By Jonathan Manthorpe
Vancouver Sun February 9, 2011
The border clashes in which seven people have been killed in fighting between Cambodian and Thai troops in recent days have their roots in nearly five years of political upheaval in Thailand and uncertainty about what happens when ailing, 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies.
Thailand's politics have been in turmoil since the September 2006 bloodless coup by royalist military leaders ousted the democratically elected government of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
As the country approaches promised new elections this year, nationalist instincts have been stirred among royalists of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), known by their trademark yellow shirts.
Expression of that nationalism has focused on the 11thcentury Hindu temple on the border with Cambodia which is known as Preah Vihear in Cambodia and Khao Phra Viharn in Thailand.
Ownership of the temple was awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice. But it resurfaced as an issue in Thai politics in 2008 when Cambodia successfully lobbied for the temple to be designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO.
There have been regular skirmishes between the two militaries since then, but the latest intense fighting comes from an incident on Dec. 29 when seven Yellow Shirts, including a government party MP, walked across the disputed border.
Their aim was to shame current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who although levered into power by royalists through a tailor-made Constitutional Court ruling in 2008, has become a target of the Yellow Shirts, who believe he's abandoned the royalist counterrevolution against unbridled democracy.
Five of the seven were released immediately, but two Yellow Shirts have been sentenced to prison terms by a Cambodian court for illegal entry and spying.
Thailand remains a country where the transition to a fully operation constitutional monarchy is incomplete.
Elites expressing strong royalist sympathies continue to hold a great deal of power and have no compunction at bending the rule of law or election formalities to ensure that the social hierarchy is not disturbed.
The PAD Yellow Shirts believe the votes of the elites should count for more than those of the urban and rural poor.
This entrenched class system met its most serious challenge in 2001 with the election of billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra, the first Thai prime minister who came to office with genuine public support. Thai elections are, however, a commercial enterprise and Thaksin's personal wealth was undoubtedly a great advantage.
Thaksin's independent power base and his evident republican instincts outraged the Yellow Shirts who mounted a series of increasingly disruptive demonstrations that gave political justification for the 2006 coup.
The depth of involvement of the palace in the coup remains a matter of speculation. There has been no suggestion that King Bhumibol himself had prior knowledge, but there are credible allegations the coup was engineered by Queen Sirikit, who subsequently has publicly supported the Yellow Shirts, and the king's chief personal adviser, former prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda.
Thaksin fled into exile, though with money and webcam appearances at mass rallies he spurred a movement of supporters known by their trademark red shirts.
And when, after a year of military rule, new elections were held a party supporting Thaksin was elected to power.
In late 2008 the military and the royalists got a Constitutional Court ruling ousting the Thaksin-supporting government for election fraud. Abhisit and his pro-palace followers were installed without an election being necessary.
Outraged Red Shirts took to the streets and for days last year occupied several blocks of central Bangkok before their barricaded encampment was stormed by the military with the loss of nearly 100 lives. Since he came to the throne in June 1946, King Bhumibol has been a steadying hand on Thai politics and has on occasion intervened to prevent coups or restore harmony.
But a good deal of the current turmoil and uncertainty revolves around lack of confidence that his son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, will show the same skills when he comes to the throne.
Among the WikiLeaks documents published last year are cables from the American ambassador reporting that even senior courtiers such as chief adviser Prem are worried about the crown prince, who spends much time in Munich, Germany, with his main mistress and who has indulged in such eccentricities as appointing his dog Foo Foo as air chief marshal of the Thai Royal Air Force.