Thailand in crisis
The yellow clad mass supporters from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have rolled up their mats and sleeping bags and vacated Bangkok's two international airports -- Don Muang and Suvarnabhumi. The state of the art airports are again back in business. Thailand has survived its latest crisis and another episode in an ongoing political saga that has not only undermined the stability of the southeast Asian nation but also caused havoc to its tourist industry.
The end came when the controversial Constitutional Court of Thailand dissolved Thailand's top three ruling parties on charges of electoral fraud and temporarily banned the Prime Minister from politics. It brought down a government that has faced months of strident protests seeking its ouster.
The impasse dated back to the controversial premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra, a multibillionaire media tycoon who was elected in 2001 on a populist platform that promised universal healthcare and cash handouts to poor villagers. Soon afterwards, however, claims of corruption began to surface against Thaksin's Administration. The Opposition eventually took to the street to demand Thaksin's resignation, prompting the army to oust him in a bloodless coup.
This was not the first time that the armed forces had intervened in politics. Nevertheless, it was hoped that the next elected government would restore stability in governance. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Subsequent governments constituted by Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat over the last two years, were seen as proxies for Thaksin.
Clash of interest eventually led to the formation of the anti-government PAD alliance in 2005. Leadership was given by Sondhi Limthongkul, a successful media mogul like Thaksin. This group represented the traditional Bangkok ruling class and the middle class and vowed to continue their de-stabilizing efforts till the government resigned. This has now happened. Their next goal appears to be the extradition of Thaksin (currently living in exile in Dubai) and his eventual trial on charges of corruption.
The anti-Thaksin protests and the tactics of the PAD rallies have however not enjoyed great support within the rural hinterland, the media and among those associated with Thailand's successful services sector. Their efforts, despite the removal of Somchai, is being seen as an effort to tarnish the peaceful image of Thailand.
The Court's decision has, however, been seen by many analysts as a stop-gap measure to ensure that a blood bath did not take place in the streets of Bangkok ahead of the 81st birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand (also its National Day) who has reigned since 1946 and commands near universal reverence among his compatriots. Unlike Nepal, the monarchy as an institution is still greatly respected in Thailand.
Nevertheless, despite the opening of the airports and the removal of the Prime Minister, the political problem has not gone away in Thailand. The prospect of renewed political chaos in that country is still very real.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Chaowarat Chandeerakul is the caretaker Prime Minister till the Parliament can pick a new Prime Minister within the next 30 days. In an effort to sidestep the Court's ruling, lawmakers with Somchai's party have already started to regroup under a new name in a move that will allow them to retain their grip on power -- a tactic sure to rile anti-government protesters. Non-executive PPP members (supporters of Thaksin) are already busy consolidating a new party -- the Puea Thai party. The former PPP members have no plans to dissolve parliament. The court's decision, therefore, can be interpreted as being akin to a time-out during a game. In other words, Thailand's political crisis is expected to continue.
The underlying situation is still fragile because of the existing divide within this country -- between the power-hungry political factions in Bangkok and other urban centers and the rural hinterland symbolized by Udan Thani, capital of a north-eastern province bordering Laos and a known Thaksin stronghold. From that point of view many have classified the situation as a 'class struggle'.
Thaksin, a shrewd populist, unlike previous urban-centric rulers, managed to create an important rural vote bank by not only providing economic opportunities to the under-privileged villagers but also by according them greater 'dignity' through the provision of better health-care, easier credit extension and other socio-economic facilities. As a result of these steps, a new political self-awareness has now emerged in a previously passive rural population. This has not gone down very well with the urban population who have always been the principal beneficiaries of economic development in the past.
Whatever be the process of governance structure in Thailand in the coming months, two aspects will have to be dealt with on a priority basis. The PAD with its careful planning and logistical efficiency has demonstrated the weakness of Thailand's police force and their poor training as far as riot control is concerned.
The army's refusal to help contain the civilian insurgency has also proved once again that despite claims of civilian democratic institutions having been strengthened, there still remains a lot to be done in this regard.
It will be a pity if conflicting interests continue to harm the impressive progress of Thailand. Least common denominators have to be identified between the two sides. The leaderships of the two sides need to start a constructive engagement instead of resorting to chaos that affects Thailand's stability and the interests of the region.