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THAILAND NEAR COLLAPSE AS ANTI-DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT SHUTS DOWN SERVICES

by Marwaan Macan-Markar

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on Thailand's 2006 military coup

(IPS) BANGKOK -- The tense political drama playing out in the Thai capitol that has pitted anti-government protestors against a democratically elected dispensation is threatening this relatively prosperous Southeast Asian country with anarchy.

Sign of such a shift was evident over the weekend as the anti-government movement, which calls itself the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), toughened its rhetoric, threatening more chaos if the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej does not resign.

"There is a small possibility of anarchy. We will do so to pressure the government," Sondhi Limthongkul, a media firebrand and a leader of the PAD, told foreign journalists on Saturday evening at his movement's new seat of power -- the compound of the prime minister's office which has been overrun by thousands of PAD supporters since Tuesday. Till its capture of Government House the PAD had run non-stop rallies since late May on a broad street close to a nearby United Nations building.

Targeting the Thai economy was also an option for the PAD, which has sympathizers drawn from affluent bankers, middle-class urbanites, conservative bureaucrats and the old-moneyed elite. "We can get the rich people supporting us to withdraw money from banks at a particular time," Sondhi declared. "The whole bloody financial system will come down."

The PAD has been emboldened by its strikes on Friday, when supporters of this conservative movement shut three airports in Southern Thailand by blocking traffic, damaging a terminal building and walking on to the runway to stop planes from landing. Affected, as a result, was the country's second busiest airport on the resort island of Phuket, leaving thousands of tourists stranded for over 48 hours.

Sections of this Southeast Asian nation's railways have also been empty as some railway workers threw their support behind the PAD. A possibility of port workers joining ranks, in addition to state workers in the water and electricity sector, looms this week.


The PAD has attracted more sympathy following a clash between its supporters and the police in Bangkok. The latter was accused of excess violence following its use of batons to clear sections of a street occupied by the PAD and also reportedly retaliating with tear gas when hundreds of PAD supporters stormed a major police station in the city.

The police have consequently been discredited and have been forced to retreat from areas under the grip of the PAD, giving the latter a free hand to place its actions above the law. The pressure on the police stems from a concern among Thais, including media commentators, that the country's bloody history, where hundreds have been killed when protestors clashed with the military during three previous popular uprisings, should be avoided.

That view was mirrored during a special session of parliament when charges and counter-charges of use of force, including that by hundreds of PAD's supporters attacking a pro-government television station and three ministries, were traded. But the debate, which ended late on Sunday night, did little to stop the deepening political fault-line.

Samak refused a call by the opposition Democrat party to dissolve parliament. "I am not a stubborn person. Dissolving the House would be tantamount to a victory for those people who are trying to force me out," the prime minister, who heads a six-party coalition government that was elected after a late December general election, said during the debate, according to the ‘Bangkok Post'.

For its part, the PAD dismissed the parliamentary debate as a waste of time to drive home its view that elections and parliamentary democracy are not suitable for Thailand. It has been calling the country to embrace what PAD leaders describe as "new politics," where 70 percent of the legislative assembly will have appointed parliamentarians and only 30 percent will be elected at a poll.

"This is not democracy; this is dictatorship by a majority in parliament," says Sondhi, who led a similar protest movement in early 2006 against the then government of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose administration had won two successive elections with commanding majorities. The anti-Thaksin rallies paved the way for the September 2006 military coup, which turfed Thaksin out of power.

But the PAD's refusal to accept the people's verdict at last year's poll, which came after Thailand was ruled for 15 months by a military junta, is hardly surprising. It alleges that the culture of corruption that had gained notoriety during the Thaksin years is flourishing once again, since the Samak government is closely linked to Thaksin who fled to London last month to avoid a slew of corruption cases.

While many Thais appeared to tolerate the PAD's rallies since late May as a welcome pressure to keep a check on the Samak administration's power, the violent turn in its civil disobedience campaign last week has prompted alarm. "The People's Alliance for Democracy's ‘Last Whistle' campaign against the Samak Sundaravej government has plunged the country into anarchy," says Mud Lek, a columnist in ‘Thai Rath', the country's largest Thai-language daily. "I believe all law-abiding Thais who want to see peace and political stability are saddened by the radical actions taken by PAD-led demonstrators."

Even academics echo such a sentiment in interviews. "The PAD has no legitimacy anymore. It has become a very right-wing, conservative and intolerant group," says Naruemon Thabchumpon, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "They say they are pursuing direct democracy, but if so they must accept and obey the rule of law. This is direct anarchy."



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Albion Monitor   September 2, 2008   (http://www.albionmonitor.com)

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