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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 6, 2006
In Thailand, Thaksin falls from grace
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - In the end, Thaksin Shinawatra's fall from power was just as dramatic as his spectacular political rise in 2001. The embattled caretaker Thai prime minister on Tuesday announced on national television his decision to step down, saying that he would not accept the premiership if and when the House of Representatives convenes its first session after his Thai Rak Thai party was swept back into power at April 2 polls.

"I seriously need to apologize to the 16 million people who voted for me to be prime minister," said a contrite Thaksin, visibly



shaken and teary-eyed. "It's time for all of us to express in unity our loyalty for the King," he added later. Thaksin expressed his wish that his resignation would defuse the people-power protests that have rocked his government in recent weeks.

Monarch in the middle
Thaksin's announcement came directly after meeting with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej at his palace in the coastal resort town of Hua Hin. The anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest movement and the political opposition had both repeatedly called upon the highly revered monarch to remove Thaksin from power and appoint an interim government.

The palace maintained its silence to those calls, and it was not disclosed what was exchanged between Bhumibol and Thaksin during their closed-door meeting on Tuesday. However, there are strong indications of some sort of royal intervention aimed at preempting a violent clash between pro- and anti-government groups. Thaksin cited the need for national unity during this June's 60th-anniversary celebrations of Bhumibol's accession to the throne as an important motivating factor for his resignation.

Meanwhile, PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul said supporters would hold their last protest this Friday in tribute to the King. In retrospect, the people power-protests that were instrumental in dislodging Thaksin from power had significant royal antecedents. Media firebrand Sondhi first galvanized Bangkok's middle class to the streets last October through explosive allegations that Thaksin was usurping functions traditionally reserved for royalty.

Bhumibol first appeared to defuse the antagonism during his annual birthday address in December when he called upon Thaksin to drop a string of defamation suits against Sondhi requesting US$50 million in damages. But the anti-government protests were rekindled by the more broad-based PAD in January after the Shinawatra family sold off shares in the Shin Corp communications business that Thaksin founded to Singapore's Temasek Holdings in a controversial $1.9 billion tax-free transaction.

A large cross-section of Bangkok's upper and middle classes, donning "We love the King" yellow T-shirts, had rallied behind the cause of defending the monarch. More recently, pro-government protesters had besieged some critical media outlets that had published articles that they believed inappropriately referred to the revered monarch.

Senior Privy Council members who advise the King had repeatedly called upon the government and protest leaders to compromise. Both sides still refused to back down, and a string of mysterious bombs targeting the political opposition and key protest leaders' headquarters signaled a dangerous escalation.

There were also worrying indications that Thaksin was preparing to crack down on protesters soon after Sunday's polls. According to PAD leader Sondhi, certain elements in the army had also encouraged him to raise the tempo of his peaceful protests, a move that would open the way for a military intervention that could have been manipulated to knock Thaksin from power. Sondhi, however, said he refused to put his followers at risk.

As tensions mounted, the noose tightened on both sides of the political divide. Thaksin had on several occasions irritated Privy Council members by pushing to promote his Class 10 (military training) school colleagues above more senior officers during annual military reshuffles, most recently through his attempts to elevate his allies to senior posts in charge of Bangkok's security.

Sondhi, meanwhile, after rousing crowds with his battle call to "fight for the King", had himself come under threat for making public comments that many construed as lese majeste - charges that can carry jail terms. Army Commander Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who earlier had said the military would remain in the barracks and not take sides in the political conflict, over the weekend stated his opinion that the speech in question violated lese majeste laws.

Behind the curtain
Thaksin's resignation comes with some important strings attached aimed at maintaining his influence over politics and guarding against any opposition-led probes into his government's or his family's finances. One member of his party suggested that he could play an active elder-statesman role, similar to Lee Kwan Yew's overarching authority in Singapore's politics.

If so, he will lack the same moral authority. Although his Thai Rak Thai party scored a sizable majority at Sunday's elections, the 16 million votes were a considerable slip from the 19 million he won in February 2005, and only slightly above the party's 15 million registered members. The main opposition parties boycotted the election, but Bangkok voters tallied "no votes" in record numbers against Thaksin's candidates, indicating that the recent allegations of corruption and abuse of power made by PAD protesters in recent weeks had a big impact on the politically powerful urban middle class.

(A recent Phatra Securities report indicated that while Bangkok accounts for only 10% of the population of Thailand, in economic terms it earns about 50% of national gross domestic product.)

Even before the polls, Thaksin's political advisers had suggested that he take a break from politics and allow an interim prime minister to oversee constitutional reforms and makes amends with Bangkok's middle class. It has been suggested that new polls would be held after reforms are completed next year, and the main opposition Democrat Party has already indicated it would participate in new democratic elections.

Thaksin has said he will retain the Thai Rak Thai party leadership as well as his status as a member of parliament, and has already vowed to continue his economic programs, including various populist moves aimed at the rural poor and the $38 billion worth of infrastructure projects that have attracted foreign investors.

Beneath a veneer of unity, Thaksin's party is famously divided among competing factions, the largest of which was established and led by his own sister to counterbalance the old-guard patronage politicians inside the party. Throughout the recent political turmoil, the party has remained remarkably cohesive - though the large clan led by Agriculture Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan held meetings in February to discuss leaving the party, according to a well-placed diplomat.

It is questionable whether the party's cohesion will endure once Thaksin steps aside. Early indications are that he will tap either Commerce Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, an obscure former academic and marketing expert who lacks popular resonance in the rural countryside, or Bhokin Polakul, a constitutional lawyer and former House Speaker. Both politicians lack popular support bases, and, as staunch Thaksin loyalists, would conceivably allow Thaksin to continue to steer policy.

If a new government is formed and is able to ramp up infrastructure spending quickly, a somewhat unlikely prospect considering the corruption allegations that have hounded previous projects, then the patronage politicians in his camp will likely stay put. But personality politics will also likely become more pronounced as Thaksin plays favorites, political analysts say.

By picking Somkid over powerful politicians with established rural support bases, the party could soon show fissures. The move to elevate Somkid will likely alienate party power-broker Suwat Liptapanlop, who after dissolving his Chart Pattana party to join Thai Rak Thai had earlier been groomed as Thaksin's heir apparent. Former party power broker Sanoh Thientong and his clique earlier abandoned the party and joined the anti-government protests.

Moreover, if it becomes apparent that Thaksin is still pulling the strings behind government, protest leaders have already vowed to return to the streets. "This could be a trap," said PAD leader Sondhi soon after Thaksin's announcement. "We will reserve the right to judge if Thaksin is still pulling the strings from behind the scenes." He said the PAD will wait until April 30 before deciding the next move.

And, as such, there are still big clouds over Thailand's political future.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia editor.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

 

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