This post is the latest in a series from our Bangkok correspondent, H. Numan. Recent events in Thailand have been eclipsed by the carnage in Mumbai, but the crisis at the Bangkok airports has not yet been resolved.
The Land of Smiles Doesn’t Smile
by H. Numan
Let’s start at the beginning of the problems, and that was when Thaksin Shinawatra was elected Prime Minister. Thaksin was the richest man in Thailand. He made his fortune in telecommunications; all mobile networks in Thailand are his. Imagine Bill Gates getting interested in politics, and he buys a party. Now, in the US you have only two parties. In most other countries you have a whole bunch of them. So first he bought a party, and told the MS public relations and marketing department: promote the party, and do it well. Money is not an issue.
Very soon this small party (TRT, Thai Rak Thai = Thais love Thailand party) incorporated other parties won the elections by a landslide. For the first time one party had the absolute majority in parliament. +75% is pretty decisive.
Let’s be fair: Thaksin did a very good job. Thailand was bankrupt after the economic crash of 1997, and he made the country solvent in record time. The IMF loan was paid back before it was due. But he didn’t do it for free. Corruption is rampant in Thailand, but the level reached under Thaksin was unheard of.
Thaksin never liked the press. The feelings were mutual: the press didn’t like Thaksin very much. It became quite nasty when Thaksin started to use lèse majesté laws to get rid of his opponents and members of the press he didn’t like. Thailand has the toughest lèse majesté laws on the planet. The maximum penalty is 20 years in prison and/or a draconian fine. The principle Thaksin applied was that he is the representative of the king, and thus anyone insulting him is actually insulting the king. The king even had to personally intervene.
Matters became impossible when Thaksin sold his business Shinawatra Telecom to Thailand’s biggest competitor in business, Singapore. To top it off, Thaksin boasted he didn’t have to pay a cent in tax over it, due to a loophole in the law. That finished him off. Massive demonstrations asked for his resignation, and on 19 September 2006 the military carried out a coup d’état and kicked Thaksin out. The coup was committed with wide popular support and no bloodshed. In 2007 the military handed power back to the civilian authorities after elections.
The party that won the elections was the PPP, People’s Power party, actually the TRT under a different name after disbanding (Right after the coup the TRT was disbanded by court order). That didn’t sit very well with middle-class Bangkokians. The old proverb here says that governments get elected in the countryside, but get kicked out in Bangkok. The new Prime Minister was Samak Sundaravej, an old politician of the old-boys network. Not exactly a popular man. He was widely seen as a sock-puppet of Thaksin, preparing the return of his master.
The unrest that started under Thaksin reemerged once more. People marched on the streets demanding his resignation. Samak wasn’t impressed. He called in the army and declared martial law. Only it didn’t work. The army bluntly refused to act. Then something happened: completely unexpectedly, he was kicked out of office. What had happened? Samak likes to cook. He was invited to present two cooking shows on a commercial network and got paid $2500 for his performance. A senator went to court, and the court fired the Prime Minister for moonlighting!
Problem solved, one would say. Not so. The new Prime Minister is … the brother in law of Mr. Thaksin himself. That was replacing one problem with an even bigger problem. Samak could at least pretend (he didn’t, but he could) not to be working for Thaksin. Somchai Wongsawat, the new Prime Minister, cannot.
The popular movement that caused Thaksin to be kicked out of office is the PAD, the People Alliance for Democracy. After the coup they faded away somewhat, but never disappeared. It was, and now certainly is a important political force. The PAD is mainly middle class — middle aged Bangkok business man and women. Their color is yellow. When the PAD is holding a rally, everybody wears yellow shirts. From the moment Samak Sundaravej took office they worked very hard to have him removed.
This is the background of today’s events.
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After Somchai Wongsawat took office on 18 September, he had to flee Parliament Building through the back door on 7 October because the PAD laid siege to it. This siege continues until this day. The government moved their location temporarily to Don Muang Airport, the old airport. Last Tuesday the PAD moved in, and laid siege to it as well. The Prime Minister was out of the country, in Peru. He was expected to return through Don Muang Airport on Tuesday evening.
The next day both Don Muang and Suvarnabhumi Airports were stormed and completely taken over by the PAD. Nobody got hurt (as far as I know, that is), and travelers were not molested or harmed in any way. They just couldn’t leave the country anymore. This situation continues until today. Both airports are occupied by PAD demonstrators. The police doesn’t react. The army refuses to have anything to do with it. At best, they suggest that the Prime Minister offer the resignation of the cabinet and call for elections. A court order to leave the airport was ignored by the PAD.
It’s even more complicated: Thaksin and his wife were convicted in absentia for fraud. His wife was sentenced to two years in jail. Thaksin’s trial is pending, but it is not likely he will walk free. The couple fled to England and asked for political asylum. This request was denied. Thaksin then traveled to China. (His ancestors are of Chinese origin.) But everywhere he goes he is accepted at best on a tourist visa. A short-term tourist visa. He is not welcome in any Asian country, unless as a tourist. Currently he is staying in Dubai.
But Thaksin had several big rallies organized by the opposing PPP party. He can’t be present in person, but addressed the audience by telephone. His message: I will return! Let me come back home, and I’ll set everything straight within no time.
Given his past performance, he no doubt will. But who is willing to pay the price? Not that many, it seems. No, I’m wrong. Thaksin has lots of support from poor rural areas. That is a problem for the PAD, which is based in Bangkok and does not have that much support outside the city. In a new election the PAD would win massively in Bangkok, but nowhere else. Again the PPP would win a landslide victory. This is not acceptable for the PAD. Allowing the return of Thaksin would make Thailand look even more foolish than it looks right now. Thaksin may call for it, his voters may hope for it; but I seriously doubt if this option is possible.
Right now the PAD holds the government by the jugular. At least 100,000 tourists are stranded in Bangkok. Suvarnabhumi Airport is the main regional hub. So, shutting down both airports creates gigantic problems for the country and even internationally: Thai International Airways is practically shut down. International flights have been canceled, and the effects are widespread: lots of airlines use Bangkok as stopover for refueling.
The tourist industry is the second most important industry in Thailand. The siege of the airports causes immense damage nationwide. Especially since December is the peak month for tourism. Lots of tourists can’t come in, others can’t leave.
Which of course says a lot about the authority of the present cabinet: they weren’t able to prevent the takeover of the Parliament Building, nor the takeover of both airports. Suvarnabuhmi Airport is occupied by about 4000 demonstrators. Not a big job for the police to disperse them.
When the Prime Minister returned from Lima he appeared on TV addressing the general public. But he didn’t do well. He looked haggard (not really surprising, given the stress he is under) and his speech was seen as pathetic. He stressed the importance of his trip to Lima in Peru: he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Pink Llama (or something like that). That the government did really well: pollution levels are at least a full micron less under his administration! As if people really care about his decoration or pollution at this moment. During an earlier meeting with foreign ambassadors he was asked — in diplomatic terms of course — if he was mentally insane or somewhat retarded.
What will happen now is anyone’s guess. Mine is as follows: the occupation of both airports cannot go on much longer. If it continues for another week the country goes bankrupt. Therefore, something must happen before that. I expect the government to resign early next week.
As the Prime Minister cannot call for support from the Army, he is trying right now to rally some Navy and Air force units to take action. It is questionable whether that will work. Next week, on 5 December, is the king’s birthday. I expect him to call all parties to the palace and tell them to stop. This has happened before.
Even though the government doesn’t want to resign, and technically doesn’t have to, I fail to see what other option they have. From a practical point of view: if the government resigns now, they would win the elections. If they try to hold on power it is not unlikely that the PAD will be able to make changes in the electoral system so that having a enormous vote reservoir upcountry won’t work. That is why I think the government will resign sometime early next week.
The armed forces will swear loyalty on 2 December to the King; they do that annually. From the annual parade on the second of December until after the king’s birthday on the fifth, political business usually halts. Monday, therefore, would be a perfect day to offer the resignation of the government.
Be aware that the PAD mainly consists of well-educated middle-aged businessmen and women. Of course there are some younger people amongst them, but definitely not the hooligan or Trotskyite scum you see in demonstrations in America and Europe. So far nobody got hurt. Not a lot, anyway. Which really is a kind of miracle: several times opponents of the PAD have thrown hand grenades.
The PPP action force is mainly recruited from poor rural areas, people without much education. They don’t expect to gain anything from the PAD, but in the past Thaksin was very generous to them. He could afford it, as he simply used tax money to present them with little gifts.
Tourists are not in any danger at all. They never have been. You may have seen violent action during the storming of the airport, but that was only for a few seconds. Generally, the PAD behaves very well towards foreigners. The only problem tourists have is how to get in or out of the country.
This was Bangkok reporting,