Aug 26th 2008 | KUALA LUMPUR
WHEN Thailand’s controversial former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, fled to Britain this month with his wife, Potjaman, to escape corruption cases against them, some Thais hoped that this would bring down the temperature of the country’s three-year political conflict. But an anti-Thaksin street-protest movement, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), insisted that it would not give up until it forced the resignation of the pro-Thaksin government, led by the prime minister, Samak Sundaravej. On Tuesday August 26th tens of thousands of PAD supporters stormed government buildings and a state television station in Bangkok, in what the group’s leader, Sondhi Limthongkul, billed as “judgment day”.
As night fell in Bangkok the protesters were still surrounding Government House. Mr Samak gave a warning that his patience with them was almost exhausted. But they ignored his demand that they get out of the government compound. The police said they would be seeking a court order on Wednesday to let them remove the protesters. Mr Sondhi, with his usual bravado, said they would have to kill him first.
What happens next is hard to predict. Mr Sondhi has said things like this before only for the protests to fizzle. Likewise, Mr Samak has talked of using force to end demonstrations, only to back down. But if the police do use force there is a danger of bloodshed. This may be the PAD leaders’ intention, so as to provoke the army into staging another coup, like the one in 2006 that removed Mr Thaksin.
The army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, insisted on Tuesday that his troops would leave the matter to the police. But the army has historically had a low tolerance for public disorder and sees itself as having a duty to intervene in such situations, regardless of whether this means removing an elected government. Two years ago General Anupong’s predecessor, Sonthi Boonyaratglin, had kept repeating that there would be no coup right up until the evening that he put tanks on the streets to remove Mr Thaksin’s government.
Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was disbanded in May 2007 but regrouped under the banner of the People’s Power Party (PPP). In December last year, after 15 months of inept and increasingly unpopular military government, the PPP won by far the most seats in a general election, since when it has governed in coalition. Rural Thais, in particular, expressed their continued appreciation to Mr Thaksin’s party for being the first in Thai history to deliver policies that met their needs, such as cheap health care and credit. This inclined them to overlook the strong whiff of corruption that surrounded the Thaksin government, and its abuses of power, most notably a 2003 “war on drugs” in which the police were suspected of thousands of extra-judicial killings.
Mr Samak is so far determined to resist the pressure and stay in office. He has sought to build bridges with the army and the royalist Bangkok establishment. He recently appointed as foreign minister Tej Bunnag, a palace adviser seen as especially close to King Bhumibol. The PAD gets its supporters to dress in yellow, the king’s colour, and claims to be saving Thailand and the monarchy from the Thaksinites’ supposed republicanism—though no credible evidence of this has surfaced. Some of its supporters are genuine liberals, angry at the Thaksin government’s abuses and at the signs Mr Samak and his cabinet are turning out to be little better. But the movement’s leaders are deeply reactionary: the “new politics” that they have been preaching is in fact a return to old, pre-democracy politics with a mostly unelected parliament and powers for the army to intervene when it feels like it.
With not much sign of compromise so far, there is not only the risk of bloody clashes between the PAD and the police, there is also the danger that Mr Thaksin’s supporters will hit the streets to attack his opponents. There was a foretaste of this in late July when Thaksin fans armed with clubs and axes attacked a demonstration by his opponents in the north-eastern city of Udon Thani, injuring around a dozen. Unsurprisingly, Thailand’s stockmarket and currency have wilted in the heat of a conflict that shows no sign of ending.