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"Land of Smiles" Mutates Into a Painful Grimace

Thailand's "Land of Smiles" Mutates Into a Painful Grimace


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Bloody political street fighting, and ominous demands for another military coup, have split this usually mellow Buddhist country, mutating its "Land of Smiles" logo into a painful grimace.

"People say Thailand is divided now like the Ayutthaya time, when everyone was fighting with each other, so Thailand became weak and Burma attacked us," said one worried financial executive.

She was referring to 1767, when Thailand's previous capital was destroyed, forcing the king to rebuild further down the meandering Chao Phraya river at present-day Bangkok, closer to the Gulf of Thailand.

"I see [the answer in] a putsch," said former deputy prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh in an interview published on Friday (October 10).

"After the military steps in, power should immediately be returned to the people, and an interim government can be formed in which every party takes part," Chavalit, an influential retired general, told the Bangkok Post newspaper.

While most people in this capitalist, U.S. military ally are calm -- struggling through a worldwide financial meltdown -- the old heart of Bangkok remains a flashpoint.

Amid mildewing "shop-houses" where families live and work in the same narrow dwellings, and alongside opulent peaked roofs of Buddhist temples, stupas, pavilions and shrines, sections of downtown are now infamous for what Thai media has dubbed, "Black October" after blood splattered the streets on Tuesday (October 7).

The clashes between demonstrators and police resulted in two dead protestors and 400 injured, including several who underwent amputations.

Afterwards, a new level of hatred was exposed when scores of anti- government doctors at prestigious Chulalongkorn University's faculty of medicine in Bangkok, and in northern Chiang Mai, refused to give medical treatment to any police who arrived wearing a uniform.

Thai Airways International pilot Jakri Pongsiri refused to allow three Members of Parliament from the ruling government to board his plane, because the pilot despised their People Power Party.

Thailand's worsening split began in 2005 after a majority of mostly rural voters re-elected Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister, because they enjoyed his populist policies of cheap health care and easy credit.

Angered about their taxes being spent upcountry to entrench Thaksin, Bangkok's elite staged demonstrations in 2006 after Thaksin allegedly dodged paying his family's tax on 1.8 billion U.S. dollars in profit from a telecommunications deal.

That anger paved the way for a bloodless military coup in September 2006.

In December, the junta grew confident that voters would not elect anyone associated with Thaksin, who was charged with massive corruption.

Thaksin and his wife, Pojaman, are currently international fugitives, sheltering in England to avoid Thai arrest warrants.

When the military allowed a nationwide poll on Dec. 23, rural voters enabled Thaksin's ally, Samak Sundaravej, to become prime minister.

Suffering a fresh wave of anti-Thaksin street protests, Samak was forced to resign on Sept. 9 for receiving conflict-of-interest payments from a televised cooking show.

Somchai Wongsawat, 61, became prime minister on Sept. 17, but the protests continued because he is a brother-in-law of Thaksin.

Somchai was unable to rule from the prime minister's ornate offices in Government House, because thousands of demonstrators surrounded it, a stranglehold they tightened in August against Samak.

To avoid confrontation, Somchai moved his offices to the VIP rooms of Bangkok's domestic airport.

The protestors enjoy plenty of money and perks, allowing their sense of immunity.

They express support for the monarchy, military, and nationalist slogans, though their leaders have appeared as opportunists using a simplistic class war agenda to safeguard Bangkok's elite.

Wrapped in a deceptively-titled People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) banner, they openly demanded destruction of one-man, one-vote democracy.

They floated a "New Politics" in which 70 percent of Thailand's leaders would be appointed, with only 30 percent elected.

"The 70 percent, 30 percent, is only a model," PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul later said in a published interview.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know exactly the details of New Politics," the heavily criticized Sondhi said.

Sondhi is a telecommunications and media tycoon, who reportedly fell out of favor when Thaksin became prime minister.

"None of them could explain to me how they could put the New Politics into action without a coup," Gen. Panlop Pinmanee, a former deputy chief of the powerful Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), said after meeting PAD leaders.

The PAD insist Thailand's mostly rural population are too ignorant and corrupt to be allowed to vote, because previous elections overwhelmingly endorsed Thaksin and Samak.

New moves to resolve the crisis on Friday (October 10) included dropping charges of treason against the PAD's nine leaders, though they still face trials for lesser charges which could include jail time.

But the PAD vowed to stage street protests on Monday (October 13) against police for their role in the bloodshed.

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

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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