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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 27, 2008
Thailand crashes and burns
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Thailand's political conflict reached a point of no return on late Tuesday when anti-government protesters, led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), besieged and closed down Bangkok’s international airport. Flights were canceled, passengers stranded and the embattled and deeply divided nation is symbolically cut off from the outside world.

The protest group has vowed to maintain its position until Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, who was scheduled to land at the airport on his return from an international meeting in Peru, dissolved his People's Power Party-led (PPP) government and stepped down from power. Somchai, the brother-in-law of exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, has so far resisted those

 

calls. He was scheduled to return to Thailand on Wednesday evening.

Army commander General Anupong Paochinda, who was instrumental in the 2006 putsch that ousted Thaksin, has maintained that without more widespread violence, the military would stay put in its barracks. Anupong on Wednesday suggested the government dissolve the House and asked the protesters to end their protests immediately. Anupong was speaking to reporters after a meeting of a task force set up to monitor the political situation. He said the committee had come up with sincere proposals for both sides.

Anupong is thought to have consolidated his command through a recent military reshuffle, including through the promotion of pre-Cadet Academy Class 12 colleagues of his key ally, army chief-of-staff General Prayuth Chan-ocha. They now command positions responsible for Bangkok's security.

That includes First Army Region Commander Lieutenant General Kanit Sapitak, who has echoed Anupong's non-interventionist line, but who raised new questions about the chain of command when he indicated without elaborating at a Supreme Command headquarters meeting on Tuesday that there were powers higher than Anupong in deciding whether the military should launch a coup. Anupong, Prayuth and Kanit all served previously in Queen Sirikit's Royal Guard Infantry Regiment.

The widely respected Queen lent the PAD's movement a symbolic boost in October when she presided over the funeral of one of its supporters who had been killed in a melee with Thai police. The PAD has also symbolically erected a massive portrait of Queen Sirikit at its main protest site at Government House, to which they have laid siege since August 26. The royal family is by Thai law above politics, but is known to have strong sway over the armed forces.

What the military does next could have significant implications for Thailand's political future. The airport seizure represents an economically debilitating escalation to the PAD's previous tactics, including its people's power-style assaults in recent days in Bangkok on parliament, the metropolitan police headquarters, the military's Supreme Command and the government's makeshift offices at a decommissioned airport facility in north Bangkok.

Against that chaotic backdrop, armed street violence between pro- and anti-government groups is rising dangerously in the wake of last week's grenade attacks which left two dead and many injured at the PAD's main protest site at Government House. PAD guards were caught on Thai television on Tuesday opening fire from a pick-up truck on pro-government supporters and they attacked a community radio station run by taxi drivers that favors the government. A series of mysterious low-grade explosions, meanwhile, has detonated near the PAD's mushrooming protest sites.

Last-resort violence
Many analysts fear Somchai's government, which, at least overtly, has refrained from violent reprisals since the October 7 melee, now has no choice except to use force to disperse the PAD and restore its credibility. One political insider said the government had as of early Wednesday devised plans to deploy armed riot control and border patrol police units to take back the aviation facility, but held off on the raid scheduled for noon because of concerns for the safety of the estimated 3,000 or so foreign nationals who then remained stranded at the suburban facility.

When the remaining passengers are finally evacuated, armed clashes and bloodshed seem inevitable. PAD leaders have refused to budge from their demand that Somchai step down in their negotiations with government representatives. Meanwhile, the group's leaders from their protest stages have called again on Anupong to stage a coup that topples Somchai's PPP-led administration. Many analysts believe the PAD has purposefully escalated the situation to pave the way for a military intervention.

It's still unclear how anomic the situation must become before the tentative Anupong, or in a potential breakdown in the chain of command, the more assertive Kanit makes a move. Nor is it clear if factions in the armed forces have given from behind the scenes support to the PAD's airport attack. Left-leaning Thai academic Giles Ungpakorn, in an op-ed posted on the Prachathai website on Wednesday, argues that the military conspired with the PAD.

"How did the PAD thugs manage to seize Bangkok International airport? Airports are supposed to be high-security areas and Thai airports are controlled by the Thai military," he wrote. "It is obvious that the Thai military, who staged an illegal coup in 2006, have quietly supported the actions of the PAD. It is obvious that the military is unwilling to provide basic security to air travelers and air crew."

Says another political analyst, who requested anonymity: "The military is playing Jekyll and Hyde - stirring the antagonism on one face, and positioning itself to play savior on the other. It's classic Thai 'third-hand' manipulation."

Meanwhile, the PAD, whose popularity has waned since October, according to recent opinion polls, said in a prepared statement for the international press: "The final rally is well into its 50th hour and the supporters of the PAD have been pressuring the traitorous government to step down with peaceful means ... The [PAD] is left with no choice but to step up its peaceful rally by blocking off access to the Suvarnabhumi airport." The statement said the airport blockage was "crucial" to bringing down the government.

Until the PAD's brinksmanship, many thought Somchai and his PPP-led government would be brought down less dramatically through the courts in a sort of judicial coup. A highly anticipated Constitution Court decision on whether to dissolve the PPP and two of its junior coalition partners on electoral fraud charges should be handed down in the coming days or weeks.

A guilty verdict, one palace insider says, would pave the way for the creation of a court-ordered "Supreme Council" to rule in the political vacuum. He says several known royalists have been approached to serve on the appointed body, which hypothetically would have powers to pass laws by decree and appoint an interim prime minister and cabinet.

If the airport siege ends in unrestrained police or pro-government group violence against PAD violence, as many now anxiously anticipate, the military could take the initiative to restore order. Anupong hinted last month that Somchai should resign to take responsibility for the October 7 violence, in which two protesters were killed and hundreds injured in a police crackdown.

A more vigorous police-led bloodletting, with images of the carnage broadcast far and wide, could yet provide pretense for Anupong to seize power and establish a royally endorsed government of reconciliation and unity. Such a move could be popular with a cross-section of Bangkok's protest-weary middle classes. But in the wake of recent violent events, and in light of growing divisions in Thai society, it's unlikely the military has the authority or legitimacy to accomplish either.

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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