Thailand braces for fresh political disorder

Thailand braces for fresh political disorder

Country waits for upcoming Supreme Court decision over former PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s billion dollar-fortune

I see nothing that would suggest that the Thai army is divided. It is an army that obeys."

Bangkok
THAILAND is entering a new phase of political turbulence, bracing for a key court ruling on the frozen fortune of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra amid rumours of another coup.

On February 26 the Supreme Court will decide whether the 2.2 billion dollar fortune of the telecoms tycoon – frozen in the months after he was deposed in 2006 – can be seized by authorities.

And that deadline, concerning a man who still deeply divides Thai society, is stepping up the political pressure.

Supporters of Thaksin, who now lives abroad to escape a prison term for corruption, have held small rallies almost daily since the start of 2010, and promise to swell their ranks ahead of the verdict.

These “Red Shirt” demonstrators – many from the rural north and northeast – want to pressure the judges over the decision and overthrow the government led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

In recent months their biggest protest has numbered around 30,000. But there were 100,000 of them last April when they disrupted a major Asian summit and rioted in Bangkok, where clashes with authorities left two people dead.

“There continues to be divisions and there continues to be a number of people who are pursuing their agenda of unseating the government,” Abhisit told AFP over the weekend.

The 45-year-old premier came to power in late 2008 when the previous pro-Thaksin government collapsed after protests by the ultra-royalist “Yellow Shirts”, who are aligned with the traditional Thai elite.

He heads an increasingly shaky six-party coalition. But Paul Chambers, a Thailand specialist at Heidelberg University in Germany, said his downfall would lead to an early election that none of his allies can afford.

“The coalition is more likely to stay afloat rather than cave in,” he said. “The dangers to Abhisit currently exist more in terms of violent attacks on his person, rather than his forced removal from the prime ministerial chair.”

On Monday, bags of human excrement were thrown into Abhisit’s residential compound – an act of aggression the government attributed to the Red Shirts.

The Oxford-educated PM has also warned of a growing risk of political violence in Bangkok in the coming weeks, especially as the army, historically united in defence of the Thai monarchy, has shown unusual signs of discord.

A grenade was thrown at the national army headquarters in January, causing no casualties but widely reported by the Thai press to be aimed at the office of the army chief, General Anupong Paojinda.

On Monday, Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol, an outspoken supporter of Thaksin, was charged with illegal possession of weapons and confirmed by police as the main suspect in the attack.

The affair has whipped up speculation in the Thai press about possible disaster scenarios: an explosion of Red Shirt violence, splits in the army and even a military coup.

“Political life in Thailand is immature,” said one Western analyst, requesting anonymity, who downplayed rumours of an imminent putsch.

“I see nothing that would suggest that the Thai army is divided. It is an army that obeys,” he said. “There are Red Shirts in the military, but in 2006 they participated in the coup because these were the orders.”

But this obsession with coups illustrates the difficulties Bangkok has faced since Thaksin’s ousting in 2006, an incident that removed the only premier ever to have been re-elected.

“Thailand entered a new phase of civil-military relations after the 2006 coup,” said Chambers. “Soldiers were granted more institutionalised prerogatives and, simultaneously, began to exercise more informal clout.”

Jacques Ivanoff, an anthropologist at the Research Institute on Contemporary South-East Asia, said he thought Thai democracy as it currently operates has reached its limit.

“It’s an explosive scenario, with a lot of tensions in every direction, and a government that does not move and cannot move,” he said.
“And when Thailand asks too many questions about itself and does not know where to go, the only institution that works is the military.” AFP

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