Makings of another Thai Black October

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 October, 2008, 12:00am

The protest started by Thailand's People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) two years ago against the then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has so far led to one military coup, one general election and two prime ministers losing their jobs. Even so, an end to the political strife seems nowhere in sight and the threats of mass violence continue to loom large.

But the resignation of deputy prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and his subsequent call for a military coup to solve the problem is an indication that Thaksin's core support may be cracking. Mr Chavalit commands a strong voter base in the northeast and a split between him and Thaksin would be a hard blow for the ruling People Power Party (PPP). Moreover, Mr Chavalit also maintains good relations with some key army factions and, according to some analysts, gets a sympathetic ear in Beijing, too.

He quit the cabinet seemingly to take responsibility for the failed police crackdown on PAD protesters this month, which lead to the deaths of two people. But, in an interview last week, he criticised Interior Minister Kowit Wattana for not stepping down as well, while urging the army chief, General Anupong Paojinda, to take control.

This is a different line from the PPP leadership, which maintains its rightful role to govern as a democratically elected majority. Mr Chavalit, instead, is urging the army to take control and pave the way for a national government comprising all political parties to be installed.

If Mr Chavalit did abandon the PPP, it would find it hard to maintain its voter support in the rural Issan region, which has thus far given it an edge in elections.

But, despite the calls for a coup, General Anupong has so far ruled out any such action. The army, which took control on September 19, 2006, is still smarting over the criticism it has received for its failure to fulfil the promises made. Even after one year under military rule, and the general election that followed, the deadlock remains.

This puts the anti-Thaksin faction in a spot. Its aim is to give power to a friendly military and rewrite the rules to ensure the elite royalists and army can 'guide' the future government. It demands a form of government familiar to Hong Kong, with only 30 per cent of lawmakers elected. This, they say, would ensure control was not in the hands of parties which 'manipulate uneducated rural voters' to win power.

The timing of Mr Chavalit's call for a military putsch is also significant, as the country is preparing for the royal funeral of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's sister, Galyani Vadhana. It is due to take place in the middle of next month and will be hampered if the government cannot function properly.

But PAD leaders may be unwilling to see a prime minister they want sacked immediately leading the government during this royal ceremony. At the same time, both sides will not want to be blamed for obstructing the event.

With the country's court scheduled to rule on a corruption case against Thaksin next week, some analysts are hoping that a guilty verdict will herald the end of the political stalemate. But, so far, PAD hardliners have refused to accept anything but the sacking of the prime minister and a change in the way future governments are elected.

With the military not inclined to heed calls for a coup, the anti-government factions may be pushed into desperate measures to end the stalemate quickly. The siege of government house and their battle with police indicate this may be the case. Large-scale violence may force the army's hand to take control, to prevent a civil war.

Despite being a Buddhist country with its well-known mai pen rai (never mind) attitude, Thailand has seen large-scale political violence erupt three times - twice in the 1970s and again in 1992. Both events in the 1970s happened in October. With economic clouds gathering, another Black October is something the country can ill afford.

Hari Kumar is a Post journalist