Anti-government demonstration in Thailand reaches critical point

Other News Materials 30 August 2008 10:47 (UTC +04:00)

Thailand moved into crisis mode Saturday as thousands of demonstrators occupied the seat of government for a fifth day amid signs that the prime minister was losing support from the military, analysts said.

"This weekend will be critical," Thai political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak said.

"The government is in a dilemma. If they crackdown, that may cause a boomerang, but if they don't, they look weak," said the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, reported dpa.

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a loose coalition of conservative groups demanding the dissolution of the current government and resignation of Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, has occupied Government House, the seat of the country's administration, since Tuesday.

An effort by police to disperse the demonstration Friday failed as support for the movement spread to other parts of the country. PAD protestors and their backers succeeded in temporarily closing three international airports in southern Thailand and disrupting much of the national rail network.

The Phuket, Hat Yai and Krabi international airports in the south, a stronghold for the opposition Democrat Party, were closed Friday.

Phuket's airport remained closed Saturday, but Krabi's and Hat Yai's had reopened.

Thai police on Friday withdrew from Government House to avoid further confrontations with anti-government demonstrators, of whom about 3,000 hard-core members remained entrenched there Saturday.

About 20 people suffered slight injuries Friday during scuffles as riot police pushed their way through demonstrators into the Government House compound. The injured were mostly hit with batons.

Samak, 73, a veteran right-wing politician who became prime minister in February, has thus far urged restraint in handling the mob, in part because his support from Thailand's politically powerful military establishment is dubious.

On Friday, General Anupong Paojinda, the army's commander-in-chief, reportedly rejected a call by Samak to declare a state of emergency and suggested the premier consider stepping down instead, the Bangkok Post newspaper reported, citing an unnamed source.

The military has a long history of political intervention in Thailand, having staged 19 coups since 1932, when the absolute monarchy was overthrown. Thailand has been a democracy under a constitutional monarchy since.

The most recent coup was in September 19, 2006, when the army toppled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon who used populist policies to win the support of the urban and rural poor during his premierships from 2001 to 2006.

Samak, a self-proclaimed monarchist and a former supporter of several military strongmen, is unpopular with the PAD because of his more recent political alliance with Thaksin.

Samak leads the People Power Party, which won the December general election on an openly pro-Thaksin platform.

He has vowed not to resign.

The PAD first surfaced as a political force in 2006 as the spearhead driving Thaksin from power. It re-emerged in May this year when the Samak-led coalition government made moves to amend the military-sponsored 2007 constitution in what the PAD deemed an effort to bring Thaksin back to power.

But a Thaksin political comeback now seems a remote possibility. Thaksin and his family fled to Britain on August 10 after a court found his wife, Pojaman, guilty of tax evasion and sentenced her to three years in jail.

Thaksin is reportedly seeking political asylum in Britain.

His absence begs the question of what exactly the PAD hopes to achieve in toppling the current government.

"If the PAD succeeds in ousting Samak, it will be a huge setback for Thai democracy," Thitinan said. "It will be the crowning success for the right-wing conservative contingent who are against election-based democracy."

PAD leaders, such as Chamlong Srimuang, have said the Thai electorate is too uneducated to vote in honest politicians and continues to sell its votes to the highest bidders.

The group advocates a return to Thailand's former less-representative systems, such as having a wholly appointed Senate.