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Tensions fuel forecasts of new violence in Thailand

The war of words between the Thai government and protesters on the streets has increased in recent days.

Small business owners in Thailand are complaining that their trade has almost completely dried up in recent weeks.
Small business owners in Thailand are complaining that their trade has almost completely dried up in recent weeks.

Bangkok // The war of words between the Thai government and protesters on the streets has increased in recent days. The anti-government demonstrators have fortified their positions around Government House and plan a foray into the city's commercial centre this week to draw attention to their cause. Pro-government supporters, meanwhile, want a show of strength this week and have planned a major rally for Saturday, what they have called a "Day of Truth". The same day, the former prime minister and convicted felon, Thaksin Shinawatra, is scheduled to talk to the crowd by telephone through the government-owned television station.

Last week the Supreme Court found Thaksin guilty of abusing his power when he was prime minister to allow his family to benefit financially from a land deal. He was sentenced in absentia to two years jail. He is currently in self-imposed exile in England, having skipped bail in early August. Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in Sept 2006, but many of his supporters managed to regroup into a new political party - the People's Power Party, win elections in December and form the government.

But over the past few months, Thailand's government has been besieged by protesters demanding the prime minister and cabinet resign because they see them as a proxy of the former premier. The current prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, is Thaksin's brother-in-law. Rumours of another military coup have increased in recent days as a result of Thailand's deepening political quagmire. Although the possibility of a coup cannot be completely ruled out, the army chief, Gen Anupong, is reluctant to move, said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a military specialist and political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Tension continues to mount, however, as fears grow that the current political battle can only end in further violence. Last week, two people died and more than 400 were injured when the police charged thousands of demonstrators from the Peoples' Alliance for Democracy outside parliament and hurled tear gas canisters into the crowd. "We fear the country is going to soon degenerate into more violence if the situation continues," said Linth, a young activist leader with the newly formed Peace Action Group, which is trying to get all sides to talk to each other.

At the same time, the government's plans for constitutional change seem to have been shelved. The government had planned to change the constitution to make it easier for Thaksin and a hundred of his closest supporters, who are barred from politics for the next five years, to more easily return to power. "The government has dropped the draft charter amendments from this week's parliamentary session to avoid aggravating political tension," a senior PPP whip, Witthaya Buranasiri, told journalists on the eve of this week's parliament sitting.

But the PAD seems to be in no mood to compromise. "Negotiations are not a way out of the turmoil because righteousness is irreconcilable with political evils," said Pipop Thongchai, one of the protest leaders. Parliament resumed yesterday, with the economy and the fragile border situation with Cambodia the key topics of debate. "These are also two major issues which General Anupong has urged Prime Minster Somchai to urgently deal with," Prof Panitan said.

In the face of increasing food prices and a dramatic drop in tourism, the public mood is increasingly sombre. "With the country collapsing around us, no one wants constitutional change. All everyone wants is an end to the current political crisis," a major Thai businessman said on condition of anonymity. Recent opinion polls show most Thais simply want peace and a speedy return to stability. "The PAD have made their point; Thaksin is now convicted of corruption, and they should allow the government to get on with things," said a young college student who called herself Rung. "They are disrupting everyone, and no one is benefiting."

Businesses in particular are worried that the domestic political problems are increasing the potential economic fallout on Thailand of the international credit crunch and downturn. Small business owners are complaining that their trade has almost completely dried up in recent weeks. Bars, nightclubs and restaurants have been badly hit, with almost half their clientele disappearing. "Almost no one has visited my shop since Thaksin was found guilty a week ago," said Chaiyapan, a tailor in the main tourist area of Bangkok.

But much now hinges on the next few days, according to analysts. "It's only a matter of time before the Somchai government collapses," Prof Panitan said. "The army is on high alert, and may be forced to move if the planned pro-government rally and Thaksin's planned phone call are too provocative, or the mob elements on both sides instigate violence." Many independent academics have called on Thaksin in particular to back down and not inflame the situation.

"Thaksin should realise that the game is over and his supporters might face dire consequences if he continues to incite them to defile the judiciary," said Prinya Thewanaruemitkul, a law lecturer at Thammasat University. With royal funeral rites next week for the late princess Galyani Vadhana (the king's sister), who died in January, followed by the king's birthday celebrations and the Asean summit in mid-December, the hope is that the two sides will put their differences aside - at least for a few weeks.

But if the political impasse is not resolved after that, there may be few options left. "Alas, another coup seems almost inevitable," said Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to Thailand. But most Thais still hope that this can be avoided. @Email:ljagan@thenational.ae