Have protesters overplayed hand?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 November, 2008, 12:00am

PAD's 'nuclear option' of closing Bangkok's airport may kill its support

It has been called the 'nuclear option'. In shutting down Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport - one of the busiest in the region - the anti-government protesters of the People's Alliance for Democracy may have finally gone too far, putting continued sympathy for their movement at risk.

Three months of efforts - including occupying government buildings - to stymie the elected rulers they hate have largely affected civil servants and leaders. Yesterday's move, which included occupying the airport's control tower, affected tens of thousands of ordinary people, Thais and foreigners alike.

Grandmothers returning for family reunions, Bangkok businessmen trying to seal deals in an economic slump and medical tourists flying in for operations were all left stranded and frustrated. The economic impact of the shutdown, coming at the start of a key tourist season, will stretch into the millions. Some first-time visitors may never return.

Many of those most affected are part of the Bangkok establishment, elites that have formed a key support base for the alliance. While the alliance itself is not large, its rejection of the legitimacy of an elected government loyal to ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has significant public sympathy in some quarters, particularly in Bangkok.

Many across the royalist, military and old-money establishments see Thaksin - now on the run from a jail sentence - as a threat as the revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, enters the twilight of his long reign. They paint Thaksin as anti-monarchist - a claim he has long denied - bent on ruling for decades and fashioning Thailand in his own image.

Yet, by overplaying their hand, the alliance has risked further inspiring Thaksin to meddle in politics from exile.

If the government does use reasonable force to drive the protesters from the airport, the excesses of their initial action may mean the military will be wary of intervening. It should be remembered what has long been a key alliance strategy - sparking a government overreaction to, in turn, spark a military takeover.

'They really seem to have shot themselves in the foot this time,' said one well-placed Asian diplomat. 'It is likely that they will have harmed themselves rather than gained any tangible benefit. Thai counterparts have been calling me all day to say that shutting down an airport is the stuff of a banana republic.'

By late evening, the protesters' most cherished goal - a military coup - was apparently off the table, even as army chief General Anupong Paojinda urged the ruling People Power Party to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections to renew their mandate. It is far from clear whether the government will listen to his 'advice'. Constitutionally, of course, they do not have to do so.

But even if the alliance is judged to have gone too far, and their move marks the end of the current phase of opposition, that is far from the end of Thailand's troubles.

The social divisions are stark.

Clothed in red are the supporters of Thaksin, who overlook his dictatorial excesses and corruption to see the first leader to engage the poor rural voter, offering cheap health care and loans. The north and northeast are his strongholds.

In yellow are the alliance and other anti-Thaksin elites, who see him as a threat to nothing short of the Thai way of life and the independence that marks one of the most proudly free nations in the region.

Bridging this divide appears virtually impossible in the current climate. Even if elections were held tomorrow, there is little sign that either side would accept a victory by the other.

Vague talk of creating an appointed 'government of national unity' or a 'grand coalition' is hard to conceive, too, given the fact that the current government won a landslide in national polls last December.

Above it all sits King Bhumibol, a constitutional figurehead who reigns but cannot rule. The immense respect and moral authority he has forged during his 62-year reign gives him the stature to intervene, but to do so would risk alienating huge swathes of the population.

Thai political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak has warned that the establishment may need to compromise. 'The establishment coalition that engineered Thaksin's political decapitation needs to accept that not all of what he stood for was wrong,' Mr Thitinan wrote in a recent commentary in the US-based Journal of Democracy. 'Until his opponents can come to terms with what is positive about his legacy, Thailand's crisis will remain intractable.'