Politics in Thailand returns to the streets

International Herald Tribune

By Thomas Fuller

Published: June 2, 2008

BANGKOK: A week of anti-government protests have weakened the four-month-old coalition behind Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, stirred up rumors of a military coup and contributed to the downfall of a government minister who resigned last week after being accused by protesters of insulting the Thai king.

Only five months after national elections marked the end of military rule, Thai politics has once again descended into the streets.

Thousands of protesters have set up camp near the prime minister’s office, turning a major intersection in front of the United Nations offices here into a round-the-clock carnival of protest songs, fiery speeches and – because this is Thailand – vendors hawking many types of sausages, smoked squid and green mangos.

The Thai tradition of street protests has long been a symbol of a freewheeling society that is more liberal and pluralistic than the neighboring democracies of Malaysia and Cambodia, and is in stark contrast to the military dictatorship in Myanmar.

But the current protests, coming so soon after the election of a new government, highlight the country’s failure to move beyond the stalemate that has frozen politics here for more than two years.

Protesters are in the streets for many of the same reasons that they were two years ago: They want to see Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister removed in the 2006 coup who returned to the country in February as an ally of the current government, put on trial for corruption. They are defending the aging King Bhumibol Adulyadej from what they see as attacks on the institution of the monarchy. And they are distrustful of a government that received the core of its support from the  countryside.

“The government didn’t win the vote among educated people,” said Somsak Kosaisook, one of the leaders of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which organized the demonstrations of the past week. The poor and uneducated were “trapped” into voting for the government, he  said.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, says the current round of anti-government protests is different from those of previous years and could set a “bad precedent” for Thailand. They were not provoked by an imminent crisis and, unlike in earlier decades, the protesters were trying to bring down a democratically elected government, not military rulers.

“It’s a dangerous trend,” Thitinan said.

“I’m not a fan of the PPP,” he said of the governing party, “but you have an elected government, and you have 10,000 people taking to the streets who want to overthrow it.”

This ambivalence toward the protest is shared by others in Thailand, which is worn down by two years of political battles with no clear resolution in  sight.

Newspapers have highlighted the plight of students and commuters inconvenienced by the noise of the protest and the traffic jams that it causes.

But many also blame the government for mishandling the protests. Samak, the prime minister, threatened Saturday to clear away the demonstrators by force. He later backed down.

“The prime minister should have engaged these people from the beginning,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, an expert on Thai politics, also at Chulalongkorn in Bangkok.

Protesters took to the streets, Panitan said, because they realized that they were not getting their way in Parliament. “The opposition party is weaker than expected. They were very unhappy about the way that politics was working without proper checks and balances.”

Protesters opposed a plan by the government to amend the Constitution and called for the resignation of Jakrapob Penkair, a minister whom they accused of insulting the king in comments to foreign correspondents last August. Jakrapob resigned, and the government backed down from its plan to amend the Constitution.

Minor parties in Samak’s governing coalition have met to discuss the future of the alliance.

“Samak has been severely weakened,” Thitinan said. “This may lead to his downfall.”

Somsak, the protest leader, says “in principle” that the demonstrations will continue until Samak steps down. On the slowest day he receives more than a million Thai baht, around $30,000, in donations from the public, so he will not have any trouble continuing the protest, he said.

His main target, he said, was Thaksin, who he believes is influencing the government from behind the scenes.

“This is the No. 1 reason people have come here to protest,” Somsak said. “Everyone wants to see him go on trial.”

Thaksin returned in February to cheering crowds of supporters. He has vowed to stay away from politics and faces charges of corruption. Yet despite his lower profile, he has retained a remarkable ability to divide the country.

Among the crowd on a recent evening, when the number of protesters swelled to several thousand, were a business school student, a retired soldier, the owner of a small electronics shop and a factory owner. They vented their animus toward Thaksin.

“This could last a year,” Somsak said.

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