Mon Jun 2, 2008 12:42pm
By Ed Cropley
BANGKOK, June 2 (Reuters) – A tense weekend stand-off between riot police and anti-government protesters in Bangkok has rekindled fears of politicial instability in Thailand, possibly culminating in another military coup.
Many of the social forces and faces in the mix are the same as those behind the street protests that ended in the September 2006 coup by royalist elements of the military against telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra.
However, the picture is much murkier than two years ago, with a staunchly pro-palace Prime Minister in charge of an avowedly pro-Thaksin cabinet after a December election won comfortably by Thaksin proxies despite a vigorous counter-campaign by the army.
Here are some possible scenarios, compiled by Reuters on the basis of interviews with analysts and Bangkok-based diplomats:
PROTESTS RUMBLE ON, BUT NO FLASHPOINT
– As with the 2005 anti-Thaksin rallies by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the demonstrations will rumble on for months, getting in the way of Bangkok traffic and government policy-making at a time of slowing growth and soaring inflation.
Inflammatory and contradictory statements and stances will emerge from all sides, ranging from the PAD to top generals, senior royal officials, the police, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and Thaksin himself.
However, the protests, most of which involve middle-aged, middle-class Bangkok residents, will not evolve into full-scale riots or street-fighting, the normal pretext for the army to move in and seize power.
Diplomats and analysts say the army does not have the same appetite for a coup that it did in 2006, given its failure to purge Thaksin and his brand of autocratic, pro-business rule from the political system.
In addition, it does not appear to have a ready replacement for Samak, a fire-brand royalist with a distinctly soft spot for all things military.
PROTESTS RUMBLE ON, BUT INTENSIFY DUE TO ECONOMIC SLOWDOWN
– The protests carry on for several months, but take on a different tone given the slowing economic growth expected in the second half of the year and the inflation being caused by soaring world oil prices.
Instead of being a slightly esoteric ‘royalists versus republicans’ clash, the anti-government movement starts to involve groups of urban workers such as taxi-drivers who are seriously struggling to make ends meet.
The focus of the attacks will shift to the government’s handling of the economy, and present a possibly fatal challenge, as happened in the immediate aftermath of the 1997 baht devaluation that triggered Asia’s wider financial crisis.
COALITION FALLS APART, NEW ELECTIONS
– Even though its parliamentary majority is large, the pro-Thaksin People Power Party (PPP) relies on support from five other coalition partners, who are already ratcheting up the pressure, presumably to secure more influence in government.
If they all deserted PPP, Samak and the government would be exposed to a no-confidence motion in parliament, and could fall. New elections would then ensue.
This scenario is thought unlikely, as most politicians and parties do not have enough money to contest another election after three in the last three years.
– Top generals are saying in public that the army will not march into politics again, although after 18 successful coups in the last 75 years, it is never advisable to take them at their word.
If the pro- and anti-Thaksin protests swell in numbers and turn violent, pressure would grow on the army to put troops on the streets to back up the police — the pretext for a coup that has been used many times in the past.
However, the army appears to be more reluctant to get involved, mainly due to its failure to get rid of Thaksin after 2006 and the interim post-coup government’s shambolic handling of the economy.
The stakes are also higher than they were two years ago, with public, as well as international and investor reaction, likely to be far less forgiving at a time of far greater economic uncertainty.
However, the new, army-drafted constitution that came into effect in December 2007 gives the military huge powers to intervene under a domestic emergency security law. (Editing by Darren Schuettler and Bill Tarrant)
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