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Unstable Thailand Prepares For Fresh Confrontation

Unstable Thailand Prepares For A Fresh Confrontation

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's crippled government is struggling to find a new prime minister and prevent a return of protesters who easily sabotaged Bangkok's airports, stranding more than 300,000 travelers.

All sides are preparing for a fresh confrontation.

Whoever becomes Thailand's next prime minister will lead yet another vulnerable coalition in this Buddhist-majority country, which is a U.S. military ally in the heart of Southeast Asia.

Rival politicians agreed to present King Bhumibol Adulyadej a peaceful 81st birthday on Friday (December 5), before announcing their next moves.

The king, under the constitution, is "enthroned in a position of revered worship" and strongly influences this hierarchic society.

The monarch saddened many Thais on Thursday (December 4) when he became sick with bronchitis and did not give an expected speech, which could have offered some direction through the current crisis.

Bangkok's airport drama ended on Wednesday after the Constitutional Court announced on Tuesday that three political parties -- including the ruling People Power Party (PPP) -- committed electoral fraud in 2007.

The decision forced Somchai Wongsawat to step down from the prime ministry and defense ministry.

It barred him and other executives from politics for the next five years.

Many untouched politicians from Mr. Somchai's dissolved PPP, and their allies, are now forming a new Puea Thai Party, or Party For Thais.

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Politicians from various parties are crudely swapping allegiances in a murky bid to survive, by joining the Puea Thai Party or holding out for a better deal.

The Puea Thai Party hopes to reincarnate most of the PPP, and dominate a fresh coalition with a new prime minister, to be elected by their majority in Parliament possibly on December 8.

Deputy Prime Minister Chaowarat Chandeerakul currently serves as Thailand's caretaker leader.

The next prime minister may be able to continue the rough, populist policies of Thaksin Shinawatra, who ruled as prime minister for five years until September 2006, when a bloodless military coup toppled him.

The anti-government protesters, who occupied the airports for eight days, warned they would unleash another insurrection somewhere in Bangkok if Thailand's next leader is a loyalist of Mr. Thaksin.

That was why they opposed Mr. Somchai, who is married Mr. Thaksin's sister.

The two ousted prime ministers were close allies, and so was Mr. Somchai's predecessor, former prime minister Samak Sundaravej.

The same Constitutional Court dismissed Mr. Samak in December for a conflict of interest, linked to a televised cooking show.

Mr. Samak also suffered the protesters' wrath, and is currently in America for medical care.

The protesters do not want any cronies linked to Mr. Thaksin running this country because Mr. Thaksin and his wife, Pojaman, are international fugitives.

The recently divorced billionaire couple were convicted for wrongfully buying government land, and sentenced to two years imprisonment.

But if a nationwide poll were held today, Mr. Thaksin and his allies would probably win.

He courted Thailand's majority poor with cheap health care, easy loans, and other "grass roots" policies despite running a monopolistic, repressive administration which was allegedly massively corrupt.

Mr. Thaksin's popular "war on drugs" left more than 2,000 people dead, with virtually no one held accountable for the slayings, prompting human rights organizations to demand an investigation.

More than 300,000 stranded travelers were meanwhile delighted that Bangkok's airport siege ended on Wednesday, and a trickle of airlines began to schedule more departures and arrivals.

Lengthy waiting lists however meant many passengers, here and abroad, still experienced expensive delays.

Airport officials were scouring Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport, and domestic Don Muang airport, for possible booby traps, computer problems, security breaches, and physical damage amid hopes the two airports could be fully functional in 10 days or so.

Officials demanded to know why the airport's passive security officials did nothing to prevent both airports from being seized by loud, club-carrying protesters, without a shot fired.

The mob and its leaders should be prosecuted for "terrorism" and other crimes, officials said.

"The airports deserve to be well guarded at all times," a Bangkok Post editorial warned on Thursday. "The siege cannot be allowed to be repeated."

Much of Thailand's now-globalized squabble is a reverse class struggle created by Bangkok's pampered minority of royalist "yellow shirts".

They are led by a right-wing wealthy elite, and supported by an extremely politicized military, and some of Bangkok's middle class.

The intolerant yellow shirts want to end Thailand's one-man one- vote democracy, and have most politicians appointed.

They deceptively call themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

The PAD insist Thailand's majority rural poor should not be allowed to enjoy equal voting rights because they are too ignorant and easily bribed.

The PAD's evidence of this is Thailand's three previous elections, which the PAD's preferred candidates could not win.

The other side is symbolized by a much larger majority of "red shirts" from the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship.

They are favored by Thailand's impoverished farmers and others in the countryside, alongside urban blue-collar workers, plus an increasing number Thais who recently defected from the yellow shirts in disgust at the economic devastation caused by airport shutdowns.

Some officials estimate Thailand lost 500 million U.S. dollars during the protest, and will face increased unemployment and less investments.

"The tourism industry has already collapsed," said Maiyarat Pheerayakoses, president of the Association of Domestic Travel.

The red shirts idolize Mr. Thaksin, and want to legalize his situation, so he can return as prime minister.

Many people worry that Thailand's polarization may soon result in the yellow shirts again blockading Bangkok's airports, or other strategic targets in the capital, further paralyzing this dysfunctional but modernizing, capitalist country.

"The political conflicting situation of the country has shown no sign that it will cease, or recover, but on the contrary to increase with greater violence," said a joint statement by the Board of Trade of Thailand, the Federation of Thai Industries, and the Thai Bankers' Association.


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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