Tension Mounts in Thailand

The Wall Street Journal Home Page

June 2, 2008; Page A9

Some Fear a Threat
Of Another Coup
Amid an Impasse

By JAMES HOOKWAY

BANGKOK, Thailand — A standoff between riot police and thousands of Thais protesting what they say is the behind-the-scenes influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is entering its second week.

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Reuters

Police blocked an anti-government protest on the streets of Bangkok, Saturday.

The protests, organized by a group called the People’s Alliance for Democracy, are increasing political tensions as they revive memories of large demonstrations that preceded Mr. Thaksin’s ouster in a military coup in September 2006.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej — who described himself as a proxy for Mr. Thaksin when campaigning in December’s parliamentary election — warned on television Saturday that protesters would be forcibly dispersed. But officials later said Mr. Samak had backed off his threat.

“We will not be using force as long as the protesters remain peaceful and conduct themselves within the law,” Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung said.

The confrontation is unnerving investors and business leaders who fear the army could again stage a coup to resolve the impasse.

The threat of a second coup in less than two years in one of Southeast Asia’s major economies is also worrying Washington. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew into Thailand on a visit Sunday after declaring that the U.S. opposes any attempt by Thai military leaders to seize power again.

“Our position is pretty consistent. We want to see democratically elected governments and we will convey that,” Mr. Gates told reporters in Singapore before heading for Bangkok, according to Reuters.

In the past week, the number of participants in the protests has been as high as 10,000 at various points. The protesters accuse the Samak-led government of being a puppet of Mr. Thaksin and demand that it resign.

At Saturday’s gathering, many protesters wore motorcycle helmets and improvised masks to protect them from tear gas. Others chanted “We love Thailand, we love our king” in English, aware that international news organizations were covering the standoff. Periodically, loud chants of “Thaksin, get out!” broke out.

Mr. Thaksin says he has washed his hands of politics since the 2006 coup that removed him. Back home after a period of self-imposed exile, he is preparing his legal defense against a series of corruption cases filed against him and his family shortly after the coup.

Still, the populist telecommunications tycoon has been unable to shake off belief among some that he is quietly directing Mr. Samak and his government — especially as Mr. Samak openly campaigned for election by telling voters he was serving as Mr. Thaksin’s proxy.

Thai media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, who had campaigned against Mr. Thaksin before the 2006 coup, is one of the leading figures behind the People’s Alliance for Democracy. His satellite-television company has been showing extensive footage of the protests.

Tensions were further heightened last week after police recommended that a cabinet minister be prosecuted for insulting Thailand’s long-serving, 80-year-old monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Jakrapob Penkair, a minister in the prime minister’s office, resigned Friday in an effort to defuse the situation and protect the government from any suggestions that it reveres the monarchy any less than the protesters gathered on the streets of Bangkok.

Sunday, Mr. Samak accused protesters of inconveniencing the royal family by blocking important roads near Bangkok’s royal palace.

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