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Thailand is searching for acceptable government

By Nehginpao Kipgen (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2010-04-12 10:47
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Thailand is a country whose economy significantly depends on its tourism industry, generating an estimated amount of 547,782 million Thai baht in 2007. It contributed to approximately 6.7% of its Gross Domestic Product. The World Tourism rankings put it at the 18th world’s most visited country with 14.5 million visitors in that year.

This tourism-thriving nation has been plagued by waves of a wavering democracy because of its political instability, which at times has interrupted the basic functioning of government machineries, and therefore entailed military’s interventions. The military has staged 18 successful coups since 1932, when a group of civilians and military officers overthrew the last absolute monarch.

The ongoing political unrest started when former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was removed from office. Thaksin was attending the United Nations meeting in New York when the military staged a coup in September 2006 on charges of corruption and abuse of power. His supporters, mostly from the poor rural areas and working class electorates, accused the country urban elites for orchestrating the coup.

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Thaksin’s policies such as cheap healthcare and village loans were popular in the rural areas. He was, however, accused by his political rivals as disrespecting the country’s monarch, who is highly revered in the country.

The latest round of clashes between protesters and the government soldiers, which according to the Associated Press report on April 11, has resulted in 21 deaths (4 soldiers and 17 civilians) and about 874 people injured.

This violence is the worst in nearly 20 years since 1992 when four dozen people were killed in antimilitary protest. The protesters, who are popularly known as Red Shirts, are sympathizers and supporters of the deposed Prime Minister, Thaksin.

Though Thaksin has been convicted to live in exile, attempts to reconnect with his supporters have never ceased. In 2007, Thaksin’s allies won the parliament elections, but the court intervened to disqualify two subsequent governments on charges of conflict of interest and vote buying.

The fundamental demand of the protesters is to dissolve the parliament within 15 days and hold new election. Instead, the Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, offered to do so by the end of the year. With the escalation of tensions, the protesters have demanded that the prime minister resigns and leaves the country. To the protesters, the current government is illegitimate as it does not reflect the result of last election held in 2007.

Abhisit took office in December 2008 after garnering majority votes in the parliament to form government. The present conflict is a result of simmering tensions between Red Shirts of Thaksin’s supporters and Yellow Shirts who had vehemently opposed the premiership of Thaksin and his allies.

In one of its most effective non-violent movements, the Yellow Shirts’ protesters in 2008 forced to shut down Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports and brought the country’s tourism industry to virtually a standstill. It successfully forced out Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, who the protesters accused of acting as the puppet for former Prime Minister Thaksin.

Political instability in Thailand has not only crippled its national economy, but brings embarrassment to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc. The 14th ASEAN summit held in Thailand was disrupted by pro-Thaksin protesters last year.

Because of the continued protest, Prime Minister Abhisit had to declare national state of emergency and cancelled his plan to participate at the 16th ASEAN annual summit, held in Vietnam, last week.

It is uncertain as to how long Abhisit’s government will survive and if the military will stage another coup, but one thing is unambiguous - the confrontation between the country’s urban elites and the rural poor community will continue to linger.

Even if Abhisit is forced to relinquish power and the parliament is dissolved, it is likely that the Yellow Shirts movement may again emerge at some point down the road, unless the opposing groups come up with a mutually acceptable political solution.

The escalation of violence in Thailand has also temporarily shifted the international community’s attention on the conflicts in neighboring Burma, which stemmed from the recent announcement of the military junta’s imbalanced electoral laws.

The conflict in Thailand is somewhat peculiar in nature. It is not a fight to restore a civilian rule or democracy. It is rather a struggle in search of acceptable government that can bridge the gap between urban elites and the rural working class, by catering the needs of both populations.

The author is political analyst and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Asia that have been widely published in five continents (Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America).