Blood on the streets

Economist.com

Oct 9th 2008 | BANGKOK
From The Economist print edition

But the security forces still waver over dealing with anti-government protesters

EPA

IT HAS seemed likely, especially since it seized Government House in Bangkok two months ago, that the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) wants to provoke a violent confrontation that would prompt the army to stage another coup. This would achieve what the PAD’s protests had not: the removal from power of the elected administration led by supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister toppled in a 2006 coup.

Last month the PAD clashed with pro-Thaksin protesters. The government declared an emergency in the capital, asking the army to take charge of security. But the army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, did nothing. On October 7th worse violence erupted. Two people were killed and hundreds injured as police fought to stop the PAD blockading the parliament building. This time General Anupong said his troops would help the police keep the peace. So, no coup—not yet, anyway.

However, nor was there any sign by mid-week that the security forces were ready to deal decisively with the protesters and end the occupation of Government House. Two PAD leaders, Chamlong Srimuang and Chaiwat Sinsuwong, were arrested a few days before the latest clashes. The courts later watered down the “treason” charges the PAD leaders face. This might encourage the others to report to police—but not necessarily end the siege.

The fighting began as the PAD tried to stop the new prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat (Mr Thaksin’s brother-in-law), from convening parliament to make a policy statement. At daybreak police fired tear-gas to clear protesters and let members enter. In the ensuing fighting, several protesters lost limbs in explosions whose causes were unclear. Either side may have used small bombs. A PAD supporter died in a car that exploded at the offices of one of the parties in the ruling coalition.

Within hours, as casualties streamed into hospitals, the deputy prime minister, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a former general and prime minister who had recently joined the government to mediate with the PAD, resigned to take responsibility for the disorder. The PAD talked as if it were all the fault of a brutal police force. But its members also shot police with handguns and stabbed them with sharpened poles.

Queen Sirikit, wife of the revered King Bhumibol, let it be known that she was “very worried” about the police’s use of tear-gas and was paying for the injured demonstrators’ treatment. The PAD trumpeted this as evidence of royal backing for their cause. It was then announced that the queen had donated money to the police hospital, to treat injured officers.

The king has remained silent. He intervened publicly in past episodes of political violence, such as in 1992 when a military government ordered troops to shoot pro-democracy protesters (led by Mr Chamlong). A former senior official with close royal ties laments that nobody in the palace seems to be seeking solutions to a crisis that threatens to make the kingdom ungovernable. Mr Somchai recently met Prem Tinsulanonda, the king’s chief adviser and, it is widely assumed, the driving force behind the 2006 coup, but to little effect.

The PAD dresses in royal yellow and alternates between spewing ferociously nationalist-monarchist rhetoric and affecting the slogans of a leftish “people power” revolution. Its footsoldiers, those getting maimed in the current violence, include many genuine liberals, disgusted at the corruption and human-rights abuses under Mr Thaksin’s government. Some PAD leaders are former progressives who have bought into “royal liberalism”, the idea that a powerful crown can act as a check on rapacious politicians. But its prime movers are reactionaries seeking a return to rule by the traditional elites under the figleaf of a partly elected parliament.

They argue that Thailand’s rural majority, who voted to bring back the Thaksinites last December after a year of incompetent army rule, are “ill educated” and too easily have their votes bought. But Mr Thaksin’s was the first Thai government to offer coherent policies, such as cheap health care, to improve their lives. This seems to have inclined them to overlook its many failings in other areas.

Many dangers lie ahead. The army is divided and a coup by middle-ranking officers, pro- or anti-Thaksin, is conceivable. Or the pro-Thaksin protest groups, which sprang up after the 2006 coup, could lose patience with the failure to curb the PAD’s excesses, and return to the streets.

The Democrats, the parliamentary opposition, have wavered between encouraging the PAD and seeking a compromise with the government on the controversial issue of reforming the army-backed 2007 constitution. There is talk of a national-unity government but presumably it would have a majority of Thaksinites and so still be rejected by the PAD. The courts, supposedly cleaning up political sleaze, are making things worse with disproportionate decisions, such as the disqualification of Samak Sundaravej, Mr Somchai’s short-lived predecessor as prime minister, for moonlighting as a television chef.

After this week’s violence Thai Airways suspended a pilot who refused to carry parliamentarians from the ruling party on his plane. It also cut some international flights. The national tourist board, alarmed by the slump in bookings, has been flying in foreign journalists to show that the country is safe for foreigners. It probably is, so far. But with the chaos unchecked, the question is how safe it is for Thais.

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