Sunday, August 31, 2008

High Noon in Bangkok

As I write this, early Sunday morning in Bangkok, opposing mobs are gathering across the Chao Phraya River not far from my apartment. One group, calling itself the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), wears yellow shirts and headbands. The other, the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD), wears red. A leader of DAAD said his group would hit a gong to call for a mass rally instead of blowing a whistle as the PAD did. It's a beautiful sunny day for a putsch, a revolution or a coup, whatever you want to call a violent change of government.

Tens of thousands of PAD members have been rallying in the streets of Bangkok for several months, calling for for the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej whom they charge is a stand-in for deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra who recently went into exile in England with his wife to escape corruption charges here. Several days ago, this mob of ultra-nationalists and royalists took over Government House, Thailand's political heart. Black-clad thugs broke into the government's NBT TV station early one morning and attempted to force it to broadcast PAD programs; they failed. PAD members have closed three provincial airports (stranding tourists in Phuket) and unions have gone on strike in support, paralyzing the country by shutting down train service. Despite legal calls to remove demonstrators and warrants for the arrest of PAD's nine leaders on charges of treason, the police have been ineffectual in dislodging them. Tear gas was used briefly when a PAD mob besieged police headquarters, although neither side has admitted responsibility, and various scuffles have caused some injuries. PAD, quick to appeal to the law when isn't directed at them, has charged "police brutality!" and sued the police chief.

Little has been heard from DAAD until yesterday when supporters of both the deposed Thaksin and the beleaguered Samak began gathering in large numbers at Sanan Luang, the large park next to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Speakers charged PAD with using "anarchist means" to achieve their objective, the overthrow of a legitimately elected government. A DAAD leader predicted that as many as 100,000 pro-government demonstrators would reach the park today and march to Parliament for the emergency session there to lend their strength to Samak. Their red color is ominous.

According to Shawn W. Crispin of Asia Times Online,
Bangkok has not experienced this degree of political chaos since the fateful events of May 1992, when anti-military government street protests took a violent turn and troops in retaliation opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing as many as 250.
Friday night Samak went to see King Bhumibol at his residence in Hua Hin to brief him on the situation but was unable to secure an audience until the next evening. Last night the ruling coalition of political parties organized by his People Power Party met at a Bangkok hotel. Although the prime minister did not attend, they emerged to say the coalition was firmly behind Samak and that he would not resign. Gen Anupong Paochinda, who commands Thailand's military, has also supported the prime minister, but, according to late reports, has told him he has no choice but to resign. A joint session of the Senate and House will be held early this afternoon to discuss the crisis. No doubt the mobs in yellow and red shirts will be there to shout (and more) their support for one solution or another.

Francesco Sisci in Rome's La Stampa (translated) compares the yellow shirts to the brown shirts in Mussolini's Italy:
Let’s call things with their right names. What the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) did on August 26 by storming a TV station, assaulting many ministries and then camping in the gardens of the government house was a putsch. It is only unclear whether the putsch was successful or not...

A coup d’etat in Thailand would be dangerous in normal circumstances, because it would push back the regional process of democratization, because it would be bad inspiration for Filipino or Indonesian generals eager to grab back political power thanks to the barrels of their tanks. Now, a putsch could be worse, a disaster as it would greatly enhance global instability by opening new fronts, new fault lines in this semi-new cold war period with Russia. The putsch in Thailand must be stopped...

The Italian fascists in the 1920s claimed to protect the national interests and accused all their political enemies of being traitors of the motherland. They brought Italy to ruin and caused the end of monarchy. Today the situation in Thailand is even more serious. The government has been democratically elected just seven months ago; opinion polls show that over 70% of the people are against the ongoing protest and in favor of the government; the PAD makes no mystery of upholding a strongly authoritarian agenda asking only 30% of the parliament to be elected – the rest should be appointees.
It's hard for a visitor to understand what's going on. Many PAD members fought alongside radical students against military-imposed governments in the 1970s and 1990s. Their rallies resemble mini-Woodstocks with folksingers entertaining between speeches, the audience filled with seemingly a cross-section of Thai society. When the billionaire Thaksin was democratically elected in 2001 and re-elected in 2005, many thought the age of army coups was over. But this self-made businessman, intent on modernizing and globalizing Thai society and political culture, alienated important segments of the country with his populist policies along with rumors of authoritarianism, corruption, cronyism and vote buying. The Thai electorate rapidly became polarized along pro- and anti-Thaksin lines. PAD was formed in 2005 to agitate for his overthrow and succeeded with the army's intervention in September. But the PPP replaced Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party and one of his lieutenants, Samak, was elected prime minister last December, with a majority of votes coming from the countryside where Thaksin is God. PAD reformed and has been campaigning with increasing strength against the Samak administration, culminating in what it has called the "Final Solution" this past week.

As I write this blog, I am watching Samak's weekly "Talk Samak Style" TV broadcast on NBT but am unable to understand what he is saying. I will wait anxiously for a translation on Bangkok Pundit, one of my prime sources of information and interpretation. Another is the web site of one of Bangkok's two English language dailies, The Nation, which has frequent updates. Crispin in Asia Times thinks this is PAD's "apparent last act." By not evicting the demonstrators from Government House, Samark is showing his (uncharacteristic) restraint. Thaksin's exile has enabled him to distance himself from his mentor. His strong ties to the generals and the King give him some protection against charges of wanting to overthrow the monarchy to establish a republic (which PAD claims was Thaksin's intention). But bloodshed in the streets can change everything.

Pim asked me the other day if I were "scared." About what, I asked. "Getting hurt," she said. Well, I'm not about to go across the river into the worst of it, I said, despite my desire to chronicle Thai life in this blog. I'll take my binoculars up to the 22nd floor of our apartment building to scan the skyline for signs of action. And I watch news videos of the crisis on one of the local TV stations which provide a bit of information and insight, even if I can't understand the commentary. I've never been in a revolution, coup or putsch before. It's a bit exciting.

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