Thailand: Security Concerns and the ASEAN Summit

3 MINS READApr 10, 2009 | 15:05 GMT
Demonstrators pushed through a police and military barricade surrounding an upscale hotel on April 10 in Pattaya Thailand where leaders are staying for the upcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. Ironically, the tactic of massive protests that helped bring Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva into power is now giving his own government trouble. While the government remains stable, the protesters' interference with the ASEAN summit has embarrassed the country and raised questions about the Thai government's ability to maintain law and order.
Protesters in Thailand broke through the light police cordon surrounding a luxury hotel in Pattaya, Thailand on April 10, where government leaders from 15 countries gathered for a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the weekend. Thailand's domestic politics are always topsy-turvy, but the current bout of unrest is more significant because it has raised security concerns for some of the world's most powerful leaders. The troubles in Thailand began with a coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 — since then the country has been split in two. Thaksin is wanted for corruption charges in Thailand and currently in exile, possibly in Cambodia (but seems to be based in Dubai), but he continues to pull many strings within the country, hoping to unfreeze his assets in Thai banks. Though his power is waning, he is evidently still capable of raising massive rallies through the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), also known as the Red Shirts. 2008 was a year of wide scale protests by the yellow-wearing royalist group, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), culminating in a siege of the international airport that hurt the Thai tourist industry and humiliated its pro-Thaksin leadership. In December 2008, the pro-Thaksin civilian government was disbanded by court order, paving the way for the rival Democrat Party to set up a government (with the tacit support of the military and monarchy). The new government is headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose first few months in office have been relatively smooth. He has traveled all over the world (including to the recent G-20 financial summit in London) to clear Thailand's reputation after the ruckus in 2008. Now the same "people's power" tactic of massive protests that brought Abhisit into office is undermining his own government. The Red Shirt protesters have overrun Bangkok and descended upon Pattaya in advance of the ASEAN summit. On April 8, about 50 miscreants attacked Abhisit's motorcade and broke the back window of his car, an astounding breach of security. Today they overran the police barricade to besiege the hotel where some of the world's most powerful leaders have gathered, including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. But the protest leaders pulled back before provoking a full security crackdown. After handing over a letter with their complaints to an official from the ASEAN secretariat, the group cleared the streets, claiming they never intended to interrupt the ASEAN summit. The incident was surely orchestrated behind the scenes by the government and the protest organizers to prevent an actual showdown with police while the world's eyes were watching. Nevertheless, given the attack on Abhisit's car, visiting leaders have reason to fear for their safety. Thailand's domestic unrest is ceaseless. At the moment, the current government is not about to fall — it is supported by the military, the Bangkok bureaucracy and the monarchy. But the protesters' interference with the ASEAN summit will embarrass Thailand further, spooking investors during a time of economic downturn, and raising serious questions about the Thai government's ability to maintain law and order.

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