Anti-government protest puts Thailand in crisis

Other News Materials 30 August 2008 16:54 (UTC +04:00)

Thailand's besieged prime minister vowed Saturday to remain in power as thousands of demonstrators occupied the seat of government for a fifth day amid signs he was losing support from the military and his coalition allies, dpa reported.

"I will continue my duties for the sake of the country," said Premier Samak Sundaravej said.

"I will quit according to the laws, not because of threats from protests," he added, before heading leaving for an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the monarch's palace in Hua Hin, 150 kilometres southwest of Bangkok.

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

After police failed to oust the protestors from Government House Friday night, the coalition government called an emergency session of parliament for Sunday, the Thai News Agency reported.

"This weekend will be critical," 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.

PAD protestors and their backers have also succeeded in temporarily closing three international airports in southern Thailand and disrupting much of the national rail network.

Phuket's airport remained closed Saturday, leaving scores of foreign tourists standed. Yai's airport had reopened.

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

General Anupong Paojinda, the army's commander-in-chief, on Friday rejected a call by Samak to declare a state of emergency.

"I think the military will support Samak to the point that he doesn't crack down on the demonstrators," said Panitan Wathanayakorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University who specializes in military affairs.

The PAD has billed itself as a pro-monarchy movement. "To crack down on the PAD would not be well-received by the military," said Panitan. And Samak will not be able to disperse the mob occupying Government House without the military's support.

"As the crisis continues, Samak's legitimacy is eroding by the day," said Panitan.

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

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

The PAD first surfaced as a political force in 2006 as the spearhead driving Thaksin from power. It re-emerged in May 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 elect 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.