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    Southeast Asia
     May 7, 2009
Page 2 of 2
My friend is my enemy in Thailand
By Shawn W Crispin

Sondhi stirred a hornet's nest last year when, from his protest stage, he accused Anupong of receiving money from Thaksin to pay for his children's school fees. He did the same over the weekend when he alleged that palace insider Viriya Chavakul, who has publicly defended Thaksin's loyalty to the crown, played a role in the assassination plot against Sondhi. She strongly denied the charges and the palace quickly moved to correct press reports that referred to Viriya as Queen Sirikit's lady-in-waiting.

Questions also surround the apparent fall from favor of top royal advisor and Sondhi ally Piya Malakul, who according to one royal insider hasn't attended functions at the palace for over a month. Piya is known to be close to Queen Sirikit and was often the lone


advisor to accompany Bhumibol when he previously took outdoor walks around his seaside palace in Hua Hin.

One palace insider says that Piya was the top advisor who suggested that Queen Sirikit attend the funeral services of a PAD protester killed during a melee with police last October 7, indicating to some tacit royal backing for the PAD. Piya was also accused by Thaksin of playing host to a dinner at his residence in May 2006 where the coup against his government was allegedly planned. Piya has strongly denied the charges, claiming no military officials were present at the meeting.

The PAD has already indicated it will launch new street protests against any constitutional reforms that lead to an amnesty of the 110 politicians - with the notable exception of the criminally charged Thaksin - banned from politics for five years by a military appointed Constitution Tribunal in May 2007. The risk for Abhisit and the Democrats is that the PAD lumps together their coalition government with the military, as UDD leaders had from their protest stage.

Military matters
That could be an easier argument to make after Abhisit's declaration of a state of emergency and the military's willingness under Anupong to mop up the UDD after refusing to implement similar decrees announced last year under two separate Thaksin-aligned governments. The breakdown of Abhisit's personal security detail showed clearly that his government lacks command control over key sections of the national police force.

Thaksin was a former police official and is believed to still hold sway over certain senior officers. Many junior-level police officials attended UDD rallies while off duty, with some even changing into their red shirts while still at their respective police stations, according to a source familiar with the situation. That's raised concerns in certain government circles that Thaksin supporters' call to arms is no idle threat.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayakorn said that the premier's inner circle now viewed the UDD's attack on Abhisit's car on April 12 at the Ministry of Interior as a well-coordinated assassination attempt. He says a review of wide-angle security film of the incident shows that men with masks and guns were positioned on the perimeter of the attack, apparently waiting for frontline protesters to break through the car's bulletproof windows.

With police neutrality in doubt, army chief of staff Prayuth has taken charge of Abhisit's personal security and his top aides have been appointed bodyguards. Some diplomats here believe that Prayuth's role in the efficient suppression of the UDD riots may have saved Abhisit's government, which was teetering after UDD protesters stormed the venue of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit meeting with world leaders in attendance.

The military has over Abhisit's five-month tenure sometimes marched to its own drummer, though by most reports it stepped in line when he declared a state of emergency and insisted the crackdown would result in no casualties. Military insiders say the top brass are wholly cognizant of how unpopular another coup would be and prefer the political status quo as long as their budgets keep flowing and a conflict in the south involving Muslim insurgents is left under the military and not moved to civilian command.

Panitan says that while the military's budget has risen substantially since the 2006 coup, overall outlays are still only 1.8% of gross domestic product, well below the global average for maintaining a modern fighting force of 300,000 men. Panitan, a former professor of security affairs who has trained several senior ranking military officers, has according to diplomats emerged as one of Abhisit's main point men in liaising with the military and deciphering its moves and motivations.

New trajectory
What's clear is that the UDD's unexpected show of force has put Thai politics on a new trajectory. The ruling Democrats are now widely expected to dissolve parliament and call for new elections by early to mid-2010, coinciding with a forecast up-tick in the economy, which is now set to contract by 5% this year.

One Democrat party deputy leader suggests the government is already starting to plot vote-getting strategies for new polls, including possible plans to redistribute land designated as national parks to over 2.2 million villagers who still hold title deeds, and another to grant Thai citizenship to over 2 million people in limbo situated in border areas.

The Democrats also clearly hope to capitalize on a newfound populism, including a 2,000-baht (US$57) handout scheme for over 11 million low-income earners around the country. Ramped up fiscal spending designated to cushion the blow of the global economic crisis started disbursements last month and politicians of coalition partner Bhum Jai Thai party are expected to be major beneficiaries through the ministries they control.

The Bhum Jai Thai party's behind-the-scenes leader, Newin Chidchob, is now allegedly bidding to place his political associates onto the board of state-run and now loss-making Thai Airways, according to people familiar with the situation. Any number of those policies could open the coalition to damaging corruption allegations lodged by the Thaksin-aligned opposition Peua Thai party, similar to the land reform scandal that eventually brought down a Democrat-led government in 1994.

One diplomat read the Ministry of Finance's recent announcement to cut 200 billion baht from the 2010 budget because of revenue shortfalls also as a political strategy to keep Bhum Jai Thai at bay and on side until new polls are held, with a wink that bigger-ticket infrastructure projects would be initiated by a newly elected government. That avowed big spending could be enough to lure several Peua Thai politicians to defect to Bhum Jai Thai, as several were reportedly poised to do before the UDD ramped up its protests.

That's exactly the sort of old-fashioned politicking both the UDD and PAD say they stand firmly against and could provide fodder for more destabilizing demonstrations in the months ahead. But if Abhisit successfully oversees constitutional reforms and a mass amnesty, which with shifting political allegiances could benefit his coalition as much as the Thaksin-aligned Peua Thai, those fractured street movements may yet represent the fringe of an emerging new political order.

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

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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