Thailand’s Calm Seen As Only Temporary

King’s Nonappearance Adding to Uncertainty in Wake of Protests

washingtonpost.com

 

Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 6, 2008; Page A10

BANGKOK, Dec. 5 — For Thailand, the past week began with the blaring fury of anti-government demonstrators in the middle of an airport sit-in and ended with a stunned calm as the country contemplated billions of dollars in economic damage and a reminder of the importance of their revered king.

But few observers say they believe the current quiet means an end to chaos.

Friday was the 81st birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, an occasion he was expected to mark with his usual birthday eve address to the nation. But Bhumibol did not appear before the waiting crowd of dignitaries Thursday, instead deputing his son and daughter to tell them that he was ill.

The king’s nonappearance, along with his failure to sign off on the extraordinary session of parliament that the government must convene to appoint a new prime minister, has heightened the sense of uncertainty here.

For weeks, the predominantly middle-class protesters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy have been campaigning to bring down the government. They believed the administration of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was a proxy for Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist former prime minister who was removed in a military coup in 2006 amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

The People’s Alliance has defined itself as the defender of the monarchy, and when Queen Sirikit, the king’s wife, attended the funeral in October of a protester killed by a police tear-gas grenade, many Thais interpreted it as an indication that the support was mutual.

The group’s influential, if shadowy, support in Bangkok’s palaces, barracks and boardrooms appears to have made it untouchable.

In recent months, the police have been unable, and the army apparently unwilling, to challenge the protesters as they all but paralyzed the government, taking over the prime minister’s offices, surrounding parliament and, finally, besieging Bangkok’s international and domestic airports.

The protesters vacated the airports Wednesday after the Constitutional Court banned Somchai from holding political office and dissolved three of the six parties in the ruling coalition on grounds of fraud in last year’s elections.

The government still retains its majority in parliament and is looking to select a new leader from among its ranks, but the People’s Alliance has threatened to reconvene if it disapproves of the choice.

“The cycle of confrontation and brinkmanship seen in recent weeks is thus in an intermission, likely to resume from next week when the lower house gathers to choose a new prime minister,” political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote in the Bangkok Post on Friday.

The government’s main support comes from the country’s rural poor, a constituency that the People’s Alliance contends is unsophisticated and vulnerable to vote-buying.

The risk is that tens of thousands of government supporters, angered by what they interpret as attempts by the People’s Alliance to disenfranchise them, will take to the streets to fight back, leading to anarchy.

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