“Land of Smiles”, as Thailand is known for the friendliness and hospitality of its people, is reeling under a political crisis as the result of a dychotomy with people supporting the opposition of Thailand wanting their premier to quit, but the premier says he will not and is quite comfortable. Protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) on August 26 besieged Government House, Thailand‘s seat of power, vowing to occupy the manicured grounds until Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej resigned. The demonstrators — many middle-class professionals who took to hanging their washing lines over Government House’s hedge topiaries — clapped as their leaders called for the government’s downfall. PAD, however, has not offered any alternative to the present govenrnt either. It seems the PAD will end its rally if the government resigns or dissolves the House.
Thailand‘s Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, former Bangkok governor, has declared a state of emergency in the capital Bangkok on Sept. 2, after a deadly street battle erupted between the PAD and a counter-protest group and the clashes left at least one person dead. Samak said he had “no choice” but to impose the measure in order to end the week-old revolt by supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). But the army commander has promised that his men will not use force to disperse the protesters. Dozens more were hurt in the worst violence seen in Bangkok for 16 years.
The PAD demands Thailand‘s embattled Prime Minister Samak’s ouster but it isn’t entirely sure who should lead the country should he resign. The feisty PM has refused to step down, even if he can no longer work at his own office. The impasse has brought parts of the country to a halt. PAD mobs forced three airports in key tourist areas to shutter, and strikes in support of the opposition have hampered rail services.
The country’s benchmark stock index has dropped nearly 25% since the protest movement began in late May. In the heart of Bangkok, pro- and anti-government forces are teetering on the edge of an armed conflict in which any implement — sticks, knives, even the odd golf club — can be used against a political enemy. Already, the clashes on Sept. 2 claimed at least one protester’s life.
Thailand remains an active member of the regional Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and an emerging economy. Substantial industries include electric appliances, components, computer parts and automobiles, while tourism contributes about 5% to Thailand‘s GDP. Thailand exports an increasing value of over $105 billion worth of goods and services annually. Major exports include rice, textiles and footwear, fishery products, rubber, jewelry, automobiles, computers and electrical appliances.
Although the celebratory mood began to fade, the opposition is keen to keep the momentum on. The situation has become volatile after the cabinet on Sept 05 endorsed a law to empower the prime minister to enforce 20 other laws affecting each ministry such as the Traffic Act, the Disease Control Act, and the Defense Act. Samak Sundaravej has said he is confident there will be no military coup against his government, despite weeks of street protests. “The military believes no coup is the best way to defend the country,” Prime Minister said.. He reminded viewers that Thailand‘s Supreme Commander Boonsrang Miumpradit had said earlier this week that there was “no reason” to stage a coup.
The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) still insists that Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej must resign before it will enter into talks with the government, leaving the stand-off simmering. Samak said he was considering ending the state emergency he declared for Bangkok. He said it was becoming a pointless exercise as people refused to comply.
Separately, in a fresh blow to the government, the Thai election commission recommended that Samak’s People Power Party be disbanded over claims of vote-buying in elections last December. The recommendation will not lead to immediate action against the party, as it must now be considered by the public prosecutor’s office, but it piles further pressure on Samak’s government.
Meanwhile, the Thai Finance minister Tej Bunnag quit the cabinet on Sept 04 making the position of premier a bit weak, but he sticks to his guns. Sundaravej has nominated former Thai Ambassador to France Saroj Chavanaviraj to the palace for royal endorsement to succeed Tej Bunnag, who resigned as foreign minister. In order to avoid any further complication of the issue, Samak has also proposed to hold a referendum on his rule, but the opposition has rejected the offer. Protesters say Samak is merely a proxy for former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in an army coup in 2006.
Samak said in a televised address on Sept 07 that he can still handle the situation. Even as the domestic turmoil is on, the premier said that he still planned to go a UN General Assembly meeting in New York on 25 September, even though Thaksin went and speak there and did not return. Thaksin was ousted in an army coup just hours before he was due to address a similar UN session in 2006. Though he was expected to return when Samak assumed power, he quite did not do that. He now lives in exile.
The brittle state of Thailand‘s young democracy was highlighted back in 2006 when the military masterminded a bloodless coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. That confrontation, which is echoed in today’s showdown, pitted members of a traditional Bangkok élite against an upstart billionaire whose populist policies intoxicated many rural-poor voters.
The 1997 Constitution was the first constitution to be drafted by popularly-elected Constitutional Drafting Assembly, and was popularly called the “People’s Constitution”. The January 2001 general election, the first election under the 1997 Constitution, was called the most open, corruption-free election in Thai history.The subsequent government was the first in Thai history to complete a 4-year term. The 2005 election had the highest voter turnout in Thai history and was noted for a marked reduction in vote-buying compared to previous elections. In early 2006, significant pressure from corruption allegations led Thaksin Shinawatra to call for a snap election. The opposition boycotted the elections and Thaksin was re-elected. Pressure continued to build, leading to a military coup on 19 September 2006.
Unlike Thaksin, Samak has deep connections with the palace; his family served as royal courtiers for generations. And though the former Bangkok governor defined his earlier career as a blustery hard-liner, Samak has so far used restraint against the people occupying his offices. The riot police charged with breaking up the Sept. 2 confrontation, for instance, did not carry guns. While Samak is hardly a touchy-feely politician, he, like his predecessor Thaksin, displays a deft common touch that is often lacking within Thailand‘s political class. If a snap election were held tomorrow, Samak’s PPP would likely win again.
The state of emergency clamped on Sept 02 could soon be lifted but anti-government protesters expect the move would do little to ease political tension.The demonstrators from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have been occupying Samak’s official headquarters since 26 August, and have vowed not to leave until he resigns. Clashes between pro- and anti-government groups in Bangkok earlier this week prompted the government to impose emergency rule in the capital. The government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is standing its ground, maintaining its “democratically elected” status and not giving in to the “mob”. PAD was maintaining its demand that Samak resign because his attitude was not conducive to a dialogue.
Many think there is an external hand in precipitating the crisis. Bangkok is a major non-NATO ally and USA “rightfully” plays a very significant role in this country’s domestic affairs as well. So, it is a long game now for both PM Samak and the PAD, with sporadic clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters. The confrontation is likely to be more intense, with clashes more violent and more blood likely to be drawn. From now on, the protracted stalemate will become more vitriolic as both sides are convinced of their different ideologies and eventual triumph. The battle, according to a few, might even end in a terrible blood-shed.
A lot of activities are happing in Bangkok on resolving the standoff. Government insists on dialogue to resolve the standoff. However, it remains to be seen how the proposed dialogue will turn out after the PAD and the government slammed the door shut on the prospect of negotiations. No one seems able to suggest an acceptable way that would lead this divided country out of the political crisis which has been growing more and tenser by the day.
Kingdom’s Long battle
The Kingdom of Thailand is an independent country which lies in the heart of Southeast Asia. The country is bordered to the north by Laos and Burma, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the west by the Andaman Sea and Burma. Thailand is one of the most strongly Buddhist countries in the world. His Majesty the King is recognized as the Head of State, the Head of the Armed Forces, the Upholder of the Buddhist religion, and the Upholder of all religions. Due to the government of the Monarch, Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized by a European power.