Sunday February 20, 2011
BEHIND THE HEADLINES WITH BUNN NAGARA
Mounting problems confront an embattled Thai government, as Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva continues to slide into meltdown mode.
IF there ever was a sitting government steadily painting itself into a corner, Thailand’s Democrat-led coalition is it.
Time was when it was broadly welcomed into office in late 2008, at least by Thais other than former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s followers after colourful years of sleaze and controversy. Free from the taint of corruption and unlawful violence, the new government had an opportunity to avoid several wrongs, if not also set things right.
The government itself emerged from neither an election nor a vote in the National Assembly, which Abhisit Vejjajiva had lost to Thaksin’s relative. The winning coalition led by Thaksin’s associates was then banned for election fraud, paving the way for an election by parliamentarians, a reworked coalition led by the Democrat party, and Abhisit’s premiership.
Thaksin’s supporters, broadly grouped as the Red Shirts, have since been trying to unseat Abhisit with appeals to his lack of electoral legitimacy. But a public grown weary of billionaire tycoon Thaksin’s self-centred ways gave Abhisit the benefit of the doubt, if not outright support.
Thaksin had upset royalists, broadly identified as Yellow Shirts, with his slapdash and arrogant style. The Yellows had staged massive demonstrations, including taking over both of Bangkok’s international airports.
Much of the early support for Abhisit came from popular faith in his plans to remake Thailand in a clean and accountable manner that respected human rights. If anything, his promises outnumbered his plans.
But even that would be short-lived. Allegations of corruption grew, involving certain procurement officials, although nothing on the scale of Thaksin’s exploits.
Abhisit’s promise to prosecute 21 protest leaders who had occupied the airports was not realised years into his premiership. One protest leader even became a Cabinet minister.
Thaksin’s base of support originated in the northern provinces while Abhisit’s came from a largely anti-Thaksin Bangkok and Democrat party strongholds in the south. But Abhisit and his party did hardly anything to consolidate support in those regions, much less extend that support elsewhere in the country.
Then as the Reds and Yellows took over the streets, the latter’s preference for Abhisit and the Democrats was a given. But that was also taken for granted, and it has now slipped.
Today the Yellows and Reds, despite their differences over Thaksin, share the aim of removing Abhisit from power. Once more, Abhisit has lost a key constituency determining his political future.
Apart from opposing Thaksin, the Yellow Shirts portray themselves as diehard royalists and therefore nationalists and patriots. They became critical of the Abhisit government after seeing it as soft on Cambodia in a bilateral dispute over contested territory.
A strip of land around the Preah Vihear Hindu temple near the common border is jointly claimed by both countries. The dispute has alternately raged and cooled over several years, but Bangkok has lately seen it deteriorate.
At one point, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had allied himself with an ousted Thaksin, to Thailand’s consternation. Then Hun Sen suddenly turned around and bilateral relations improved.
Again, Abhisit’s government failed to capitalise on the moment. With the latest skirmish leading up to and including the deadliest shoot-out in years, an already slippery situation has slid from bad to worse.
Hun Sen has reportedly called the incident earlier this month a “war”. But it takes two to tangle, with both sides claiming that the other started shooting first.
Seven Thais had ventured into the disputed territory and were promptly arrested and jailed by the Cambodians. Five have been released, with the remaining two sentenced to a total of 14 years between them. They then sought a pardon from the Cambodian king through their lawyer, but their Thai Patriots Network NGO rejected that option. Now Hun Sen has said they would not be eligible for a pardon before serving at least two-thirds of their sentence.
Cambodia wants the UN to settle matters, but Thailand wants bilateral negotiations instead. Besides the dispute over territory, there is also disagreement over how the dispute should be solved.
Sceptical Thais note that when people have already died as a result, it is improbable – or beyond the capacity of Abhisit’s government at least – to negotiate satisfactorily without an international mediator. Meanwhile, Abhisit has won no international plaudits for reportedly offending Hun Sen and accusing France, India and Russia of bias.
Several countries in Asean have also signalled a willingness to help in negotiations, while Abhisit and Hun Sen seem intent on outdoing one another in stubbornness. It takes two to tango as well.
Military officials from both sides held a secret meeting yesterday morning, but little has come of that. Hun Sen has instead massed 1,600 of his most loyal troops at a vantage point near the disputed area.
In Bangkok, deadly Red Shirt protests reached their height last year at the busy Rajprasong intersection, striking at the heart of Thailand’s business district. Yesterday, the Reds gathered again at Rajprasong, forcing the closure of roads to traffic, albeit at a lesser strength than before.
The Reds have now found a new angle in attacking Abhisit’s legitimacy – that the British-born premier has British citizenship, and is therefore ineligible to be prime minister. They claim to have “solid evidence” of that.
With Thaksin in self-exile abroad and his associates in Thailand sidelined, it is Abhisit and his government that occupy centre stage. This stage has now become a common target of both Reds and Yellows.
The moment they realise their common goal of removing Abhisit can be achieved if they joined forces, they would do so in what could be an unstoppable wave – regardless of whether rumours of a coup prove true.