Thailand’s political maze – a beginners guide

Posted: Wednesday, November 26, 2008 1:07 PM
Filed Under: Bangkok, Thailand

By Ian Williams, NBC News correspondent

Bangkok’s massive multi-million dollar airport terminal tonight resembles a night market. It’s teaming with yellow-clad protesters and lined with make-shift stalls selling badges, t-shirts, stickers and jewelry, as well as food and drink. Outside, the passenger drop-off zone is a sea of yellow protesters rattling their plastic “clappers” as they listen to fiery speeches from the top of truck.

The approach road to the terminal is lined with cars that reflect the largely middle-class character of the protesters – the SUV is the vehicle of choice. There are several security checks along the way, where guards wielding metal rods and golf clubs stop and search approaching cars. It feels like the anti-government protesters are settling in for the long-haul.

Anti-government protestors at Bangkok airport
SLIDESHOW: Airport under siege
 

All flights remain suspended, and the estimated 3,000 passengers – most of them tourists – stranded last night when the airport closed have been moved to city-center hotels.

But who exactly are these protesters clad in yellow – the color associated with Thailand’s king – who risk crippling Thailand’s lucrative tourist industry? And what do they want?

Who are the protesters?
They go by the name of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and are a loose coalition of Thailand’s old elite – businessmen, academics and royalists, drawing support largely from Bangkok’s middle class. They have a degree of backing from conservative elements in the army and the royal palace – one reason why the government has been reluctant to move aggressively against them.

They are wellfunded and well-organized, and have an ugly militia, armed with iron bars, sling shots, even guns. These “security guards” have frequently resorted to violence – yesterday they opened fire on government supporters on a city highway.

They claim to be fighting corruption and defending the king, and their professed aim is to topple the government which was democratically elected a year ago. Their strategy is to create as much disruption as possible in order to force the hand of the military, which is reluctant to get involved. The last coup, in 2006, caused a lot of damage to the military’s reputation, and ultimately achieved very little.

Seizing the airport is perhaps the most effective disruption they’ve caused in months of protest, and comes at a time when they seemed to be running out of steam and losing support.

VIDEO: Protesters stage showdown in Bangkok

What do they want?
The PAD’s leaders want the government replaced by “new politics,” effectively doing away with the current democratic system and limiting the electoral power of poorer voters, who they regard as ill-educated.

Instead, they want 70 percent of parliament to be appointed by worthy people – such as themselves. The government would be headed by a powerful king, whose portrait is everywhere at PAD rallies.

One newspaper column this week described their ideology as “a cultish and violent conservatism,” combined with a “mangled version of democracy.”

Their target, the government of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, is hardly a virtuous beast, but it was democratically elected, and enjoys massive support from Thailand’s rural poor. If there was an election tomorrow, it would almost certainly be re-elected, which is why the PAD wants to change the system.

Somchai is the brother-in-law of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, who was disposed in the 2006 coup. He has been accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power, but his administration redrew Thailand’s political landscape, empowering the rural poor, and adopting populist polices, including low cost village loans, and a basic health system.

These reforms came as shock in a system which has for years been, essentially, a competition within the Thai elite – the poor north-east serving as a repository of cheap labor for Bangkok’s bars and building sites.

Thaksin’s populism also threatened a traditional system of patronage and hierarchy, at the pinnacle which sits the royalist elite, who are the PAD’s strongest supporters.

The current government is packed with Thaksin cronies, and the former prime minister, now in self-imposed exile, is accused of calling the government’s shots from abroad. He has drawn massive crowds to live stadium phone-ins and remains very popular in the poor north and north-east of Thailand.

The government strategy this week has been, essentially, to “play dead,” and not risk violence by confronting the PAD (which is what many of the protest leaders would like), allowing them to roam Bangkok at will. The police offered little resistance when they seized the airport.

For months the PAD has occupied Thailand’s Government House, forcing the government to shift cabinet meetings to Bangkok’s old airport. In most countries they would have been tossed out weeks ago, but there is another factor at play Thailand – one that is rarely spoken about openly: the future of the monarchy.

What about the king?  
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, will be 81 next week. He is revered by the Thai people. Although he has few formal powers, he wields enormous moral influence. He has frequently intervened at times of crisis, but diplomats fear his advanced years and deteriorating health will limit his ability to calm this crisis.

The king’s annual birthday address next week will be carefully watched. His wife, Queen Sirikit, has explicitly backed the PAD.  She even attended the funeral of a PAD supporter killed in clashes with the police last month. Her backing has given the protesters a powerful “roof” in its anti-government campaign.

The queen’s concern is for the continuation of a strong monarchy after her husband’s passing, which will create an enormous vacuum.

The heir to the throne, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn will not command the reverence enjoyed by his father. He is very unpopular and unacceptable to many Thais, who prefer his sister Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, though she has never married and has no immediate heir.

None of this is openly discussed by the Thai media, which is shackled by strict lèse-majesté laws which make it a crime to offend the monarchy, but the future of the Chakri Dynasty goes to the heart of the current power struggle.

One seasoned journalist summed it up nicely: “Covering this crisis is like trying to explain the unexplainable, without mentioning the unmentionable.”

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