THAILAND: by Ian H. McDougallNews Weekly
Land of smiles descends into turmoil
, May 2, 2009
The months-long struggle between followers of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra has blackened Thailand's international reputation, reports Ian H. McDougall.Troubled Thailand faces further turmoil following an assassination attempt against a prominent pro-government leader.
The vehicle carrying media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul was attacked by five gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifles and M16s, who fired over 100 rounds into the vehicle, wounding Sondhi and two other men with him. Miraculously, no-one was killed, but Sondhi underwent surgery to remove a bullet fragment from his skull.
Sondhi organised the recent occupation of Bangkok's two main airports, which resulted in the overthrow of the previous government. His People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), also known as the Yellow Shirts, is the chief opponents of the Red Shirts, who support deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The assassination attempt represents a dangerous escalation in the struggle between the two groups. It follows closely on the abandonment of the ASEAN summit being held in the resort city of Pattaya, following a riot by Red Shirt demonstrators, who overwhelmed police guarding the Thai Prime Minister's hotel.
This was a terrible embarrassment for Thailand. Regional leaders, including China's President Hu, were hurriedly evacuated, and the plane carrying Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was refuelled and turned around.
The latest development follows months of turmoil in Thailand. The Yellow Shirts are supported by the urban middle-class, the military and the monarchists. Yellow, not uncoincidentally, is the colour of the Thai monarchy. Every Monday in Bangkok, thousands of people turn out in yellow to show their support for the monarchy.
The Red Shirts are funded and directed by former Prime Minister Thaksin, a billionaire businessman of Chinese extraction. The Red Shirts draw their support from the neglected rural poor, whom Thaksin courted with populist policies involving handouts and giveaways when he was in power.
Thaksin is on the run after being convicted of corruption. In recent days, he was stripped of his Thai passport, but re-emerged hours later with one from Nicaragua, which granted him the travel document in recognition of his "investments" in the impoverished Central American nation.
The months-long struggle between the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts has blackened Thailand's international reputation as the "Land of Smiles". The occupation of Bangkok's two main airports caused losses of billions of dollars to Thailand's vital tourism industry, which accounts for about 10 per cent of the nation's economy. Thailand has the second biggest economy in Southeast Asia, and in the midst of the global financial meltdown its economic problems have damaged the region's economic prospects.
Central to the political struggle is the role of the monarchy. Thailand's King Bumiphol is in his eighties and his health is not the best, but the monarchy is still revered. Thailand, due to its skilful diplomatic manoeuvring, was the only country in Southeast Asia to escape colonisation by the Western powers, for which the Thais give credit to the leadership of their monarchs.
In Thailand, the power behind the throne is
the throne. Thailand has the world's strictest lèse majesté
laws, and they have been enforced stringently in recent months, with one Australian academic jailed for an innocuous comment in a book whose sales barely made it into double figures. Most foreigners are usually given a rap over the knuckles and released after a royal pardon.
Democracy in Thailand has only been recently restored after a coup. The current prime minister, British-born and educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, was installed without a new election, after parliamentary manoeuvrings reportedly instigated by the military. The previous government was led by a Thaksin puppet, but enough parliamentarians were persuaded to change their allegiances to the monarchist candidate to dump Thaksin's party from office.
The military is never far from power in Thailand, with an ever-present threat that if the civilians get too unruly, the army will step in. The army is respected in Thailand as an institution that can get things done and it provides a pathway to the top for the poor but talented.
Even after power was transferred to civilians, the army has stepped in frequently. While in recent years civilian rule has been successful, until the current turmoil, some indication of the average Thai's attitude to military coups can be gauged from the reaction to a coup by the owner of a guest house where I was staying in the northern city of Chiang Mai when I first visited Thailand in the 1970s. When I asked her what she thought about a recent coup, she asked, "What is a coup?" When I explained, she said, "Ah, it happens all the time! Who cares?"
The struggle between the monarchist Yellow Shirts and Thaksin's Red Shirts shows no signs of abating. As long as Thaksin continues to bankroll the Red Shirts from his vast fortune, the trouble will continue. It is doubtful that new elections will resolve the situation, as Thaksin's party is likely to garner the most votes once more.
Things in Thailand seem likely to go from bad to worse.- Ian H. McDougall.