BANGKOK - Thailand is once again effectively under military rule after Prime
Minister and Defense Minister Samak Sundaravej declared a state of emergency
for the capital Bangkok in response to pro- and anti-government group clashes
early on Tuesday morning. At least one person was killed and dozens injured in
the pre-dawn melee.
The emergency move came after a joint sitting of parliament over the weekend
failed to arrive at a compromise solution to the escalating conflict. Samak has
said the move towards martial law will be temporary and is aimed at preserving
democracy and restoring order. He formally issued the order from a military
rather than the Prime Minister's Office, which is now besieged by protesters.
Army commander General Anupong Paochinda will lead an emergency committee that
includes the national police chief and civilian members tasked with dispersing
the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) from its encampment around Government
House, where it has been positioned since August 26 after launching coordinated
attacks on different state buildings in Bangkok. Anupong told Thai reporters on
Tuesday afternoon that he would not use force, that he planned to negotiate
with the PAD and that the emergency decree would not include a curfew.
Samak also vowed in his address to disperse a group of pro-government
protesters, which coalesced over the weekend wearing red to confront the
yellow-cloaked PAD. PAD supporters contend the pro-government group was
organized by Samak, and not organically, as other officials have claimed. One
of Samak's "war room" advisors was seen with the pro-government group at
Bangkok's Sanam Luang park early on Monday evening, before they marched to
confront the PAD.
News reports showed protesters armed with clubs, knifes and slingshots and
images of bloodied bodies scattered in the streets on Tuesday. A PAD leader
claimed that one of the group's followers was shot by a pro-government
protester during the chaotic clashes, according to news reports. At least two
others were shot and the police allegedly allowed the pro-government group to
encircle the PAD at government house without intervening .
More bloodshed and political confusion could come from a highly anticipated
Election Commission ruling that could disband Samak's ruling People's Power
Party (PPP)on electoral fraud charges. That politicized decision would
potentially open the way for the opposition Democrat Party, which has tacitly
backed the PAD protests, to form a new coalition government, but would also
likely fuel the fires of the pro-government protest group which rampaged
through Bangkok's streets early on Tuesday morning.
Even with Samak's announcement of the emergency decree, which legally bans
public gatherings of over five people and allows authorities to censor media
they perceive as inciting violence, the PAD has vowed to stay put and continue
with its live broadcast protests over ASTV, a satellite station owned by PAD
co-leader and media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul. He has announced plans to hold
regular interviews with the foreign press to counteract the government's
interpretation of recent events.
PAD protesters have orchestrated massive economic disruption across the
country, including strategic closures of major transport infrastructure. State
employees sympathetic to PAD labor leader Somsak Kosaisuk have paralyzed
railway services in the southern regions. Others blocked access to three
southern airports in the beach tourism heartland, temporarily causing them to
shut down services. Protesters had also threatened to cut off water and
electricity to government offices in the capital city.
The economic cost of the chaos is expected to mount as foreign investors head
for the exit. The head of research of one major investment bank told Asia Times
Online that his foreign clients now perceived the country as "ungovernable" and
were quickly moving to unwind their Thai positions. "Thailand's politics were
already viewed as chaotic and the latest events have pushed that perception
over the edge. The country is now seen as a verifiable basket case."
A foreign exchange trader with a major investment bank in Singapore told Asia
Times Online that some of his clients were starting to ask if the political and
economic chaos in Thailand could soon start to adversely affect the entire
region. "Thailand is becoming a focal point for investors who are looking at
Asia," he said.
The Stock Exchange of Thailand closed down 2%, driving it to its lowest level
in 19 months, according to analysts. The Thai baht also lost ground, slipping
to 34.49, its lowest level in over a year. Traders said the baht would have
likely slid further if the Bank of Thailand had not intervened to shore up the
Analysts and government officials contend the escalating conflict is being
driven at least partially by intra-military competition, pitting hardliners
against moderates. PAD leader and former army brass Chamlong Srimuang is known
to have ties to a particularly hardline camp, including former Internal
Security Operations Command deputy director Panlop Pinmanee and former spy
chief and 2006 coup architect Prasong Soonsiri.
The nominally retired Panlop was implicated in an alleged botched assassination
attempt against then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and has come under fire
from rights groups for his alleged role in the 2004 Krue Se mosque massacre in
southern Thailand. Panlop earlier denied any association with the PAD but in an
about-turn last week said he would lead the protest movement and intensify its
activities if his friend Chamlong were to be arrested on the treason charges
now pending against him.
Some analysts note that the PAD ramped up its protests to coincide with a
highly anticipated military reshuffle in which, as expected, the moderate
Anupong retained his top post as army commander. The 2006 coup also coincided
with a hotly contested reshuffle, where Thaksin pushed for his pre-Cadet Class
10 allies to win control over pivotal First Division positions charged with
overseeing Bangkok's security.
Last year's reshuffle saw more moderate officials, including Anupong and
outgoing First Army Region commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha, win out over
hardliners who were expected to be further sidelined at this year's rotation
overseen by Samak, which was made public on Friday. Whether that contested
reshuffle contributed to the current street tensions is still unclear.
One source close to the royal palace claims that Prayuth, who was moved
upstairs to the position of army chief of staff, survived an apparent sniper
assassination attempt while jogging near his home over a month ago. He has
frequently slept at army headquarters rather than in his own home in the wake
of the botched attack, according to the same source. Prayuth could not be
reached for comment for this article.
His replacement, Major General Kanit Sapitak, is believed to have close ties to
both Anupong and Prayuth. His leadership over the 1st and 2nd Infantry
Divisions and the 2nd and 4th Cavalry, which together oversee Bangkok's
security, would be crucial to the staging of any coup. For the time being, the
prospect of another military seizure of power still seems distant.
Anupong reportedly resisted Samak's earlier calls to invoke a state of
emergency, which the embattled premier first drew up and proposed on Friday,
according to a Prime Minister's Office source. But what happens after Thai
soldiers attempt to dislodge the defiant and entrenched PAD from Government
House could have long-lasting political implications, particularly if soldiers
open fire on the yellow-clad crowds.
Many feared this sort of strife, pitting competing political and military
cliques, might break in the power vacuum expected to be left after the highly
revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turns 81 in December, eventually passes
from the scene. Thailand has long relied on the monarch's overarching moral
authority to resolve complex political problems, including in the aftermath of
the tragic events of 1992 when soldiers shot and killed hundreds of unarmed
Few now believe that a dissolution of parliament and new democratic elections
would resolve the conflict precisely because the PPP or another Thaksin-aligned
party would most likely win and kick start a new round of street protests. That
has many people calling for the formation of a national unity government, which
includes both the PPP and opposition Democrats and ideally receives strong
symbolic royal endorsement.
It may yet prove to be a blessing in disguise that the competing political and
apparent military interests now battling on Bangkok's streets broke out into
the open while Bhumibol was still on the throne - rather than after.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.