x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Thailand PM struggles to keep order as crisis deepens

Thailand's political crisis escalates as anti-government protesters continue to defy a ban on demonstrations.

Anti-government demonstrators continue to protest in Bangkok.
Anti-government demonstrators continue to protest in Bangkok.

BANGKOK // Thailand's political crisis is escalating as thousands of anti-government protesters yesterday continued to defy a ban on demonstrations, while key trade unions have threatened to join them on the street. A major showdown is now inevitable between the anti-government demonstrators, who are still occupying Government House, and Samak Sundaravej, the prime minister, who has declared a state of emergency in the capital Bangkok to try to quell the protests. To make matters worse for the embattled leader, the Electoral Commission has recommended that his People Power Party (PPP) be disbanded because of electoral fraud in last December's elections. Throughout yesterday more and more people arrived to support the anti-government rally, which started a week ago. "We are here to save democracy," said Naritchai, a 35-year-old maid who works in Bangkok. "The government cheated at the [last] elections and now they are abusing the laws to muzzle the protesters."

Many of the protesters carried pots and pans and most said they were now going to stay until the prime minister resigned or they were arrested. Surichai, a farmer from the south, even brought a portable television. "We need to monitor the government's plans through the news," he said. The protest organisers are preparing themselves for any attempt by the security forces to evict them from their positions around Government House. "There are not enough jails to put us all into," Chamlong Srimuang, one of the leaders of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the umbrella group leading the anti-government protests, told thousands of supporters inside the compound. But Sondi Limthongkul, one of the key leaders of the movement, said protesters may begin to withdraw in the next few days. The Thai government declared a state of emergency in Bangkok early yesterday after clashes between the PAD protesters and pro-government demonstrators left one man dead and more than 30 injured. Under the emergency powers announced on television and radio, all public gatherings in the capital are banned and restrictions have been imposed on media reports that "undermined public security". "I did this to douse the fire, not to cause a fire," Mr Samak told a news conference at the military headquarters. The security action would be restrained and not last more than a few days, Mr Samak said. The violence has raised the spectre of another army seizure of power, two years after the military ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, then prime minister. But many political observers say the army is still reluctant to act. "The top military brass has repeatedly said they want to stay out of the conflict and leave it to the police," said Titinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "The last coup was a setback for the army and the military is likely to sit this one out, as long as the violence is limited and does not spiral out of control." The army has now been put in charge of controlling the civil disorder. Gen Anupong Paochinda, the army chief, is effectively in control as he heads the new committee established to implement the decree. At present though, it is unclear how the military will carry out these orders. Last week Gen Anupong made it clear he did not support emergency rule, and said the police should be used to maintain law and order, not soldiers. Apparently Mr Samak overruled him after a four-hour meeting in the early hours following the clashes. But Gen Anupong is keen to keep the army independent, and will deal patiently with the demonstrators, according to senior military sources. "Our methods will be to improve understanding among Thais and make everyone aware that there can still be a peaceful solution through negotiations," said Gen Anupong. He insisted soldiers would not use force to evict the PAD protesters occupying Government House. "If we thought we could use police and soldiers to get them out peacefully, we would," he said. Soldiers deployed on crowd-control duty would only carry batons and shields, he said. Water cannons and tear gas may also be used. And the stage will be set for a major showdown later today when thousands of government workers are expected to take industrial action in order to bring down the government. Internal train travel has been almost completely halted for the last three days as train workers went on strike, and several airports in southern Thailand have been closed intermittently over the same period by demonstrators, leaving thousands of tourists stranded. Electricity and water workers are already on their way to Bangkok, according to Pian Yongnu, a senior electrical trade union official. If the call for a mass strike is heeded, Bangkok may come to a standstill. Thailand's economic woes are growing as a result of the political crisis, with shares falling yesterday by more than two per cent - the stock market has plummeted by more than 25 per cent since anti-government protests started more than three months ago. Direct investment is declining, and the Thai baht continues to depreciate. Tourist numbers are down and likely to fall further, with many countries already issuing official advisories against travelling to Thailand at this stage. Australia, Canada, France, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States have all told their citizens to avoid any non-essential travel to Thailand. "Time is running out for Thailand, and PM Samak must resign if order is to be restored any time soon," said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior political analyst at the English-speaking daily The Nation. ljagan@thenational.ae