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Richard Ehrlich: Election Aftermath In Thailand

Election Aftermath In Thailand


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Despite an opposition boycott of Sunday's (April 2) nationwide poll, Thailand's billionaire prime minister expects to be re-elected but then suffer insults, allegations and condemnation by thousands of protesters determined to cripple his government and snarl Bangkok's streets.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra hoped this Southeast Asian nation's rural and urban poor would help re-elect his welfare-friendly Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") party, which thrust him to power in 2001 and endorsed him in February 2005 with 19 million votes.

Clean-shaven Thaksin has been portrayed as Adolf Hitler by his enemies in speeches, published commentary, and huge posters caricaturing him with a swastika on his forehead and a black moustache -- prompting a public complaint by Israel's embassy.

After the election, Thaksin may unleash lawsuits against his critics, whose speeches mixed legitimate issues with rants and unproven allegations.

The boycott by opposition candidates could deprive Parliament of its necessary 500 members, because the three biggest opposition parties told Thais to vote "no" instead of avoiding the polls.

If a Thaksin candidate does not get at least 20 percent of the vote in a constituency, that Parliament seat remains vacant, and fresh polling must be held.

The opposition hopes "no" votes will poke enough holes in Parliament to force a constitutional crisis blocking Thaksin's return.

Some opposition leaders hope the king will then appoint a different prime minister.

But the constitutional monarch has intervened in the prime ministry only after political bloodshed.

Recent protests in Bangkok by tens of thousands of people have been peaceful, prompting some political analysts to insist King Bhumibol Adulyadej can not be used by Thaksin's enemies.

The opposition is already grappling with criticism over its "anti-democratic" boycott and refusal to kneel to majority rule.

"I must admit that I feel sorry about not running for re-election, because I fought so hard in the 2005 election to win this seat, and only had a year to serve my constituents," opposition Chart Thai politician Rattakit Paleepat told a reporter on Thursday (March 30).

Before the election, Thaksin's party held a whopping 375 of Parliament's 500 seats, provoking fear among his critics that he could not be defeated at the ballot box.

Thailand's recently emboldened English language newspapers, meanwhile, have plastered their pages with anti-Thaksin stories, rhetoric and vitriol.

"Fuck Thaksin," read graffiti displayed in a front-page photo in the respected Bangkok Post on March 23.

That hand-written demand appeared on one of the big, mass-produced "Wanted Dead or Alive" posters waved by protesters to needle Thaksin -- a close ally of U.S. President George W. Bush and a former police officer who received a PhD in Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

The popular poster's "reward" is 73 billion baht (1.8 billion U.S. dollars), the amount Thaksin's family pocketed, tax-free, by selling their Shin Corp. telecommunications empire on February 24 to the Singapore government's investment wing, Temasek Holdings.

The sale attracted allegations that Thaksin manipulated tax loopholes to enrich himself, sparking weeks of street demonstrations demanding his immediate resignation.

Thaksin insisted he and his family did nothing illegal, and that other Thai investors also use tax laws to maximize profits.

Most of the sale's profit went to Thaksin's family, especially his son and daughter. Earlier, when Thaksin became prime minister, he transferred many assets to them, and to household servants and staff.

Disgraced former Major-General Chamlong Srimuang, a main leader of the street protests, used his fringe Buddhist "Dharma Army" cult, including children, to rally people against Thaksin.

During the CIA's so-called "secret war" in Laos, which it lost in 1975, "Chamlong worked hand-in-hand with American soldiers operating secretly in the area" alongside Thai forces "guarding a remote U.S. radar site in northern Laos," and gained "his first real combat experience" against communist Pathet Lao, according to Asia's Ramon Magsaysay institute which hailed him in 1992 for government service.

Chamlong and a coup-installed military dictator were reprimanded on nationwide TV in 1992 by Thailand's revered king, after Chamlong led a pro-democracy march in Bangkok to confront the military, which then shot dead more than 50 civilians.

Thanks to Chamlong's previous campaigns, abortion is virtually illegal in Thailand -- resulting in thousands of desperate mothers dumping unwanted babies at orphanages.

Chamlong portrays himself as married but celibate.

Earlier this year, Chamlong led puritans in an anti-alcohol march to stop a liquor company being listed on Thailand's stock exchange.

Anti-Thaksin protesters include mostly Bangkok's middle class, academics, critics of the current Thai-U.S. Free Trade Agreement negotiations, idealists, students and the urban elite.

They have vowed to stage more street protests next Friday (April 7).

*************

Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 27 years, and co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

-ENDS-

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