Monday, September 01, 2008

The truth behind Thailand's “protests”: a delicate balance of forces

What exactly is going on in Thailand? Western media reports a “political crisis” but so far seems a well organised, peaceful, and most importantly supported-by-the-military crisis. The Prime Minister’s residence has been taken over by 20,000 protesters for a week but so far the PM Samak Sundaravej has not called out the police or the army. The 73-year old Samak is a Thaksin Shinawatra surrogate whose legitimacy stems from last year's election won by the People Power Party created by loyalists from Thaksin’s old party Thai Rak Thai.

The southern airports of Phuket, Hat Yai and Krabi were barricaded off by protesters who marched on their stomachs rumoured to be supplied by the military or even members of the Royal Family. Samek has refused to call an election and has vowed to rule on with the apparent support of the king whom he met today.

Samak won power in 2007 with the support of the rural majority despite the antagonism of the coup leaders. He now hangs on as a stand-in leader for the far-away Shinawatra. A growing wealthy elite in Bangkok, loath both men and are determined to force an election. But Thaksin may be about to taxi home. Today, he sold his English Premier League football "toy" Manchester City to Abu Dhabi interests. Thaksin may be cashing up for his inevitable return to his homeland and the bribes he will need to pay to stay out of prison.

And so the west reports Thailand seems delicately poised between four forces that represent the Army, the King, the country (in the name of Thaksin), and Bangkok’s growing bourgeoisie. The army has remained in barracks so far but given their past record as recently as 2006, they could be itching for the chance to “solve” the crisis. Coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin has retired but the army’s attempt to fix the 2007 election backfired spectacularly. There may be other leaders who want to take on his baton. But they will have to contend with Samak’s appointment today of General Songkitti Jaggabatara, a former classmate of Shinawatra to the role of military supreme commander.

But for now, the army is quietly working behind the scenes for the opposition umbrella group People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Some have claimed PAD actually stands for People Against Democracy because of what it is fighting for: a Parliament in which only 30 percent is elected and the rest are “appointed” by royal command. PAD’s paternalistic policy see them blame western-style democracy for Thailand’s ills. It was PAD who began the protests that led to Thaksin’s overthrow and who now want to strike at him again through Samak.

PAD have strongly invoked the royal family in their attempt to curry favour. Royalty remains sacrosanct in Thailand and there is intense jockeying for power in the event of the death of 80 year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Officially a constitutional monarchy, Bhumibol is extremely powerful. He has been instrumental in most Thai political dealings over his extraordinary 60 years on the throne and had a very direct bearing on the 2005 coup. He is the world’s longest-reigning monarch, and the wealthiest royal worth an estimated $35 billion. PAD knows that if Bhumibol withdraws his support it means the end for Samak.

While no-one knows how this drama will play out between Bhumibol, PAD, Samak and the army, it should be noted there is an fifth force of influence in the country: the Thai media. Television is contested but is mostly controlled by Samak. His forces say the state media should be a mouthpiece for the government, while opponents argue that it belongs to the people as these stations are established and operated using the taxpayers' money. The print scene is also vibrant. As of 2003, there were 150 newspapers of which about 40 were Bangkok dailies. The city also has two important English language dailies The Bangkok Post and the Nation and several Chinese language papers. Almost all of the country’s 73 provinces have local newspapers. Lurid tabloid journalism is extremely popular but there is also a significant well-educated elite who avidly read the broadsheets. These papers have one major taboo topic (criticism of the Royal Family) but otherwise report fairly on the political unrest. With a free Internet also available, Thailand is awash with vigorous, diverse, well-informed opinion that can quickly turn hostile.

It will take a monumental effort of will to end that unrest. The Guardian sees the crisis as a continuation of the events that ended Thaksin’s reign calling it a “never ending coup”. They see it as a struggle between “two deep-seated and irreconcilable forces” of a the traditional Thai alliance of the bureaucracy, military and monarchy, and “a populist nouveau riche from the rural areas whose support Thaksin has tapped into.” It sees an election as perhaps the only gamebreaker.

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