The Big Question: Will the ending of the airport sit-in resolve the Thai crisis?
Wednesday 03 December 2008
Why are we asking this now?
Tomorrow, if all goes to plan, flights from Bangkok's main international airport will resume, after Thai anti-government protesters agreed to end their occupation, allowing thousands of stranded tourists to leave. The unrest has left thousands of British holidaymakers furious, stranded in paradise, and the crisis has raised major fears that one of South-east Asia's healthiest democracies could slide into chaos and anarchy.
Protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a loose alliance of big business interests, Bangkok's upper-middle-class and those who dislike the politics of the former prime minister and ex-Manchester City FC owner Thaksin Shinawatra, occupied the Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's office in the city's government district two months ago, and last week stormed Suvarnabhumi International airport and the mostly domestic Don Muang airport.
The protesters agreed to disperse after the Constitutional Court dissolved Mr Somchai's government, yesterday after finding three of the six parties in the ruling coalition guilty of buying votes in the 2007 election which brought it to power. The grins are getting thin in a country known as the Land of Smiles.
What will the government do now?
Even in a country used to dealing with a significant degree of instability – it has witnessed 18 coups or attempted coups in 76 years of stop-start democracy – recent events have given a sense of a country unravelling into something far worse. So for the time being, there is no government as the country's highest court has dissolved it. Most commentators believe the government may simply be reincarnated under a different name, which would prompt more protests and wider instability.
The first issue on the agenda of whoever takes over the reins will be tourism: losses in this crucial business could run to 150bn baht (£2.8bn), about 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product. And there are broader fears that the unrest could worsen the impact of the global slowdown and tip the export-driven economy into recession.
The army have a big role in this, right?
Absolutely. In September 2006 the military staged a coup while Mr Thaksin was at the UN headquarters in New York, and the political tumult has not eased since then. Early on in the crisis, the army commander, General Anupong Paochinda, called for snap elections and for the opposition to end their occupation of the airports, which would have left the military in control and would be a de facto coup.
What about the King?
King Bhumibol Adulyadej tends to try to distance himself from domestic conflicts, he only intervenes when it is absolutely necessary. He is due to address the nation tomorrow, on the eve of his 81st birthday, and the beloved monarch's speech will be closely watched for clues on how the country will be ruled from now on. He is the most important political figure in Thailand, and anything he says goes. However, the succession issue is high on the agenda.
It's a safe bet that he has no interest in intervening in the current crisis. His wife Queen Sirikit attended the funeral of an anti-government protester killed in clashes with police. The Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is linked in the popular imagination to Mr Thaksin, which is interpreted by some as a sign the royal family is divided on how to resolve the current crisis.
So, how can itbe resolved?
This is indeed an incredibly complicated situation. The anti-government protesters want what they call a "new politics", which would involve an appointed parliament dominated by bureaucrats and the army. Even though Mr Somchai was democratically elected, they believe he, Mr Thaksin and their supporters have been using a large war chest from their considerable business interests to buy votes in the countryside and in the north of the country, and that the straight vote system works against them. They say Mr Thaksin's strong control of the media puts them at a disadvantage.
Pro-government supporters have become very active in the past few days, staging rallies wearing red shirts and headbands. On the surface, they look like exact counterparts of the anti-government protesters – the pro-government lobby uses clapping-heart toys instead of the clapping-hand toys of the opposition, and wear red rather than yellow shirts. But the difference is striking in terms of demographics – this is a much poorer crowd, made up of taxi drivers, labourers and people from the countryside. In contrast to the "yellow" protests, few on the "red" side speak English and the movement seems less well-equipped.
Ultimately, Mr Thaksin and his successors are democratically elected, vote-buying or not, which makes it difficult to predict what will happen.
Will there be civil war?
Fears that Thailand could spill over into total civil war arise from the political gulf between the Bangkok elite and middle classes, who revile Mr Thaksin, and the majority rural and urban poor who loved his populist style. Mr Somchai's government moved to Chiang Mai, its northern stronghold, after anti-government protesters occupied the PM's office in downtown Bangkok. It truly highlighted the regional divide in Thailand.
The opposition wants to unseat Mr Somchai's government because it says Mr Somchai is a puppet of Mr Thaksin, his brother-in-law. Mr Thaksin and his allies stand accused of corruption and abuse of power, and Mr Thaksin is now in exile, probably in Dubai, a fugitive from a conviction for violating a conflict of interest law. The latest speculation is that Potjaman Shinawatra, Mr Thaksin's wife, will be back to take over the reins at the head of the political movement he founded, but with which he cannot be officially linked. Expect more instability in Thailand for the time being.
Will the airport protesters ever get what they want?
* The PAD have huge numbers of supporters buoyed by the success of the airport stand-off.
* They have successfully forced out the Prime Minister – their key demand has already been satisfied.
* The protesters are not hated – they offered refreshments to passengers inconvenienced by their protest.
* Democracy work against the anti-government movement. Mr Thaksin maintains popular support.
* The army has not intervened, but a coup would just lead to an election, which Mr Thaksin's people will win.
* The protesters have not yet received the explicit support of the royal family, whose help they need.
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