Tuesday, September 02, 2008
THE 100th DAY OF THE 'LAST WAR'
t's been exactly one week since the anti-Thaksin "People's Alliance for Democracy" occupied the grounds of Government House in Bangkok, but it's also been exactly 100 days since the latest round of PAD protests began against Thaksin's proxy Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. On May 26 the PAD erected a stage near the Makkawan Bridge, and the anti-Samak / anti-Thaksin protests have been continuous since then.
Protesters have been demanding that Thaksin face trial on his many charges, and since the ex-PM fled to Britain last month, for his extradition. As an admitted proxy for the fugitive tycoon, Mr. Samak faced determined opposition for his announced plan to amend the constitution, which many believe is intended to protect his patron from criminal liability (for which he could face long prison terms). Mr. Thaksin's wife has already been found guilty of corruption in a land deal not long before the couple and their children flew to Beijing "for the Olympic ceremony" (and promising to return to face the courts). Why anyone expected them to return is a question beyond my pay-grade. The assurances that "Mr. Thaksin bought a return ticket" were just silly.
The protests were stepped up last Tuesday, when PAD occupied the grounds of Government House in their tens of thousands. Had they adhered to non-violent principles, they would be in much better shape today. A serious mistake was made when the group's 'security contingent' -- calling themselves "Srivijaya Warriors" -- forcibly took control of the state broadcaster NBT, and the whole country saw video images of rough looking masked men armed with sticks and clubs forcing journalists out of their workplace in the middle of the night.
Thais really don't like that sort of thing, and many who may have sympathized with the goals of the PAD became disgusted with that incident. Police quickly took back control of NBT and around 85 arrests were made. The sit-in at Government House continued and protests broke out in other parts of the country, closing down several airports in the South and much of the rail service. State enterprise workers threatened to bring the country to a complete standstill. An emergency debate was called for Sunday afternoon, in a joint session of the House and Senate which lasted over 11 hours.
Much talking was accomplished (some of it very good), but nothing more. Mr. Samak steadfastly refused to end the crisis with his resignation, or by dissolving the House for new elections. Meanwhile, bussed-in pro-Samak demonstrators were gathering at Sanam Luang to set up an 'anti-anti-government protest.' This was a clear sign that the conflict was about to get nasty, and in fact reminded me of one of the rumoured reasons for the 2006 coup d'etat.
With the Parliament and Senate unable to find a negotiated solution on Sunday night, pro-Samak partisans continued flowing into the city from the provinces yesterday (Monday). Last night around midnight, they began marching from Sanam Luang, along Ratchadamnoen Avenue toward the PAD protest site, with the aim of evicting the demonstrators. The PAD people had been preparing for such an event, collecting motorcycle helmets and sticks and running drills for their 'security forces.'
The prime job for police last night was to keep the two groups from clashing, but somebody apparently had other ideas. A decision had to have been made somewhere, to allow a violent clash between the 'yellow group' (a colour the anti-Samak people wear, to signify love for His Majesty) and the 'red group' (a colour the pro-Samak people are wearing, to signify ... I don't know. Red Guards? Or the Red Gaurs [Krating Daeng]?)
The best English language account I've found today comes from Nirmal Ghosh writing in Singapore's Straits Times (but try to ignore the idiotic headline).
The pro-government crowd, many wearing red shirts and red headbands, marched quickly towards the Makkawan bridge and was met by a double row of police in full riot protection gear but without batons.(By the way, the photo on that page is of the pro-government group burning effigies of PAD leaders, which isn't at all made clear over there.)
The police let the crowd through. Then they simply walked away, watching from a distance as the almost medieval battle erupted.
Mr. Samak this morning promised an investigation into the violence this morning, and it should start with what the hell happened to the police "being able to handle things." This seems calculated to intensify the crisis and create a pretext for what followed -- this morning's declaration of emergency rule in Bangkok (a measure that the Army chief had rejected last week, telling the PM to solve it with political means). As of now, the Army is the police in this city, with the police in a support role.
The Election Commission has today made a long-awaited ruling on the future of Samak's political party, which leads the government's coalition. Thaksin's "Thais Love Thais Party" was dissolved before last year's election, found to have seriously violated election laws. It reconstituted itself as "People Power Party" with Mr. Samak as the admitted proxy for Thaksin as party leader. Now the PPP itself has been found responsible for vote buying, with the Election Commission today voting unanimously to seek a disbandment order from the Constitutional Court. It could still take a while.
The only funny thing about all this has been watching the international media trip over each other trying to pigeon-hole the players into "right-wing" and "progressive" sides. Absolutely ludicrous! The PAD people are described as "monarchists" (and who isn't, may I ask?) and "right-wingers" because they have the support of some in the traditional elites.
Yet just 8 months ago when reporting the post-coup election, these same news outfits were delving into Mr. Samak's own "right-wing history" against the pro-democracy movements of the 1970's (and in 1992, when his [then] party stood with the dictator). Surely this was on many worried minds as events seemed to be heading toward a replay last week, and him of all people sitting in the Prime Minister's chair. Note to editors: drop the "right-wing" demonization thing on this, you'll never figure it out.
This mess is far from over yet, not least because an increasing number of citizens are growing disgusted with both sides. And the more that trend continues, the easier it will be for the majority to feel the way they did in September 2006. The Army is still saying that it won't, but some people are already wishing that it would.
And it all traces back to the single most divisive figure in modern Thai history (now sitting comfortably in London), who came thisclose to being disqualified before he first took office in 2001.
Follow developments in Bangkok's two English language newspapers: