x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Tensions mount on anniversary of Thai coup

Thailand remains tense after massive pro-Thaksin protests passed off relatively peacefully in the country.

A red-shirted pro-Thaksin protester demonstrates for justice and calls for prime minister Abhisit Vejjajva to step down.
A red-shirted pro-Thaksin protester demonstrates for justice and calls for prime minister Abhisit Vejjajva to step down.

BANGKOK // Thailand remained tense yesterday after massive pro-Thaksin protests passed off relatively peacefully, although some clashes were reported throughout the country, including at the border with Cambodia, and security remains tight amid fears of a return to the political instability of the past two years. More than 20,000 members of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, also known as Red Shirts for the colour they wear, took to the streets of Bangkok to mark the third anniversary of the military coup in 2006 that toppled Thaksin Shinawa, calling for fresh elections.

"This government is a dictatorship, it is illegal and its unpopular," said Nam, a 23-year-old mother from Korat in the north-east of the country who joined the protest in Bangkok. Thaksin, who has been trotting the globe in self-imposed exile, addressed the crowd by video. "I want to ask people who hate me and those who love me to review the past three years and answer if we've seen anything get better," he said. "Have the past three years hurt the country enough?"

Overnight, military checkpoints and barricades were set up to contain any potential violence. Thousands of police and military personnel in riot gear secured the area around the rally and remain in place. The government has imposed the Internal Security Act around the rally venue, which is expected to remain in place for the next four days at least, giving the military special powers to close roads and make arrests to maintain law and order.

"Demonstrations in a democratic society are normal as long as they are legal and peaceful," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a spokesman for the Thai government. Meanwhile the main anti-Thaksin group, the People's Alliance for Democracy, or Yellow Shirts, a colour they wear to show their respect for the Thai monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, clashed with Thai riot police as they tried to enter a disputed border temple.

The protesters, armed with sticks, beat local villagers before the Thai police pushed them back with riot-shields, according to a witness in Si Sa Ket, the border town near the disputed temple. Security forces had set up roadblocks to try to prevent the group from entering the 11th-century Preah Vihear site, which has been the scene of several deadly cross-border exchanges in recent months. The row over the temple between Thailand and Cambodia erupted more than a year ago. Both countries have sent troops to the area. The Yellow Shirts want the government to push the Cambodian forces out from the area around the temple on a hill that juts over Thai territory.

The Thai army had warned the protesters against marching to the border and about 50 Cambodian riot police and a special canine unit were deployed to the area. Cambodian soldiers are also ready to prevent the protesters from crossing the border, said Lt Gen Chhum Socheat, a spokesman for Cambodia's defence ministry. "Once they enter Cambodian territory, our forces will quickly crack down on them," he said.

Many of the villagers in this north-eastern part of the country remain loyal Thaksin supporters and believe he was wrongfully ousted. "Thaksin is our leader, not these cowards," said Surjat, a local food-stall holder. "We will push them back to Bangkok where they belong." Many local residents are also worried that the protests may cause the border with Cambodia to be closed again, as it was at the height of the tensions last year. Farmers and businesses in the border region depend heavily on the cross-border trade.

Thailand remains deeply divided between those who support Thaksin - mostly the urban poor and farmers in the north and east of the country who benefited from his populist policies - and his foes in the Bangkok-based power cliques of the palace, military and bureaucracy. "There is little scope for reconciliation between these two sides," said Kevin Hewison, a professor of Asian studies at the University of North Carolina. "The pro-Thaksin forces have come crashing up against the old oligarchy that is not prepared to give up its power."

Violent street protests by both Thaksin's supporters and opponents over the past four years have blocked roads, airports and government buildings, bringing Bangkok to a halt twice in the past year. In December 2008, the Yellow Shirts seized the main international airport for more than two weeks, virtually cutting the country off from the outside world and crippling Thailand's important tourist industry.

In April, violent protests by the Red Shirts paralysed the capital for several days as protesters clashed with riot police and soldiers. Thaksin won two landslide election victories, in 2001 and 2005, but was overthrown in a coup three years ago. He fled the country more than 12 months ago after a court in Thailand found him guilty of corruption charges. In August, Thaksin's supporters submitted a petition, signed by millions of people, requesting a royal pardon for Thaksin and other fugitive former members of his party. So far a pardon has not been granted. In recent weeks, there have been fresh rumours of a possible military coup. But the powerful army chief, Anupong Paojinda, on Friday denied that the military was about to stage a coup against the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took office last December after the constitutional court dismissed the previous pro-Thaksin cabinet for election fraud. The Democrat-led government has been severely weakened by a recent battle between the coalition partners over the appointment of a new national police chief.

Mr Abhisit will head to New York next week to attend the UN General Assembly - it was while the billionaire prime minister Thaksin was out of the country to attend the same event in 2006 that the military overthrew him. foreign.desk@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by the Associated Press