BANGKOK // Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister, has been found guilty of misusing his powers when he was in office and sentenced to two years in jail. The Supreme Court handed down its verdict amid tight security around the court house. More than 300 police were on guard to prevent the proceedings being disrupted by Thaksin supporters. Earlier in the day, a bomb exploded outside the residence of a senior judge, but no one was hurt.
Thaksin, who is living in self-imposed exile in England, was not present at court. He and his wife jumped bail in August and fled to London, saying they could not receive a fair trial in Thailand. Thaksin is the former owner of the Manchester City football team, which was purchased by Abu Dhabi investors earlier this year. He was ousted from power in a military coup in September 2006. After fresh elections in December 2007, under a new constitution, the newly formed People's Power Party, founded by his supporters, formed a new government. For months now it has been besieged by anti-government protesters demanding the resignation of the current prime minster, Somchai Wongsawat - Thaksin's brother-in-law.
The court's decision, however, is unlikely to ease Thailand's political impasse. In fact the crisis is likely to get even worse, as Mr Somchai's beleaguered government faces further protest, dissent within its own ranks and a worsening economy. The protesters, led by the People's Alliance for Democracy, have occupied the Government House for more than two months, forcing the government to work out of the old airport on the outskirts of Bangkok. A week ago, the police moved in on the demonstrators when they tried to blockade parliament, leaving two dead and more than 400 injured. The protest leaders have vowed to continue their demonstrations until the prime minister and his government resign.
Gen Anupong Paochinda, the army chief, added to the prime minister's problems when he launched a "television coup" against the government last week, recommending that Mr Somchai stand down and take responsibility for the deaths of the two protesters. Mr Somchai remains adamant he will neither resign nor dissolve parliament. But his options are narrowing. "The government is unlikely to survive much longer," a PPP insider said in an interview. "Somchai may have to give up before the end of the week."
Already PAD is beginning to sense victory as the government fumbles for solutions to the political impasse. More demonstrations are planned for this week after peaceful forays into the business districts on Friday and the commercial centre on Monday. But today may be the watershed, as former policemen plan a mass rally in support of the police action and the government. "A violent class between the red and yellow on Wednesday would effectively put an end to Somchai's government," said Kavi Chingkittavorn, a senior political analyst with The Nation, a daily English-language newspaper in Thailand. PAD protesters are dressed in yellow as a sign of respect to the king, who is legally above politics, and the government supporters wear red bandannas and handkerchiefs.
The Supreme Court's guilty verdict against Thaksin may prove to be another nail in Mr Somchai's political coffin. This is the first time Thaksin has actually been convicted of corruption - ostensibly the reason the military moved against him two years ago. There are scores of other cases against him pending in the courts. Many analysts believe the decision will only increase the divisions in society, and lead to further confrontation.
"The court's decision will increase the political temperature in the community," according to Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, the head of Chulalongkorn University's department of government. Thaksin's supporters have already dismissed the decision as politically motivated and plan to turn to street protests to vent their feelings. "Somchai may have no alternative now but to resign, probably within the next week," Mr Kavi of The Nation said. "But it may drag on until the end of the month - as everyone is keen to avoid any non-constitutional change."
The army chief continues to rule out a coup - but has added his voice to those calling for Mr Somchai to stand down in a television interview on Thursday. The military is solidly behind its commander, according to military sources. But while the forces mount against Mr Somchai there is no obvious way out to the crisis. There are hints that the military and other establishment figures favour a national unity government led by the main opposition political party, the Democrats.
The Democrats' leaders have urged the prime minister to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections, even though they know they are unlikely to topple the PPP's popularity. "A fresh mandate through a general election would help clear the air, even if we ended up with another PPP-led government," said the Democrats' deputy leader, Korn Chatikavanij. "A snap election is no longer an option - parliament would have to be dissolved 45 days before the polls, and this is no longer possible," Mr Kavi said. This means an election could not be held before the end of December. Campaigning cannot take place until then because of the funeral rites for the late princess Galyani Vadhana (the king's sister) starting on Nov 14, followed by the king's birthday celebrations and the Asean summit in mid-December.
By then Thailand's political map may have been well and truly redrawn. The constitutional court is deliberating on the electoral commission's recommendation that the PPP and several other coalition partners be disbanded for electoral fraud in December's polls. Indications are that the court will follow the electoral body's position, according to many Thai political pundits. The PPP government would then fall - and at least 10 senior party members would be barred from politics - leaving the way open for the Democrats to take power constitutionally.
This seems to be the most likely scenario, but Thai politics remains uncertain and anything could happen. What is certain is this week could be a major turning point in contemporary Thai political history - and may yet be Mr Somchai's last week in office. firstname.lastname@example.org