he said after the crisis had eased.

“The bigger challenge is how to stimulate investment in the medium term,” he said.

The rating agency Standard Poors downgraded its rating for Thailand because it believes political tension will remain high, whichever side was in power.

ABHISIT HAS NOW promised to call elections once stability is restored, and this week the city was slowly coming back to normality after the riots.

“What we are now trying to do is to make sure there is a complete restoration of law and order. We have to make sure that there are no further disruptions and rioting of any kind. We hope over the next few days to make sure that is achieved,” he said.

By the next day, most of the tuk-tuk taxis and cars had been washed clean, but the long-term damage done to Thailand’s fragile democracy by the political unrest of recent weeks will not wash away so easily.