x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Rival protests deepen Thailand crisis

Supporters of ousted premier Thanksin gather in Bangkok to back the embattled government as army refuses to get involved.

Pro-government supporters, some holding images of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister, cheer during a rally in Bangkok.
Pro-government supporters, some holding images of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister, cheer during a rally in Bangkok.

Thailand continues to slip towards anarchy and civil war as the country enters a crucial week. Government supporters - dressed in red as a show of strength - are congregating in the centre of the city preparing to do battle with their opponents, the protesters - dressed in yellow to signify their support for the king - who have occupied the country's two main airports since the beginning of last week, virtually cutting the country off from the rest of the world. "It's going to be a decisive week in Thai politics," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who teaches politics at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "It's unclear if Thai democracy can survive the forthcoming battle between the red and yellow shirts. Law and order has given way to mob rule," he said in an interview. The city's police force has so far refused to launch a full assault on several thousand protesters who have dug in at the main Suvarnabhumi airport and are refusing to move. They will stay there until Somchai Wongsawat, the prime minister, resigns, said one of the protest's leaders, Somsak Kosaisuk. "We are prepared to die for the cause." The protests are led by an umbrella group calling itself the Peoples' Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The anti-government movement seized Government House more than three months ago, is trying to topple the government elected last December, because it is corrupt and a proxy of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in Sept 2006. The army is on full alert and is refusing to get involved in the political conflict, which has engulfed the country for the past six months. Last week, the army chief, Anupong Paojinda, urged the government to resign and to hold fresh elections to help resolve the conflict. The prime minister, however, firmly rejected the army chief's advice and instead declared a state of emergency covering both airports resulting effectively in a political stalemate. Mr Somchai is currently in the country's northern capital, Chiang Mai, where he was forced to land on Wednesday, when he returned from an overseas trip, because the protesters had already taken control of the capital city's two airports. He now has established the government's base there - and is refusing to move. The country is effectively divided into two - the government ruling from its northern base and the protesters in control of the capital city Bangkok. Over the past two days, heavily armoured riot police with batons and shields have grouped on the outskirts of the main airport, threatening to advance on the protesters - only to stand down a little later. "The police are playing a game of bluff, trying to unsettle the PAD people in the airport and frighten them out," a western intelligence officer said on condition of anonymity. "But it's clearly not working." No one wants to make the first move out of concern that a pitched battle would result, with injuries and perhaps deaths. No one wants to be responsible for any carnage that might result, especially in the days before the king's birthday celebrations this week. "The government is helpless and it is simply not functioning at all," Chaturon Chaiseng, a former deputy prime minister in Thaksin's government and close to the governing People's Power Party, said in an interview. "The police must act and implement the law. We want it to be finished, and the longer the occupation goes on, the more damage it does to Thailand's international reputation; we may never recover from it." But more ominous, according to most analysts, is the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD), a group of government supporters threatening to take things into its own hands. Its leaders have called for Thaksin supporters to show their strength and assemble in Bangkok. More than 100,000 supporters were expected to show their support for the government by last night, according to one leader, Veera Musikapong. The last time the group called a mass demonstration, more than 70,000 supporters turned up at the venue for the rally, a sport stadium in the outskirts of Bangkok. They gathered continuously through the day yesterday and seemed clearly spoiling for a fight. Some had been making hundreds of Molotov cocktails, according to reliable witnesses at the scene. Heavily armed with axe handles and sticks, "Thaksin Army" written on black bandannas around their heads, trained all day in preparation for an assault on the airport, according to a military source close to the group. "The greatest fear is that the red shirts may lose their patience and go to clear the airport themselves," Mr Chaturaon said. It can only result in bloodshed, he said. Early yesterday, more than 50 anti-government protesters were injured when a hand grenade was thrown into a compound near Government House, which remains the main PAD base. Although no one claimed responsibility, it is widely believed to have been the work of some of the red shirts. Even if this major battle for the airport is avoided, the city is set for a major clash this week when the Constitutional Court rules on the electoral commission's recommendations that the PPP and two of its coalition partners are disbanded because of vote fraud. The court is expected to disband the parties and bar at least a dozen of the parties' top executives from politics, including Mr. Somchai. The DAAD is already preparing for this - the rally in Bangkok is expected to continue until then. The Thaksin supporters have been told to bring enough food and bedding to camp out for the rest of the week. There are tentative plans to move to the court before the decision is presented, according to sources close to the group's leaders. The court has become a pawn of those who want to overthrow the government, according to Mr Veera. "It is obvious that there is interference with justice. It was well planned, and this is a concealed coup," he said. More than 200,000 red shirts will take to the streets if the courts ban the PPP, Mr Chaturon said. "We will fight back, unlike after the last coup, starting in Bangkok, so a lot of people are likely to end up being killed." Most Thais who are sick of the political crisis are hoping cooler heads prevail, but most analysts fear the worst. ljagan@thenational.ae