Political stalemate – battle for Thailand

Focus, Normal

Thaksin Shinawatra and the Thai government cheer on opposing teams in what could be a final countdown, writes BUNN NEGARA

BANGKOK’S latest anti-government demonstration formally began last Monday, after two days of build-up as the mainly red-shirted pro-Thaksin Shinawatra crowd streamed into the city mostly from the former premier’s stronghold in the northern provinces.
This time, the protesters have given the Democrat government of prime minister Abhisit Vejajiva until midnight to dissolve parliament and call for fresh polls.
They reject the 2006 coup that unseated Thaksin and eventually paved the way for the present government through the latest constitutional provisions.
But their demand is unlikely to be met.
Then, as several Thai commentators have observed, what happens next?
Indeed, what is the whole point of yet another round of noisy and boisterous protest anyway?
Thaksin himself was until Friday, March 12, believed to be in Dubai.
He had been agitating supporters in hopes of overthrowing the government, mainly through phone calls and SMS to the ringleaders and on Twitter as well as occasional videolink to the masses.
The United Arab Emirates government, as his host, allowed him to stay on condition that he did not cause trouble for the Thai government. But masterminding street protests from afar violated that condition, the Thai government protested to Dubai, and Thaksin was reportedly expelled from the emirate.
By the afternoon of March 12, the Thai foreign ministry announced that Thaksin had arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where he had been appointed government economic adviser.
A personal aide immediately confirmed it with denial.
On March 13, Thaksin himself twittered his supporters to say that he had not been expelled and was still in Dubai.
He could be right, but the internet also allows anyone to send a message from anywhere without anyone else knowing from where exactly.
To avoid complications, especially if the protests turn nasty, the Thaksin family is away; the former wife in Hong Kong, two daughters in Europe, and a sister heading for an unknown foreign destination.
For Thaksin himself, a friendly Cambodia next door is too tempting to resist as a ringside seat from which to watch Bangkok become unglued again.
For Thaksin, this seems to be a “now or never” chance to return, overturn his conviction and sentence, and release his frozen 46 billion baht.
As a former owner of Manchester City football club, it is like watching a final in which his red-shirted players had promised not to assault anyone.
However, the purported aim of the demonstration reveals the futility and senselessness of it all.
Spearheaded by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), it is supposed to reject undemocratic and unconstitutional power plays.
But by forcing a change of government through street protests, it is doing what it claims to reject.
Governance through mob rule is no way for any country to preserve its democratic credentials.
The protesters’ claim of non-violence is equally misleading.
Given the sheer numbers of protesters and security forces on the streets, the prospect of violence is high.
When that happens, government leaders would resist the protesters even more, rather than simply step down.
Thaksin himself had been sentenced to two years’ jail on previous charges, with up to a dozen other possible charges to come.
Even if he were to return now, there are still the courts, parliament, the palace and other major Thai institutions to contend with that expect him to serve his time.
The government itself is not without its share of the bizarre.
After a former Thaksin official warned of the prospect of civil war, reports quoted officials saying they had “ruled out civil war” during the demonstration.
Nobody can predict the course of a mass rally like this, whatever the official pledges and preparations.
Neither can anyone determine how others might perceive their handling of events that are defined by conflict.
The emotional nature of the protest has led to protesters pathetically copying the antics of Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, a Thaksin friend and thus a Bangkok foe.
Last month, he publicly put a curse on Abhisit with colourful language, and the red shirts have now followed suit.
On March 12, a group of protesters in one part of Bangkok cursed Abhisit and the Thai elite said to be supporting him, followed by another group doing the same in another part of the city.
Cambodia, which throughout history had played second fiddle to Thailand, is now leading the way for the red shirts.
Although the protesters claim to be fighting for principles, money remains a great motivator.
When previously 500 baht plus free bus transport and (red) T-shirts made the deal, bundles of 1,000 baht notes are now seen changing hands, with each protester getting two notes each way on the bus trip.
The red shirts claim to be mobilising up to a million people, while the government has positioned 50,000 police and other security personnel to protect the democratic right to demonstrate from abuse.
With dozens of foreign embassies already warning their nationals to stay home, nobody is betting on a peaceful weekend or week.
The phrase “one night in Bangkok” once promised a heady experience that would be memorable.
With politics, “a few nights in Bangkok” would now produce such a rush as to be possibly life-threatening.
The kaleidoscope of Thai politics can be confusing, even to locals.
Apart from the opposing red and yellow shirts, there are also the blue, green and khaki shirts with who knows exactly what motives and objectives.
Some Thais told me that to avoid being confused with any group, they have given up wearing several colours.
All of this shows that despite their common love of uniforms, post-Thaksin Thais have incompatible interests and demands that any government would have great difficulty trying to reconcile.


Bunn Negara is a columnist with The Star newspaper in Malaysia. He was formerly an analyst with the Institute of Strategic Studies in Kuala Lumpur