Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Thai leader faces challenges in streets and courts

International Herald Tribune

By Seth Mydans and Thomas Fuller
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

BANGKOK: Bangkok braced for another day of confrontation on Wednesday in the face of a threat of widespread strikes, and several hundred schools closed in the area near a street protest that had been the scene of violence a day earlier.

Labor unions at state enterprises said they were preparing to cut off water, electricity and telephone service to government offices. A threatened transit strike in Bangkok appeared not to have materialized, but a shutdown of much of the country's rail service continued. Thai Airways employees said they would delay some flights.

Savit Kaewvan, the head of an umbrella group representing 200,000 union members, said Wednesday that individual state enterprises would decide during the morning whether to proceed with the strikes. He said efforts would be made to avoid disruptions to the public.

Despite a state of emergency decreed for Bangkok on Tuesday by Prime Minster Samak Sundaravej, thousands of protesters seeking his resignation remained camped on the grounds of Samak's office compound, where they have been for more than a week. But the mood there was no longer festive, as people defied a ban on large gatherings following a clash with opposing protesters on Tuesday morning that killed at least one person.

Along with the defiance in the streets, the prime minister faced a challenge in the courts as the Election Commission ruled that his party had committed electoral fraud and should be dissolved. The process could take some time, but it could ultimately bring down the government.

On Tuesday, Samak called out the military to put down a running battle between supporters and opponents of the government, who attacked one another with sticks, swords, slingshots and firearms.

The soldiers soon left the streets, and more protesters joined the demonstration during the day, some arriving in expensive cars with their families. Most did not stay the night.

In issuing his emergency decree, Samak said that it was "the most gentle way to bring the country back to peace" and that it would remain in effect for only a short time. The state of emergency did not impose a curfew, but it banned gatherings of more than five people and any meetings that might disturb public order. It also barred any news reports or published materials that could "cause panic" or affect the stability of the state.

The army commander, General Anupong Paochinda, said the military would not use force, would not take sides and would not stage a coup, as it did exactly two years ago when it ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

"I can assure every person that the Thai police and military will not use force against any civilian by any means," he said at a news conference. "If the military uses force to stage a coup, it will create a lot more problems."

He added: "This is a very sensitive issue, and whatever we do, we will have to be careful not to take sides. This is a situation among people in society, two groups who do not agree."

At his own news conference, Samak sounded a plaintive note after imposing the state of emergency. "I don't understand why people think I'm the bad guy here," he said. "Why isn't anyone saying anything about the other side?"

The other side, calling itself the People's Alliance for Democracy, is a mix of the middle class and some urban and rural poor, of democrats and people who say democracy cannot work, all with a variety of agendas that share the common goal of bringing down the government. Members of the People's Alliance have held street demonstrations since May and have occupied the grounds of the prime minister's office, saying they will not leave until he resigns.

Inside the crowded and muddy grounds, among makeshift shelters and sleeping mats, Chamlong Srimuang, a former army general and governor of Bangkok who has led the protests, remained defiant. "We must fight," he said shortly after the emergency was declared. "We will be here. There are not enough prisons to detain us."

Samak has been forced to conduct business elsewhere and, according to one senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, for security reasons he regularly changes the places he sleeps.

In normal times, Government House, as the compound is known, is the seat of power in Thailand, a sort of Thai White House where the country's top officials carry out government policy.

Yet early on Tuesday, the only government presence in the immediate vicinity was the cleaning crews sweeping up the detritus — shattered bricks, broken energy-drink bottles and improvised weapons — from the overnight street battles. The police and army units that had helped break up the fighting, which occurred when pro-government vigilantes tried to dislodge the anti-government forces from the compound, had retreated and were out of sight.

"We outnumbered them," said Phisit Charoenworakitjakarn, a 36-year-old electrician who fought in the street battle on the side of the anti-government protesters.

The ruling by the Election Commission is a continuation of a long political struggle that last year saw the dissolution of Thaksin's political party.

Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, was ousted in a coup in September 2006 while in New York and spent more than a year in self-exile. He returned early this year once a friendly government was in place, and he appeared ready to contest a growing list of charges against him for corruption and abuse of power. Last month, after his wife, Pojaman, was sentenced to three years in prison in a tax evasion case, Thaksin and his wife fled to London. He is seeking political asylum on the ground that the court cases he faces are politically motivated.

Samak's critics call him a proxy for Thaksin. His party, the People Power Party, is widely considered to be a reincarnation of Thaksin's former party.

The five-member Election Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to ask the Constitutional Court to dissolve the People Power Party, based on the conviction of one of its leaders in July by the Supreme Court for vote buying during the campaign for elections last December.

One of the complaints of the anti-government protesters is the claim that Samak's party, with a large majority in Parliament, plans to amend the Constitution to save itself and to nullify the charges against Thaksin.

Newspapers here have also reported that Samak's party has prepared a shell organization that could take its place if it is dissolved, much as People Power has taken the place of Thaksin's party.

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