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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 27, 2008
Thai protests turn nasty
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Thailand's topsy-turvy politics took a turn for the chaotic on Tuesday as anti-government protesters violently stormed government buildings, blocked major roadways and knocked a state-run television station off the air. The protests shook markets and raised concerns that the government might move to invoke an emergency decree and temporarily suspend democracy.

It also ominously points to splits inside the military, with camps divided between those who support and oppose Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who serves concurrently as defense minister. Samak has reached an accommodation with top-ranking military leaders, including army commander General Anupong Paochinda

 

and First Army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha, but a hardline camp has reportedly refused to fall in step.

A group of these officers reportedly called for Samak's resignation when the violence reached a crescendo early in the afternoon, according to a well-placed government source who spoke on condition of anonymity with Asia Times Online. Samak told reporters he had no intention of stepping down or declaring an emergency decree, adding that street protesters who broke the law would face arrest.

Thailand's SET Index declined 1.37% to 668.92 on Tuesday, bringing its decline since May 21 to more than 24%. The baht weakened about 0.3% to 34.205 to the US dollar.

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest movement had billed Tuesday's protest a "final showdown" in which either Samak's government or its supporters would survive. Its ambush-style attacks represented a violent escalation of its previous protests, which commenced on May 25 and have centered on the claim that Samak's government is serving as a political proxy for ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who is currently in self-imposed exile in England.

According to a source in the Prime Minister's Office, one of the protesters who stormed the National Broadcasting Television was in possession of a gun. "If this is true, this could represent a case of treason," the official said. He said officials had established a "war room" to counter the attacks and "preserve democracy". The official also said they were trying to get in touch with US ambassador Eric John, who they hoped to put on national television condemning the PAD's attacks.

The spasm in violence comes soon after several political pundits predicted Thailand had achieved a more stable political footing in the wake of Thaksin's decision this month to flee the country rather than stand trial on a range of corruption and abuse of power charges. The Attorney General's office forwarded to the Supreme Court this week an important criminal case which aims to seize 76 billion baht (US$2.3 billion) worth of Thaksin's family's assets, believed to be the bulk of his personal holdings and wellspring of his political patronage.

With his departure and potentially diminished wealth, many believed the country was on the verge of a political reordering where a camp of 100 or so members of parliament inside the ruling People's Power Party, led by provincial powerbroker and until now strong Thaksin ally Newin Chidchob, might be tempted to break away and form a new coalition government led by the opposition Democrat Party. A source near the leadership of the Democrat Party recently told Asia Times Online that party officials were exploring that possibility, which appealed because Newin's political following is in Thaksin's stronghold northeastern region.

The PAD has a love-hate relationship with the Democrats dating to run-ins and libel law suits the party filed in the past against the street movement's media baron leader, Sondhi Limthongkul. Despite the PAD's role in keeping pressure on Samak's government, the Democrats' recent overtures towards PAD-nemesis Newin would presumably leave the protest movement's leaders and associates outside of any future non-Thaksin-aligned government.

It's unclear if the PAD leadership, including Sondhi, intended for the protests to spin so wildly out of control. Many analysts have speculated that the PAD had stepped up its protests in recent weeks to potentially lure security forces into a crackdown and amid the chaos a military seizure of political power take place - a scenario apparently favored by some military hardliners, but opposed by Anupong and Prayuth, who have top authority over Bangkok's security.

What is known is that the PAD has powerful backing from a hardline faction inside the military that lost out at last year's reshuffle, which most significantly saw the promotion of Anupong over the ambitious General Saprang Kalayanamitr. A key player in the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin, Saprang has been quoted in the local press as saying that he personally has given orders to the PAD.

There is no evidence that he or other military figures played any role in stoking Tuesday's violence, but there are worrying indications that a hardline military camp may bid to capitalize on the chaos and its aftermath at more moderate military rivals' expense.

The breakdown in public order notably comes on the eve of a highly anticipated military reshuffle, which was reportedly already completed and expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

Anupong is widely expected to preserve his army commander post, but there have been grumbles inside the rank-and-file that he hasn't played a more assertive political role in the de facto joint premiership he has established with Samak.

The PAD's attacks on government buildings have clearly weakened his hand and will provide ammunition for hardliners to take up other pivotal command posts, including perhaps a break-up of Prayuth's unbroken chain of command over Bangkok through his Pre-Cadet Academy Class 12 allies over the 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions and the 2nd and 4th Cavalry.

What is also clear is that Thailand's battered and bruised democracy has reached a crucial juncture. The PAD's rally cry took a hard turn last month when its members started to call for a "new politics" in which future parliaments would be 30% elected and 70% appointed. The proposal was clearly in response to the fact that pro-Thaksin parties continue to win elections, even after his original Thai Rak Thai party was disbanded by a military tribunal, and would likely prevail again if Samak opted to dissolve parliament and call for new polls.

The PAD's version of diminished democracy also jibes with the military's vision of the country's political future, seen in the various illiberal articles it wrote into the 2007 constitution, including in particular its controversial move backward towards a half-elected, half-appointed senate.

The all-important wild card is the royal household, which by law is above Thai politics. The highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej has on at least two nationally televised occasions endorsed Samak and his administration, notably on the eve of a previous PAD-declared "doomsday". Anupong and Prayuth are also both known to have close personal ties with Queen Sirikit.

While the PAD has consistently claimed its movement aims above all at protecting the monarchy from usurping politicians, its attacks on Tuesday on government buildings which bear royal insignia make those claims as doubtful as its eponymous commitment to democracy.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be reached at swcrispin@atimes.com

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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