Thai crisis could end in street clashes or new coup


ANALYSIS:Political tensions are simmering dangerously in Thailand, and the prime minister and army appear indecisive, writes CLIFFORD COONAN

THAILAND IS mired in political crisis, yet again, a situation that comes around with depressing regularity at this point. The reason that Thailand appears to go crazy every two years or so seems to be that a number of core structural issues are not addressed by any of the handily colour-coded factions in the conflict.

On paper, it looks straightforward enough – red shirts versus yellow shirts, while the green uniforms of the army look on. But the colour coding belies a knotty conundrum that is proving a challenge to resolve.

Thailand is a powerful economic success story, and its democracy has been surprisingly stable, although it would be hard to call it a model given the regularity with which it seems to be shot down in flames.

Recent weeks have seen street battles killing 25 people and wounding hundreds, the country’s worst violence in 18 years. Thais have some serious decisions to make before the country slips into anarchy. The question is how they will be able to make those decisions.

The Red Shirts, most but not all of whom support former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006, are largely working-class or rural Thais who feel they are being neglected by the ruling elite. This ruling elite is represented by the Yellow Shirts, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who are composed of the Bangkok business community and other middle-class lobby groups.

While they are seen as representing the elite, the PAD has also taken to the streets with devastating effect. The Yellow Shirts staged a crippling eight-day blockade of Bangkok’s airports in December 2008, which left more than 230,000 tourists stranded.

The army is the traditional power broker, but it claims it is trying to get out of a role it has created for itself of intervening to restore order on an alarmingly frequent basis – the military has staged 18 coups or attempted coups in 77 years of stop-start democracy in Thailand.

Thaksin’s ruling party was dissolved for electoral fraud, paving the way for Eton and Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva’s coalition to take power after a parliamentary vote the Red Shirts say was influenced heavily by the military. While his appointment is within the terms of the constitution, the fact he was not democratically elected is a major credibility problem for his administration.

Having spent a whole night with the Red Shirts this week, where people approach you constantly to shake your hand and give you water bottles to slake your thirst in the incredible heat, it’s difficult not to have sympathy with their demands.

Their demands are simple. Let Abhisit call an election, and that will decide the issue. Given the residual support for Thaksin, it looks a dead cert that the poll would be won comfortably by the Puea Thai Party, led by Yongyuth Wichaidit, which basically represents the Red Shirts.

There is the feeling of a popular revolution taking place. Buses full of opposition supporters arriving at the Silom Road intersection which has become a likely flashpoint for what look like inevitable hostilities are cheered by the Red Shirts. They are an emerging political force, and no one can deny this. The government believes they are divided into two camps – peaceful protesters and violent terrorists. Separating these two groups is a challenge the government is failing to take on.

However, like everything else in Thailand, this is not as simple as it appears. The Red Shirt message is that Thaksin is the democratically elected head of the country and that he, or at least his followers, should be allowed to exercise that mandate.

But Thaksin’s rule was dogged by corruption charges, accusations that he used his time in power to enrich himself and his family. While the Yellow Shirts like to characterise him as a Hitler-like figure, many Irish people will find a more useful parallel closer to home in that other great populist, the late Charles J Haughey.

When listening to the PAD line, one is reminded of the Bertolt Brecht line about the 1953 uprisings in East Germany:

“Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?”

Last last week, Abhisit made army chief Gen Anupong Paochinda head of national security in place of a deputy prime minister, conceding that efforts to keep a lid on a five-week protest aimed at forcing an early election had failed.

But he appears to have been left hanging by the army at his weakest moment. Just when the army needs to step up and take measures to clear the city centre of protesters, it is hanging back, and its intentions are hard to read. This is a great country for silent coups – perhaps this is another low-key shift of power happening before our eyes.

There are other complicating factors. Abhisit has just come back from a couple of days at the resort town of Hua Hin, where the beloved King Bhumipol Adulyadej also holidays. But a lot of people are angry that he chose the height of the crisis to take a few days off.

“The prime minister needs to take a more decisive stance. He needs to tell the army to stop this, that’s what they are there for,” said one government source who asked not to be named. Complicating this issue is the fact that many soldiers, including senior officers, are what they are calling “watermelons” – green on the outside, but red at the core. They are unhappy about having to fire on people they feel are their kindred spirits.

All political debate in Thailand eventually ends up at the Royal Palace, and usually a few choice words from the adored 82-year-old King Bhumipol settles the issue, at least in terms of giving his staunch supporters in the army an idea of what direction he wants them to go.

However, the king has been in hospital since September, and is not having anything to do with the crisis. This time Thailand might have to come up with a more imaginative way of addressing some fundamental problems.

Clifford Coonan, reporting from Bangkok, is Irish TimesBeijing Correspondent