Brace for Thailand

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29/11/2008

Democracy is fading away while the country is already physically divided — the elected government in the north and the demonstrators in Bangkok by francesco sisci

Thailand, the political linchpin of ASEAN, the land of historical exchange of ideas between the Chinese and the Indian subcontinents, the staunch American ally in the region, for years an example of democracy and a bulwark against militant Islam from the south, is drowning in a domestic quagmire that could poison all of Asia.

For the past six months the democratically elected government of the People’s Power Party (PPP) has been confronted by street protests led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) that demanded simply its resignation. The PAD did not ask for new elections, despite its name, it insisted on the abolition of the democratic process: The future parliament would be made largely of royal appointees.

Why would Thailand need this, just months after the military had partly given up power following the September 2006 coup? Because, the PAD claimed, the elected government was against the King, and the King represents Thailand. Still, the King did not say so, although Bangkok is rife with rumors alleging the King support for the demonstrations.

This is the first of many unanswered question with the Thai quagmire: If the King did not support the government why did the government win the elections? Was the result a vote against the King? If the vote had nothing to do with the King, then why the King should be against the government? Or maybe the King is not against the government and somebody is playing with him and with the mob in the streets. Or, as the PAD claims, elections were rigged, votes were bought. But the latest election was held under military rule in December 2007, if somebody was in the position to rig it, it was the military, which is now asking the PPP government to resign.

One could delve with gusto in the many conspiracy theories spinning out of Bangkok these days but the point is not to see who is right or wrong in the complicated Thai shadow play, but to preserve a form of government – democracy.

A mob has put an elected government under siege, it has occupied the Prime Minister office and it has paralyzed the state. In any normal country the police and the army would have intervened and stopped it. In Thailand none of this happened.

Moreover, in the past days the PAD had led thousands of demonstrators to block the two Bangkok airports. Demonstrators could have done it only if unhindered or abetted by the military responsible for the airport security. On November 26, in order to clear the airport, the military asked the government to step down and promised it would arrest some of the PAD leaders. But according to what logic a government elected just eleven months ago, under siege, should step down because the military didn’t guarantee the airport security? The military should arrest the officers in charge of the airport and then forcibly evict the demonstrators, or not?

In fact, it was the faults of this logic that lead the military to cast aside words and take up the logic of the arms, as Mao would have said, by rolling out some tanks on November 27 and prepare for a coup that eventually did not take place that night.

It is still unclear why the military did not stage a coup, possibly it was because of divisions among the top ranks. However, things are turning very complicated at this point, and the next Thai coup, unlike many others before, might end up in a bloodbath.

The government has fled to Chiangmai, heartland of the PPP constituency, out of the reach of the military, some 1,000 km from Bangkok. The capital is in the hands of the PAD yellow shirts, but there are also tens of thousands of pro government red shirts roaming the streets. The red shirts could confront the yellow shirts and the military in case of a coup, the military could also split, many could die.

While the mob is holding the airports the Thai constitutional court is mulling over a case of dissolution of the PPP. The verdict should be out on December 2 and rule on disbanding the PPP, disqualifying the Premier Somchai Wongsawat and all the executive members of the party for political activities. It would be the second prime minister in three months to be disqualified by the Judiciary on shaky grounds. The former PPP Premier, Samak Sundaravej, was barred from government in early September because he received payment for hosting a TV show on cooking.

The September experience could push Somchai to simply disregard the December 2 ruling, refuse to step down arguing that the Judiciary cannot topple an elected government, and entrench himself and his government in the north.

Then the country would be even physically divided and on the verge of a civil war.

This perspective is real, but there is still time to prevent it, and the next few days trying to restore peace in the Bangkok airports will be crucial.

Is the international community, so eager to help the lost cause of the Burmese dissidents or the Tibetan independence, willing to push for the winnable cause of the Thai democracy? Can the new elected president Barak Obama and the western world, so eager to push its democratic agenda in China or South East Asia, accept the return of military or autocratic rule in Thailand? President George Bush so far has stopped the military from staging a coup.

A practical compromise should respect the elected government as the government should find a way to accommodate the military. But the PPP might not accept to surrender. If the government gave up, democracy would finish in Thailand and many present politicians could end up miserably if not dead.

Or Somchai could accept to step down – something that could trigger military coups in neighboring countries with shaky democratic foundations.

Of course, the Judiciary could rule against disbanding the PPP, the Bangkok airports could be cleared, the troublemakers could be stopped. But at this stage it all sounds like a fairy tale with a happy ending while a far darker scenario is looming on the region.

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