A familiar, ominous air in Thailand

5 months after elections, divisions that led to coup resurface

International Herald Tribune

By Seth Mydans

Published: July 10, 2008

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Street rallies have been held in Bangkok almost daily for more than a month. They are being led once again by the People’s Alliance for Democracy, an unaffiliated opposition group. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)

BANGKOK: Just five months after a military junta handed power back through a parliamentary election, Thailand’s latest try at democracy is being severely tested by street demonstrations and a barrage of court cases.

On Thursday, the foreign minister, Noppadon Pattama, was forced to resign by a nationalist furor over a centuries-old dispute with Cambodia regarding ownership of a 900-year-old Hindu temple on their common border.

In contemporary terms, the temple dispute has become a vehicle for growing pressure on the government as the divisions that led to a coup in September 2006 have begun to resurface.

The coup, which deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had the support of much of Bangkok’s elite and middle class, which staged months of protests and accused him of corruption and abuse of power.

Through his populist policies, Thaksin had harnessed the support of Thailand’s rural majority to become the most popular prime minister in Thai history. At the same time, the establishment saw its influence slipping as a new order asserted itself.

Thaksin’s rule exposed what one commentator called “an irreconcilable conflict” between the aspirations and needs of the poor and those of the more comfortable middle class.

The forces unleashed during Thaksin’s tenure are here to stay, and that means Thailand’s clash of cultures will continue, said the commentator, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University.

The coup was intended to reverse this shift, but the December election put Thaksin allies in power and the nation remained as divided as ever. Street demonstrations like the ones before the coup have been held almost daily for more than a month. They are being led once again by the People’s Alliance for Democracy, an unaffiliated opposition group that has become an almost institutionalized street opposition.

Now there is a new player in the political scene – the courts – with roots that go back to the annulment of an election won by Thaksin a few months before he was removed in the coup.

Although the election last December produced a government with strong ties to Thaksin, the courts have become a political counterweight, bringing cases against current and former cabinet ministers, as well as Thaksin himself.

In addition, the various constitutional bodies created to monitor corruption, elections and the law, which were largely co-opted by Thaksin, have swung back in the other direction and are mostly under the leadership of people who supported his ouster.

Noppadon was the second cabinet member to be forced from office this week because of a court verdict. On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court disqualified Chaiya Sasomsap, the public health minister, from office for violating asset-disclosure rules. Noppadon was a close associate of Thaksin and was once his personal lawyer. His resignation Thursday came two days after the Constitutional Court found that he had violated the Constitution by reaching a compromise agreement with Cambodia without due consultation.

Also on Tuesday, the Supreme Court convicted another Thaksin associate, Yongyuth Tiyapairat, of electoral fraud and banned him from politics for five years. Yongyuth, a former speaker of the house and an executive member of the pro-Thaksin governing party, the People Power Party, had earlier been convicted of vote buying in the December election.

If the Election Commission finds that he was acting in his party capacity in the electoral fraud, the party itself – like Thaksin’s former party, Thai Rak Thai – could be forced to dissolve, creating a government crisis.

Also last week, the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for Watana Asavahame, chairman of one of the government’s coalition parties, when he failed to appear in court to hear a verdict on a charge of corruption.

Thaksin himself is the target of a number of cases on charges of corruption and abuse of power. In February, he returned from self-imposed exile, spent mostly in London. Since coming back, he has kept a low political profile despite having close ties to people in power.

Thaksin’s political future has been the subject of debate since the coup. His connections, his electoral popularity and his wealth seem to point the way to renewed political dominance. But as the leaders of the coup appear to have intended, Thaksin could be crippled for some time by a battery of court cases against him.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard the first witnesses in a trial of Thaksin and his wife, Pojaman, on charges stemming from her purchase of land in Bangkok while he was in power. The attorney general is scheduled to decide this month whether to prosecute them on charges of failing to properly disclose stock holdings.

In addition, the Supreme Court must decide this month whether to proceed with charges against Thaksin and 47 former cabinet ministers accused of breaking the law in setting up a lottery system. Three of the accused are members of the current government.

On July 30, the Supreme Court will decide whether to hear charges that Thaksin’s government illegally gave soft loans to the government of Myanmar in order to benefit the giant telecommunications company he owned. The day after that, a criminal court will rule in a tax evasion case against Thaksin’s wife and her brother.

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