Today, 2 June 2008
by Simon Tay
Military acting as referee between competing groups
MONTHS of relative quiet have ended in Bangkok. While the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party (PPP) clearly won the elections, political contestation for and against the controversial former Prime Minister are heating up again.
Rumours persist of a coup, mentioned in late March by no less than Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. Army Chief Anupong Paojindahas immediately denied this.
But in a recent interview, Supreme Commander Boonsrang Niempradit did not rule it out, saying that while no soldier would want a coup, he could not guarantee that there would be none. Similar words were used before the 2006 coup that ousted Mr Thaksin.
Although they accepted the results of last year’s elections, the military seems to have re-emerged. They are not publicly agitating for change but seem to be a kind of referee between contending interests. This can be seen in two current situations.
The first involves a Thaksin loyalist, Minister Jakrapob Penkair, who has made comments said to be disloyal to the King.
His comments, in a speech last year to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, echo past accusations of disloyalty by Mr Thaksin, then the Prime Minister.
Charged with the criminal offence of lese majeste, or crime of injury to the Majesty, Mr Jakropob resigned late last week. But the run-up to his resignation is instructive of political tensions.
Initial complaints came from a member of the public and the opposition Democrat Party pushed the case. But when the PPP minister prevaricated and proffered a string of public explanations, it was no less than General Boonsrang who publicly said the minister should go.
Shortly after, charges were filed and Mr Jakrapob capitulated.
The second contestation centres on efforts to amend the Constitution, put in place by the military-backed government prior to the elections.
Mr Samak had called for a referendum as a precursor to amending the Charter.
The proposal was not based on politically neutral, legal principles. Some elements in the new Constitution were deliberately put in place by the junta to diffuse power and prevent Mr Thaksin’s return.
Many believed Mr Samak, who campaigned as Mr Thaksin’s proxy, intended to remove these safeguards.
In response, the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) returned to protest in the streets outside government house. Pro-Thaksin groups, calling themselves the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship, also turned out in force.
The street protests are choreographed to evoke each side’s claims that they enjoy popular support.
As tensions have risen, so have reports of minor collisions between the PAD and pro-Thaksin groups. The army has set up a special centre to monitor the rallies, and thousands of police were deployed to prevent these clashes from escalating.
The amendment proposal was abandoned only on Friday after a number of parliamentarians and senators, including those from the ruling party, withdrew their support.
Still, it is not a given that the PAD will give up their street campaigns. On Saturday, Mr Samak threatened a rally outside the Grand Palace with police force before backing down when the 8,000-plus crowd continued.
At the same time, legal actions against Mr Thaksin are gaining momentum. While he had been accused by coup leaders of corruption, the processes of investigation and possible criminal charges are only unfolding now.
The Assets Scrutiny Committee has accelerated investigations into Thaksin’s actions in the sale of Shin Corp.
The committee will ask the Attorney-General to seek a court order to confiscate some 76 billion baht ($3.2 billion) from Mr Thaksin, on the basis that these benefits were accrued as a result of his abuse of power.
Other investigations are proceeding, and Mr Thaksin may face imprisonment, much as Minister Jakrapob does now.
These last months of relative quiet have been more a pause caused by exhaustion than an indication of any settlement or lasting peace between different power factions.
The recent events seem to be a return to the political conflicts that marked Thailand these past two years. This summer sequel, however, may come to a boil more quickly and potentially less peaceably than the original.
An early casualty will probably be the economy. Growth rates and investment in the country have slowed these last two years.
While the Samak government announced plans to stimulate growth and make much-needed infrastructure investments, the economy has not taken off as some had hoped. Growth touched 6 per cent in the first quarter, but this is predicted to slow to a modest 4.5 to 5.5 per cent this year. The Thai baht has felt the effects and its stock market has already taken a hit.
Thailand, together with much of Asia, is beset by unfavourable global conditions, with rising oil prices and other goods driving inflation, an uncertain United States market and a shrinking greenback.
There are fundamental strengths in Thailand, but coming on top of poor external factors, the political conflicts in Bangkok are a double negative.