Analysis: Déjà vu with a difference as Thai PM faces down protesters

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 29, 2013 2:23 AM
Analysis: Déjà vu with a difference as Thai PM faces down protesters

By Andrew R.C. Marshall

BANGKOK (Reuters) - The French have the best phrase for Thailand's turbulent politics: déjà vu.

Five years ago, a Thai government led by Somchai Wongsawat, the brother-in-law of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was besieged by ultra royalist street protesters bent on overthrowing what they saw as a corrupt and illegitimate regime.

Today, another Thaksin relative, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, is prime minister, and Bangkok's streets are again overrun by thousands of Thais proclaiming their hatred of Thaksin and their love for the long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

But déjà vu has its limits. The hapless Somchai spent less than three months in office. But Yingluck, while facing the biggest threat yet to her administration, is proving much harder to dislodge.

The campaign against Yingluck began in earnest after her ruling Puea Thai Party tried to pass an amnesty bill that critics said would have nullified the graft conviction of her billionaire brother Thaksin, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup.

At least 100,000 people gathered in old Bangkok on Sunday to demand Yingluck's overthrow. Tens of thousands have since fanned out across the capital, occupying the Finance Ministry and laying siege to other ministries and government offices. Thousands more have massed at city halls in dozens of provinces.

On Thursday, protesters cut power to the national police headquarters in Bangkok in a tense stand-off that seemed designed to provoke a heavy-handed response from Yingluck.

So far, however, she has not obliged. With the number of protesters apparently dwindling, she easily survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on Thursday, before appealing to protesters to halt their action and enter talks with the government.

Suthep Thaungsuban, the firebrand politician who resigned from the opposition Democrat Party to lead the protests, has rejected talks and vowed to continue his campaign to "uproot Thaksinism".

But his hardline tactics could be alienating moderate supporters, while his quirky political vision perplexes even his natural allies in the Democrat Party. Suthep's idea for a "people's parliament" to replace Yingluck's administration, for example, was rejected by Korn Chatikavanij, a senior Democrat member and former finance minister.

"I have no idea what Suthep means by a 'people's parliament'," Korn told Reuters. "We think the best way to find a solution to all of this is for the government to resign and dissolve parliament."

Yingluck says she will not dissolve parliament and call a snap election. While she appeared fraught at the end of the two-day confidence debate, the former business executive has since regained her trademark composure and seems determined to outlast the protests.

"LIMITED INTERVENTION"

Yingluck's confidence could derive in part from assiduously cultivated relations with the monarchy and the military, which, along with the courts, have intervened to break past political deadlocks. The military has staged at least 18 coups in modern times, not all of them successful.

"If there is no other choice, if we can't do this peacefully, I welcome military intervention," said retired farmer Satien Piankird, 65, one of thousands of protesters outside a government complex in northern Bangkok.

In 2008, Thailand's top brass made little attempt to stay out of politics. "If I were prime minister, I would have resigned," army chief Anupong Paochinda publicly declared in the wake of violent clashes between police and protesters in October that year.

Two years later, troops launched a bloody crackdown on red-shirted Thaksin loyalists across Bangkok in which scores of people were killed.

This year, however, the military has remained aloof and shown no sign of wanting to leave barracks, even after 1,000 protesters broke into its Bangkok headquarters on Friday.

"The army wishes all sides to solve the problem with the country's best interests in mind," said deputy army spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree.

The military might act if there is bloodshed between protesters and police, or if protesters cause widespread damage to property, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

"But it would be a limited intervention," he says. "The military would be dealing with a specific (security) issue rather coming out to side with anti-government forces to overthrow the Yingluck government."

ROYAL RELATIONS

Retired farmer Satien and other protesters have called for King Bhumibol to appoint an interim government to replace Yingluck's.

But the aging and widely revered monarch has not commented on the current unrest. He is at his seaside palace in Hua Hin, about 190 km (118 miles) south of Bangkok, after a long spell in hospital in the capital.

His son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, expressed concern on Sunday about the political unrest and urged people to settle their differences peacefully. The appeal was issued through Bangkok police chief Kamronwit Thoopkrachang, a staunch Thaksin ally.

Yingluck has also been careful to maintain relations with the palace. In a highly symbolic meeting in August, Yingluck visited the Bangkok residence of retired General Prem Tinsulanonda on his 94th birthday.

Prem, the president of the king's Privy Council, is accused by many Thaksin loyalists of masterminding the 2006 coup.

Afterwards Prem urged the armed forces to support Yingluck.

The Democrats are regarded as the royalist party, but Yingluck's Puea Thai Party has strived "to create the image as a protector of the palace", said David Streckfuss, an independent scholar of Thailand.

It has done this by "aggressively" pursuing those deemed to have insulted the monarchy under strict lese majeste laws.

More likely than a royal or military intervention is a legal challenge. Past decisions by Thailand's courts have ended the rule of two Thaksin-backed prime ministers and dissolved two previous incarnations of the Puea Thai Party.

On November 20, the Constitutional Court ruled that government efforts to amend the constitution were illegal but stopped short of dissolving Puea Thai.

But Yingluck and her party still face a threat from Thailand's usually slow-moving National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).

It is considering a petition from protesters to investigate 312 MPs and senators for backing a constitutional amendment that would have changed the make-up of the Senate.

The Constitutional Court said on November 20 that government plans to change the constitution were illegal, paving the way for the NACC to suspend 312 politicians and eviscerate Puea Thai. Some observers expect a decision after the king's birthday celebrations on December 5.

But any NACC decision to disband Yingluck's party could spark a confrontation with pro-Thaksin red shirts, tens of thousands of whom are gathering at a stadium in eastern Bangkok.

Despite such support, and her commanding majority in parliament, the protests represent a "real threat" to her government, says scholar Pavin.

"To say that Yingluck is confident is a little bit surreal," he says.

(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Pairat Temphairojana. Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel)