Military backs embattled Thai government, for now

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Jonathan Manthorpe, Vancouver Sun

Published: Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A key to understanding the dangerously chaotic state of politics in Thailand is to grasp that the name of the opposition political party whose supporters in their thousands have occupied the government compound, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, is a lie.

The people the PAD represents is a narrow band of highly conservative, urban, middle-class voters and business elites.

And the PAD has an equally narrow and specialized view of democracy.

The PAD is determined to overthrow the current People’s Power Party government led by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej elected last December in large part because it came to power with the support of poor rural Thais.

Samak declared a state of emergency in the capital, Bangkok, on Tuesday after clashes between PAD members occupying the government buildings and government supporters who tried to oust them.

Army chief Anupong Paochinda, however, said he will not use force to disperse the protesters.

This will disappoint the PAD, led by media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul.

It was PAD anti-government demonstrations in 2006 that eventually prompted a military coup that ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

When democracy was restored late last year, Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was banned from taking part.

But Samak’s PPP billed itself as inheriting the Thaksin mantle and won the election.

The PAD now contends Samak is nothing but a front man for Thaksin, who is in self-imposed exile in Britain.

The PAD, which claims to be protecting the constitutional position of Thailand’s much revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej against the supposed republican presidential ambitions of Thaksin and his coterie, claims there is little legitimacy to governments elected by the votes of rural peasants such as those of Thaksin and Samak

The votes of the rural poor can be and have been easily bought, the PAD contends. With such a base, democracy is demeaned, the party says.

Thailand’s election commission on Tuesday did back a PAD contention that Samak’s party had committed electoral fraud, though it will be months before the case comes to court.

Well, there’s no denying vote-buying is a time-honoured facet of Thai elections. Indeed, one diminutive former Thai prime minister gloried in the nickname “the little ATM.”

The PAD, however, makes its disdain for rural voters and hostility to western democracy a jumping-off point from which to fashion a political plan for Thailand that is only marginally democratic.

The idea is to have a legislature wherein some members would be elected and others appointed. In addition, the military would have an overarching constitutional duty to keep the politicians in line and protect the national interest.

The PAD’s vision is much like the system used by Indonesia’s former dictator president Suharto before he was ousted in 1998, and that being proposed by the military junta in Burma.

There is no doubt that the Thai military remains a final arbiter of the country’s politics, though there have been widespread hopes, even among many senior officers, that role was diminishing.

Until the 2006 coup, the last time Thailand’s military took power was in 1992. The 2006 coup was not only a response to the mounting civil chaos caused by the PAD demonstrations, but also an excess of loyalty among some army officers and former officers linked to the palace leading them to believe they were protecting the king.

For the moment, however, the PAD’s hopes of ousting Samak with a repeat of its 2006 ploy do not seem to be working.

Army chief Anupong and his men seem opposed to the idea of a new putsch. Anupong, one of the generals who took part in the 2006 coup, said he will not use force to remove the PAD demonstrators occupying the government compound. “We must find a solution through the legal and parliamentary system,” he said.

Despite his history, Anupong is held to be a moderate in the military where there are strong factional rivalries.

Anupong and other politically moderate senior officers have won out in recent shuffles over right-wingers associated with the PAD.

The political situation in Thailand is fluid, but for the moment the military leadership has decided to protect the Samak government

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