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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 25, 2008
More turmoil in beleaguered Bangkok
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Stability in Thailand took another hit on Monday when thousands of anti-government street protesters, led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), laid temporary siege to parliament, the Finance Ministry, the metropolitan police headquarters and the government's makeshift offices at a Bangkok airport.

The PAD attack prevented a scheduled joint-parliamentary session between the Senate and Lower House from convening and marked the second time since October the protest group had occupied the legislature's grounds. The anti-government group has occupied Government House since August 26, in a bid to topple


Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's coalition government.

Police forces dispersed with tear gas a similar mass protest at parliament on October 7, resulting in one death, hundreds of injuries and an unusually overt show of royal support for the protest movement, witnessed in Queen Sirikit's attendance at the victim's funeral and offer to pay injured protesters' medical bills. By law the Thai royal family is above politics, but PAD leaders have claimed through their protests that former premier Thaksin Shinawatra threatened the monarchy's role in Thai society.

PAD leaders claimed before Monday's march that the parliamentary session aimed to ram through controversial constitutional amendments, including an amnesty for senior executives of the disbanded Thai Rak Thai party that would pave the way for the exiled and fugitive from Thai justice Thaksin to return to power. House speaker Chai Chidchob denied the charge, but if the changes were made they would have come just days or weeks before a highly anticipated Constitution Court decision on whether to dissolve the ruling People's Power Party (PPP) and two of its junior coalition partners and brought the legal legitimacy of a guilty verdict into question.

The protest group also claimed that the proposed amendments included new provisions to limit the powers of privy councilors, which are appointed to their advisory posts by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Thaksin's supporters have accused the august body's president, Prem Tinsulanonda, a former army commander and prime minister, of masterminding the 2006 coup. He has consistently denied the charges.

Meanwhile, Somchai, Thaksin's brother-in-law, said from an international meeting in Peru that he would neither resign nor use force to disperse the protesters, who after occupying parliament redirected their protest to the prime minister's makeshift offices at Don Muang airport and cut short an emergency cabinet meeting. He also said from abroad that the military would not stage a coup in response to the PAD's attacks.

One government insider said that the attacks represented a "disaster" for the PAD because they failed to galvanize the 100,000 supporters they had predicted. The Associated Press estimated there were between 25,000 and 33,000 protestors at the various government installations they laid siege to. The government source doubted that was enough to hold simultaneously any two locations and that the government's strategy going forward would be to "demonize the PAD" and "make them look like a joke".

Independent brass
Whether the military agrees to adopt that strategy, however, is another question. Although Somchai concurrently serves as defense minister, his authority over the top brass is at best tenuous. Army Commander General Anupong Paochinda suggested on national television after the October 7 violence that his government should consider stepping down to take responsibility for the violence.

Anupong also refused to implement a state of emergency declared by then prime minister Samak Sundaravej in early September after PAD and pro-government supporters clashed in the streets of Bangkok, leaving one dead. At the same time, Anupong has more recently remained mum while the PAD's main protest site has been assaulted by a series of grenade and low grade explosive attacks.

Two people were killed and several more injured in separate attacks on November 20 and 22. The PAD has responded by militarizing the Government House protest site, fortifying its position against drive-by bomb attacks through the strategic placement of decommissioned public buses with their wheels removed and military-style netting around moat areas.

Political observers note that Anupong has failed to discipline army Major General Kattiya Sawasdipol for a series of provocative statements he has made against the PAD, including a threat last week to use M79 anti-tank rockets to dislodge protesters from around Government House.

"I would like to say that anyone wanting to join the rally should reserve a temple for his or her own funeral," Kattiya was quoted saying in The Nation after last Thursday's grenade attack. "Being united, you will be slain in a group."

Kattiya has denied responsibility for the recent attacks, but is known to have provided training to a small group of anti-PAD "warriors". He also openly advises the pro-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), a pro-government group which since October has held three mass meetings of red-shirt donning supporters, including this past weekend at a Buddhist temple in a province adjacent to Bangkok.
The UDD's leaders told its supporters on Sunday to refrain from confronting the PAD if it moved to take over parliament. However, one of its leaders warned at the rally that if the PAD surrounded the palace in an attempt to prevent Somchai as tradition dictates from paying his respects to King Bhumibol during his upcoming birthday celebrations around December 5, they would not hesitate to confront the PAD. The PAD has not indicated it plans such a controversial move.

Despite Kattiya's provocations, Anupong maintains a firm grip on the rank and file that matter, including those in command positions overseeing Bangkok's security. Anupong, army chief-of-staff Prayuth Chan-ocha and First Army Division commander Kanit Sapitak are all bound from their past experience in the Queen's Regiment.

The government insider says his camp has attempted in recent months to sway to their "pro-democracy" cause various colonels in control of combat contingents, including armor and artillery commands, to counteract any attempted coup by Anupong, but so far has had little success. He estimates there are some 200 such colonel rank military officials across the country, many of which have been peeved by their demotions or sideways movements while Anupong elevates his allies.

Barring any major and violent clash between the PAD and UDD, the military is expected to stay in the barracks and, at least overtly, out of politics. Instead, a highly anticipated Constitution Court decision will decide in the days or weeks ahead whether to disband Somchai's PPP on electoral fraud charges and could potentially bid to bring Thailand's escalating conflict to a legalistic conclusion.

The PAD's leadership believes a guilty verdict would pave the way for the formation of a court-ordered ruling Supreme Council and appointed premier and Cabinet with authority to pass laws and amend the constitution in line with their protest demands, including a move backwards towards a half-appointed, half-elected Lower House of parliament.

Such a decision would consolidate the power of the conservative forces the PAD represents in the military, bureaucracy, opposition Democrat Party and, at least symbolically, royal household at Thaksin's and his supporters' expense. And should the PPP or UDD attempt to mount a protest movement against the verdict, the military under Anupong, it seems, could likely be counted on to enforce the decision in the name of upholding the rule of law.

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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