Thursday, March 16, 2006
THAI POLITICAL CRISIS DEEPENS
here appears no end in sight to the political standoff which continues roiling the Thai capital this week. Neither Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra, nor the many tens of thousands rallying in the historic heart of the city for his resignation, are showing any sign of backing down. And it looks increasingly unlikely that the snap national elections, scheduled in just over two weeks time, can take place with sufficient legitimacy under the present conditions.
As the situation last month seemed to be getting away from him, Taksin surprised the country by calling snap elections in barely over a month's time. The announcement came just two days before a planned mass rally in Sanam Luang (Royal Grounds) on February 26. The PM's gambit didn't work -- there is simply too much anger over his sale of national communications assets to the Singapore government. The rally went ahead with increased attendance over the previous one, and opposition parties banded together to announce their boycott of the rushed election.
A week later on March 5, the anti-Taksin movement gathered once again at Sanam Luang, and following a program of speakers and music at the Grounds, marched in a well disciplined manner through the setting of a past violent crackdown against democracy demonstrators (which I briefly recalled my own experience of here), and on to Government House. That night, after several more hours of speeches outside Taksin's offices, they returned to Sanam Luang without incident, where the vigil has been maintained until earlier this week. The People's Alliance for Democracy had decided that the protest would not end until Taksin stepped down.
The next strategic move by the PAD was to move once again from the Royal Grounds to Government House -- and to stay there indefinitely. Many thousands gathered at the Grounds on Monday night in order to sleep there prior to the early morning march. They set out before 7am, and had all reached Government House by 9. The rally has been going on there continuously for more than two days, in the expectation that Taksin will at some point have to return to his office -- he has been conducting his one-man election campaign in northeastern provinces, and chaired his cabinet meetings by video conference. He returned to the capital this morning, where he was expected to personally chair a meeting of his cabinet -- the meeting was shifted to the Foreign Ministry building. In comments to Thai and foreign journalists, he made it clear that he has no intention of backing down, insisting that he is the one playing by democratic rules.
And in point of fact, he's right. It's true that his party, Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") has a virtual stranglehold now over politics in this country, after a landslide election victory just a year ago. There is practically no parliamentary opposition, and he is still personally popular among the rural majority (except in the South). Despite the comparisons with the anti-military rule movements of the past, most recently in 1992 (when the rallying cry was, "Prime Minister must come from elections!"), the target now is a still popular (except in Bangkok and the South), and popularly elected leader. Everyone recognises that Thai Rak Thai will be returned to government if the elections are held on April 2. General Suchinda could never have won an election in 1992, he had been appointed to the post by the National Peacekeeping Council (which had taken control by coup d'etat the previous year).
As far as is presently known, Taksin broke no laws by selling his company to Singapore and paying no taxes on the sale. Yet this is the straw that broke the water buffalo's back, and it's certainly understandable that this angers so many politically aware people here. One need only look at the American people's reaction to having management contracts over a handful of shipping terminals (not "sale of ports" as the hysterical newspapers were telling it) in foreign hands. Taksin's outright sale of Shin Corp to the Singapore government included a large part the country's communications infrastructure -- satellites, mobile phone, broadcast and data networks. I can fully understand why people are mad about this.
Although it's none of my damn business -- being a non-citizen guest in the Kingdom -- Taksin lost his legitimacy for me long before his latest questionable business deal. One speaker at the rally on Tuesday night spoke eloquently about this, and summed up my feelings exactly. About one year into his first term, back in early 2002, Taksin launched all out war against illegal drug use which resulted in government sanctioned death squads carrying out thousands of extra-judicial killings. The project was to last three months, but the death toll was so high after the first one, that public statistics were then suppressed.
Many of those killed in this campaign are known to have been innocent, such as the student at Chulalongkorn University whose story was told on the rally stage the other night by Danai Anantayo, vice president of Law Society of Thailand. In an emotional address, he reminded those gathered before him of this early indication of this Prime Minister's ethical standards. At a minimum, the three month drug campaign resulted in the death squad killings of at least 2,500 citizens. No one knows how many were completely innocent, but certainly very few were guilty of a capital offence. Taksin had ordered provincial governments to compile "black lists," the quantity of names on them determined in a quota system. Bigger provinces had to have bigger lists, and he expected a certain proportion of those "black names" to be dealt with one way or another.
That episode alone was enough to delegitimise this tycoon "CEO-style" Prime Minister in my eyes, but it also signalled his stubborn streak. Even when it was clear that the campaign had turned into a massive fiasco, his unaccountable death squads responsible for a much higher rate of killing than those of Argentina, Chile or El Salvador ever achieved, he never backed down nor ever admitted anything wrong with it. His social experiment had killed probably ten times the number the last dictatorship had slaughtered in the military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1992 -- something for which Gen. Suchinda and certain other military leaders would never be forgiven.
So while I have mixed feelings about setting the precedent of unconstitutionally removing an elected leader, and recognise (as the society at large seems to do) that demanding Taksin to "GET OUT!" is qualitatively different in both urgency and degree of social unanimity, in comparison with demanding the same of military dictators past, I do hope they succeed in persuading him to voluntarily quit in the interests of the country. I believe most people will be satisfied to let Thai Rak Thai serve out the remainder of its term with a different leader.
I have to say that the present sounds emanating from the demonstration sends a shiver up my spine, recalling 14 years earlier when someone would shout "Suchinda!" And the tens of thousands responded in unison, "Awk Bai!" (Get Out!) Today, "Awk Bai" has almost become Taksin's second name. The demonstrators these past few nights are so numerous, they spill out of the makeshift stage area, filling several major thoroughfares. A speaker the other night had the people in Phitsanuloke Road shouting, "Taksin!" and the people in Rachadamnern Avenue would respond with "Awk Bai!"
See live video streaming coverage of the continuing situation on ASTV. The established networks are beginning to cover the event intermittently, but even on a political discussion I saw last night on Channel 9, they were showing the ASTV internet broadcast as an inset. So different from 1992, when there was a total media blackout, and during curfew I was huddled with my shortwave radio listening to BBC and VOA reports of tank divisions moving into the city.
The Nation Newspaper continues its real time blogging of developments at the protest site, and if you hit that link you'll see some of their special flash intros for the occasion. This paper is definitely on the anti-Taksin side! However sometimes the entry to the news page doesn't work right, in that case use this one, and look for a "Real Time Update" link. These updates seem to change to a new page at midnight (when the date changes), and are not always linked to each other. The current one for today is here, yesterday's is here. Editors evidently got excited yesterday when there were rumours that Taksin had hinted at taking a break from politics, so they changed to a newly titled page to reflect that. So yesterday's events actually started out here. Tuesday's events were blogged here.