SOUTH-EAST ASIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Thailand, land of smiles, convulses
, November 8, 2008
The big question is whether the Thai army will intervene to restore order in tension-ridden Thailand. Jeffry Babb reports.Thailand, the "land of smiles," is not a happy place, as the nation's most powerful institutions, backed by the yellow-clad urban elite, confront the shaky government.
Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a military coup two years ago, is still the ringmaster in Thai politics even as his opponents take to the streets to oust the current PM - who also happens to be Thaksin's brother-in-law.
Thaksin remains enormously popular in the countryside, where his largesse to struggling villagers earned him a place in their hearts. Described as a populist, Thaksin is also a billionaire and an ethnic Chinese.
Thaksin, who was facing arrest warrants, was allowed to leave Thailand on bail, then - predictably - decamped to Britain. In his absence, Thailand's Supreme Court ruled on October 21 that the former PM had violated a conflict-of-interest law while in office and sentenced him to two years in prison.Criminal charges
The nine judges ruled by five to four that Thaksin had been involved in his wife's purchase of land from an arm of the central bank. Thaksin's wife was acquitted of all charges, and Thaksin was acquitted of two criminal charges, each of which carried a 10-year sentence. The land was not seized, as had been requested by the prosecutors.
Thaksin, in exile in Britain, said the trial was politically motivated. British authorities said that Thaksin and his wife had applied for political asylum, but Thaksin denied the report.
A senior Thai prosecutor admitted that there was only a "slim" chance of extraditing the former PM from Britain. An attempt to extradite Thaksin during his first period in exile following the coup was bogged down in complexities, as the charges he faced in Thailand were not covered by the extradition treaty with Britain.
The Bangkok Government has been piqued in recent months by demonstrators attempting to oust the current PM, Somchai Wongsawat. Protesters have draped themselves in the Thai royal colour, yellow. The Thai king is the most revered person in the country.
The Thai monarchy has enormous prestige, not least because the royal family kept Thailand out of the hands of the European powers while other countries surrounding it were colonised. The Thais are a very proud people and touchy about their sovereignty, as demonstrated in a recent border stand-off with Cambodia over a patch of disputed territory.
Thaksin's opponents say he is profoundly corrupt and the urban elite detest him. Protesters threw shoes and plastic bottles at Somchai, the current Thai PM, after cornering him in an underground parking garage on October 22. The protest was staged by more than 100 employees of the state-owned telecom operator TOT during a visit by Somchai to their headquarters outside Bangkok. This marked the first time in the months of political crisis that state employees have come into direct confrontation with PM Somchai.
Throwing shoes is especially insulting in Thai culture, as the feet are considered to be the dirtiest part of the body. The Thais are Buddhists and the head is the holiest part of the body, and the feet the most unclean. Patting someone on the head is not a friendly act and pointing one's feet at someone is a gross insult.
This was not Somchai's first quick getaway. On October 7, he escaped a rowdy protest outside Parliament by climbing over a back fence. Riot police fired tear-gas to disperse the demonstrators, killing two and injuring hundreds. Thailand's revered Queen Sirikit attended the funeral of one protester killed in the demonstration and offered one million baht (about $30,000) to the family of the dead protester and also to others injured in the riot.
Tensions between the anti-government protesters and administration were heightened when an investigator reported that the tear-gas used to quell the demonstration was a cheap Chinese product containing high levels of RDX - commonly used to make bombs and not usually used in tear-gas for crowd control. Tear-gas made in the United States and Spain, also held in stock, is less dangerous but more expensive.
The big question is whether the Thai army will intervene. Thailand's democracy had been bumbling along for a few decades after a history of army intervention, but the "impossible" coup that ousted Thaksin was widely welcomed by Thailand's major institutions. The army is held in high regard, but the power behind the throne is in fact the throne - King Bumiphol is the rock on which Thailand's peace and prosperity have been constructed.
So far, the army has held off, following the return to civilian rule after Thaksin was booted out; but the puppet master behind the current civilian government is former PM Thaksin. As for a new coup, watch this space.- Jeffry Babb