The political drama in Thailand has been going on for months, but at the moment a number of factors are combining to give the two leading parties the impetus to push their causes even more forcefully.
Tensions between Thailand's primary political factions have increased in recent days, culminating in the cancellation of a planned legislative session on Nov. 24. While the protests in Bangkok have been ongoing for most of the year, at the moment several factors are combining that might lead the two factions to take more dramatic action. All of the political agitations in Thailand in 2008 go back to the military coup of September 2006, in which then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed — an event that fit well into Thailand's coup-ridden history. Thaksin and 111 of his associates in the Thai Rak Thai party were banned by court order in May 2007 from participating in politics. Nevertheless, the coup did not end Thaksin's influence over the Thai government. Since the return to a civilian government in December 2007, the ruling People's Power Party (PPP) has tried to pass alterations to the constitution that would essentially absolve Thaksin and his supporters. In opposition, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has staged protest after protest in an effort to bog down the political process, call attention to Thaksin's persistent influence, humiliate his supporters and ultimately (PAD members hope) precipitate yet another military intervention that would drive Thaksin and his followers out of Bangkok for good. For months now, PAD protesters have occupied the areas around the Government House, and at various times have descended on parliament, the police headquarters and municipal airports to attract attention to their cause and disrupt government operations. Meanwhile Thaksin, who is living in exile, continues to communicate with his supporters at home, and the PPP continues to press for the constitutional changes that would allow Thaksin's supporters, and possibly Thaksin himself, to return. But the PAD's attempts at bogging down the government have had only mixed success. The group's popularity waxes and wanes according to whether it is perceived as being repressed for its political opinions; it is most supported and popular when the government and police forces treat it harshly. On Oct. 7, PAD protesters surrounded the parliament and blocked lawmakers from entering in an effort to prevent a vote on the PPP's proposed constitutional changes. The protesters were dispersed by police who fired tear gas, and a bomb exploded near the office of a small political party in the ruling coalition. This event led the much-revered Thai Queen Sirikit to give aid to the protesters, and it brought negative attention to the police and government for appearing too draconian. (click image to enlarge) On Nov. 24, the PAD again descended on the parliament's grounds to halt proceedings that might have led to a vote on the constitutional changes. Though lawmakers were planning to vote on trade documents relating to the upcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bangkok in Dec. 13-18, rumors were circulating to the effect that the constitutional changes would be put to a vote at the same time. When PAD protesters arrived to prevent legislators from entering the building, they were likely expecting another clash with security forces. However, the government simply canceled the legislative meeting for the day. The protesters declared victory and moved to different parts of the city. The PAD vowed to increase its provocations in the lead-up to the official Nov. 28 deadline for the current legislative session. Meanwhile, the government has scheduled a special session to ratify the ASEAN documents on Dec. 8-9. So while the PAD managed to block the potential for a vote on constitutional reform for the time being, it did not necessarily gain popular support. After months of fruitless protest, the opposition's momentum could be waning. The ruling PPP is willing to wait on its proposed reforms, perhaps until the next legislative session. In the meantime, the potential for violence remains high. Both sides have shown their willingness to use grenades, Molotov cocktails and other small bombs in the past two months, as was popular around the time of the 2006 coup. Both factions are courting the military, often the final arbiter in Thai politics, to step in and take decisive action in their favor. Throughout the year, the military has steadfastly refused to enter the fray, having been disappointed with the course of events since the 2006 coup. The PAD hopes that violence against it will inspire the military to step forward and defend it, perhaps overthrowing the Thaksin proxies once and for all. (Some even suspect the PAD of causing explosions in order to blame the government.) For its part, the government will attempt to frighten the protesters by encouraging or allowing more radical pro-government supporters to attack them while trying not to cause enough damage to justify the opposition's accusations. Thaksin has stepped up negotiations with some military officials in an attempt to strengthen his support base. The military has warned Thaksin not to press his advantage too far, though it is not entirely clear whether military leaders are unified on the controversy. STRATFOR sources indicate that, barring surprises, the military will remain reluctant to enter the row. While the potential for violence remains high, the fact is that the current situation cannot continue indefinitely. Thailand has just begun to see the first signs of the global recession weighing down on its economic growth. (The Bank of Thailand is contemplating a big interest rate cut for the first time.) The effects of external events could force a conclusion to Thailand's squabbles sooner rather than later. While so far the political tumult has not interfered with Thailand's ability to serve as a global commercial center, the impending slowdown could make the question of attracting investors much more sensitive. Indeed, talk of the PAD trying to occupy the Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok's main transport hub, would almost necessitate a police response and could escalate domestic troubles to the point that they impinge upon Thailand's ability to address the global recession.