OCTOBER 9, 2008
Two years after the Thai military ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the full cost of that bloodless coup is finally becoming clear. Violent antigovernment protests this week have left two people dead, 443 injured, and the country’s democratic prospects in jeopardy.
The struggle is over whether Thai citizens will continue to enjoy their democratic rights. The protesters, who seek to oust the current government, have brought the government to near paralysis. The cast of characters is similar to 2006: Seven months ago the same group that had helped organize protests to oust Mr. Thaksin re-formed, led by a similar coterie of Bangkok elites, businessmen and academics.
They now call themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy, but they are anything but. Their goal is to eliminate Thailand’s one-man-one-vote democracy and replace it with a parliament that is 30% elected and 70% appointed. Why? To make sure that no one like Mr. Thaksin is ever elected again.
The generals behind the 2006 coup thought that by simply removing Mr. Thaksin they could solve what they saw as the problem of Thailand’s democracy: The fact that voters might choose to elect someone whom the generals and their friends in Bangkok didn’t like. But when they organized elections in December, at the end of their 15-month stint as caretakers, the People Power Party, political heirs to Mr. Thaksin’s party, was the victor. Mr. Thaksin, who had been in exile, jetted back to Bangkok.
The PPP may not be perfect, but it has a mandate from the voters. A vote-buying case against the PPP and two smaller parties will be brought to court next week, and a guilty verdict could force the PPP to dissolve. Until then, it remains the popularly elected government.
The PAD, in contrast, wishes to rewrite the constitution to get rid of the one-man-one-vote principle. And since it cannot win at the ballot box, it is hoping to win in a street fight instead. For the past six weeks, PAD supporters have besieged Government House, demanding that the PPP government step down.
After two PAD leaders were arrested over the weekend, 1,500 PAD supporters blockaded Parliament House while parliament was in session. The ensuing melee left hundreds wounded. The newly appointed prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat (who is Mr. Thaksin’s brother-in-law), had to scale a wall and dive into a military helicopter to escape the mayhem. Thai police eventually cleared the way for the other politicians using tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to dispel the crowd, according to the Associated Press. By yesterday the situation had calmed.
The PAD is crying foul over the measures employed by what they call a “killer” government. But they themselves operate like a small army: Several PAD supporters were carrying guns during the street battle on Tuesday, and others had iron rods, slingshots, spears, etc. One policeman was impaled, and two were shot.
These are not merely disgruntled citizens: The PAD is a well funded, highly organized force that operates a small city inside the government compound it has occupied for more than a month. The occupiers have electricity from generators, a constant supply of free food and water, and even portable toilets.
Facing these circumstances, Mr. Somchai doesn’t have any good options. Dialogue with the PAD may be all but impossible after the violence this week. He could call a state of emergency, which would give more power to the military and police to enforce law and order, although that could turn out to be embarrassing if they didn’t follow orders. A third option is to form a unity government and share governing powers with the opposition Democrat Party, albeit at the risk of looking weak. He could also hunker down and wait for the PAD to wear out — although this could take a long time, seeing as the PAD is constantly rotating in new “protesters” from the countryside.
Meanwhile, the PAD continues its occupation of Government House. Pipop Thongchai, a PAD leader, told reporters, “We will continue to fight until Somchai resigns.”
Thailand’s democracy has weathered many blows, including three coups since 1973. The peaceful transition of power to the PPP after polls that were largely fair and free was a step forward. If the PAD succeeds in overturning those elections, it will be at the cost of disenfranchising millions of voters — and at a cost to Thailand’s struggling democracy.
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