With the red-shirted supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra taking to the streets once more in Bangkok, Thailand will close 2009 much as it did the previous year. Protests, counter-demonstrations, questions over legitimate government and a spat with Cambodia linger, meaning that the country will remain polarized and unstable for the foreseeable future.
Around 15-20,000 members of the pro-Thaksin National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) convened near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on Thursday to listen to a video-linked message from Thaksin and to seek the dissolution of parliament and a repeal of the 2007 Constitution, drafted by the army after it ousted Thaksin in a coup in 2006.
The protesters called the Constitution undemocratic and said they want a return to the 1997 Constitution under which Thaksin won two landslide elections in 2001 and 2005.
The UDD earlier canceled a planned three-day rally out of respect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who celebrated his 82nd birthday on Dec. 5. Thaksin had been stung by allegations of treachery for taking up a job as economic adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and for an interview with the UK newspaper The Times, which the Thai government views as undermining the country’s revered monarchy.
The night before the demonstration, a fund-raising dinner was held in Bangkok for prachatai.com, a website started in 2004 to attract readers disillusioned with the mainstream Thai media. Opening the evening, the site’s founder, Jon Ungpakorn, said that the Thai media environment was stifling and the level of self-censorship among Thai journalists meant that crucial issues were unreported or neglected completely.
“The media does not discuss extrajudicial killings, torture, the level of the military budget,” he said.
The theme of the discussion was “Thailand in Transition: A Historic Challenge, and What’s Next?” Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra told the assembled media and Bangkok elites that “political uncertainty in Thailand is likely to continue,” and implicitly questioned the policies of his own Democrat Party in dealing with the Muslim rebellion in the South and with neighboring Burma.
He said he believes that there will be a general election in Thailand in 2010, which will likely fuel current political strife. Irrespective of who wins, he said, “there will be questions over legitimacy, no matter who has the legal right to govern.”
Many of the tensions now besetting Thai politics stem from the issue of royal succession, a subject that is increasingly on people’s minds as King Bhumibol approaches his third month in hospital for treatment of a lung infection.
Thongchai Winichakul, a professor based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, put the country’s current travails into historical perspective, noting that the succession of King Chulalongkorn, Thailand’s great modernizing monarch, presented similar political difficulties. “The more superhuman the father was made to look, the steeper the mountain the Crown Prince had to climb,” he said.
He said he believes that this is what lay behind the 1932 revolution which ended Thailand’s absolute monarchy and concluded that contemporary royalists could, like their early 20th-century counterparts, end up “shooting themselves in the foot.”
Meanwhile, Thailand’s open, export-oriented economy has been rocked by global and local uncertainties, and political instability could undermine recovery. Pansak Vinyaratn, a former journalist and adviser to Thaksin, said that foreign investors want assurances that there will not be any more coups in Thailand and that election results will be adhered to.
Whether or not economic recovery comes, some feel that Thailand’s political crisis will not be resolved unless social inequities are addressed.
“Thailand should be a fairer place than it is today,” said Pasuk Phongpichit of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, noting that only some African kleptocracies and Latin American oligarchies have a more lopsided distribution of wealth than Thailand.
In fact, she said, Thailand has become more unequal in recent years, even as other Southeast Asian countries move to improve their social and economic imbalances.
Speaking to an audience at the plush Sheraton Grande in Bangkok, Pasuk pointed out that only half of Thai homes have piped water. She also said that a revenue system based on a sales tax on goods and services hurts the less well-off, and criticized the “corrupt hi-so elite that can can get away with anything in Thailand.”
“Unless these issues are addressed, Thailand may never be at peace,” she concluded.
As if to to confirm this assessment, at Thursday’s rally, UDD leader Jatuporn Phrompan pledged more demonstrations in 2010, telling Reuters that “our next mission is to expel the government.”
As Sukhumbhand put it, it appears that Thailand’s troubles will roll on, and that “yellow vs. red will continue.”
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