November - December 2008
Minding mining

Thailand’s continuing crisis

BANGKOK — “Political conditions.” That was what the Thai Airways lady at the Chiang Mai airport scribbled as the reason for the cancellation of our Nov. 27 flight from Bangkok, crossing out the word “weather” stamped on our e-ticket. Minutes earlier, an AirAsia staffer had done a similar thing for our other cancelled flight, writing “political disturbance at Bangkok airport” on our tickets.

Indeed, what do you really call the blockade of the international and domestic airports in Bangkok for about a week?

At one point, the takeover by anti-government protesters of the two airports left more than 350,000 tourists stranded in the country, while returning Thais could not come home. Media reports said more than 500 Filipinos, here for different reasons (from attending civil society meetings to doing viajera-buying ahead of Christmas) needed to be ferried home. Set for mid-December, the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was postponed to March.

Finally on Dec. 2, the Constitutional Court handed down a verdict on a pending case for electoral offenses and ordered the dissolution of three parties in the ruling coalition. These included the dominant People’s Power Party (PPP), which the airports’ temporary occupants had been trying to chase out of office since that party won the December 2007 polls.

FOR a week, flights to Thailand were cancelled due to “political conditions.” [photo by Johanna Son]

The verdict was apparently all the protesters needed to leave the air terminals, which resumed normal operations last Friday. Yet even though there has been relative calm in the Thai capital since, few believe that the “political disturbance” that led to the airport debacle has ended.

“It is not solved at all. We all know that it’s just the start,” says Noi, a language instructor, pointing out that there had been no dialogue or discussion between the opposing sides since the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) began stepping up its protests in May this year.

“I don’t like (Premier) Somchai (Wongsawat), but I agree that governments should come and go through the right way, through elections, “ adds Noi. “The problem is that few people really believe what he says, and most people just want this to end.”

Deep schisms exposed

For sure, “political conditions” may continue to bedevil this prosperous Southeast Asian nation that is already starting to feel the impact of the global financial crisis. As it is, deep schisms — which many are calling “class tensions” — have now been laid out for all to see in a society unused to dealing with open conflict.

PAD, after all, is led by the Bangkok-based, conservative, middle-class elite, while the government it has been so against is identified with the much-maligned former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose power base is the rural poor.

The latter — clad in red to distinguish themselves from PAD supporters who wear yellow — have been coming out in force in recent months in a desperate attempt to keep their government of choice in power. Increasingly, however, they have only witnessed how electoral processes and mandates, as well as the role of the courts and respect for the law, have been either ignored or seemingly twisted to serve particular interests.

PAD leaders, for one, say that elections have not worked for Thailand and instead allowed politicians like Thaksin, who has since been convicted of corruption and is now in exile, to be voted into power by majority voters from rural areas who “did not know any better” and were duped by his populist policies in health and livelihood.

This is why PAD protesters have been working to oust the elected government since the pro-Thaksin PPP came to power in the December poll — the first held after the September 2006 military coup that overthrew Thaksin.

“The PAD (has) suggested reducing the number of elected MPs and a recipe to do away with the principle of ‘one person one vote’,” observes Chulalongkorn University professor Giles Ungpakorn. “So the root cause of the problem is the conservative elite’s contempt for the poor and their contempt for democracy.”

These groups and the elite they represent, he continues, could not stand seeing how a political force like Thaksin was shrewdly and successfully courting votes from the poor — which for decades had been left without political power — through schemes such as a universal health scheme and village loans.

Pokpong Lawansiri of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), meanwhile, allows that Thaksin’s administration was known for human rights violations in the war against drugs and in Thailand’s Muslim-dominated south. “Nevertheless,” Pokpong argues, “if the majority of the population voted for the said party or candidates, we should respect the voice of the majority.”

Likewise, Pokpong says, PAD’s threats to go back to the streets if it does not like the next leader “disregard the votes of the majority.”

Somchai is the second Thai premier to be shown the door in three months. Just last September, the Constitutional Court had ruled that Somchai’s predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, had violated a constitutional ban on earning extra income through his cooking shows. PAD, which had held protests calling for Samak’s resignation at an old Bangkok bridge earlier this year and at the Government House in August, had at first rejoiced upon hearing of the court decision on Samak. But it girded for battle once more after the PPP chose Somchai, who happened to be Thaksin’s brother-in-law, as prime minister.

Location map of Thailand courtesy of Wikipedia

A political numbers game

As of last Saturday, the Democrat Party — one of whose MPs is a PAD leader — said it had cobbled together the numbers to have its 44-year-old Oxford-educated leader and MP Abhisit Vejjajiva voted prime minister. Party leaders said they had the necessary majority numbers from its members, smaller political parties and defectors from the disbanded PPP (who explained that they were switching sides for the country) and wanted Parliament to convene Dec. 8 to proceed with the vote. On Monday, it submitted a request to the House, which needs royal clearance to convene the chamber.

Many former PPP members have also been busy trying to regroup under a new party called Puea Thai in a bid to keep the majority they had led in Parliament. But the military and some influential figures are said to be bent on thwarting such efforts — and preventing yet another round of PAD protests — by getting politicians to juggle the political balance of forces in the House.

In the meantime, Pokpong notes that while the courts have ruled on electoral matters, the leaders of PAD have not so much as been taken to equal task for their protest actions. There has been a lot of talk about prosecuting leaders for damages, but this remains to be seen.

“Many are asking why the militant (PAD) and alliance leaders and supporters have not been brought to justice for grossly unlawful acts,” Pokpong says. “The (PAD) is responsible for the siege of Thailand’s Government House and airports and those are serious breach of laws.”

Media reports estimate financial damage to the international airport alone to reach some 350 billion baht ($10 billion). At the Government House, where public property was destroyed, repair costs could be around 22 billion baht ($628.5 million). Damage to the tourism industry, a major dollar-earner for Thailand, will be deep and painful going into the new year.

At the very least, the airport closure — some called it an “invasion” and others a tamer “sit-in” — was nothing less than strange, going by forms of protests around the world. Airports do not usually close during peacetime and they are among the first places that states instinctively secure during emergencies.

Even airport officials have been at a loss on how to assess what happened.

ThaiAirAsia chief executive Tassapon Bijleveld has been quoted by local media as saying, “It is unclear to me whether the airport demonstrations can be classified as a riot or civil unrest, which may or may not entitle us to sue them.”

As for the residents of this throbbing, modern Asian city, an office employee here echoes the sentiments of many of them in saying, “I’m not on either side, but one does not have to be in order to say the truth, that this has been so embarrassing for Thailand.”

Unfortunately, PAD members seem oblivious to the implications of what they have started and promise to keep on doing if their demands are not satisfied. Still swept up in the euphoria of what to her was a victory, one PAD protester said recently: “Oh yes, I’m willing to go back and do it all over again, because I’m doing this for the good of my country.”

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