Thailand's Conflict Is Far From Over

The trash was piling up Tuesday night at Government House. Protesters who seized the building 192 days ago had left a few hours before, having succeeded in bringing down the elected government of Prime Minster Somchai Wongsawat. At Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, which opened today after being shut down for the past week, thousands of yellow-clad protestors lingered—apparently wanting to savor the taste of victory overnight. Much of Bangkok's attention was shifting to plans to mark the 81st birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Friday.

The apparent settlement of the conflict between the government and the protesters—members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD)—was viewed as a good omen for the revered monarch's celebrations. It may not be a good omen for Thailand's democracy, however. PAD, despite its name, is an essentially royalist party from the elite, urban portion of the country. And the settlement promises only a temporary end to the simmering conflict.

Today Thailand's Constitutional Court dissolved the three key political parties in the ruling coalition, finding that they committed fraud in December 2007 elections. The judgment brought down the government. The protestors, seeing the ruling as an outright victory, exploded in euphoria. When Somchai stepped down, PAD leaders ended their occupation of Suvarnabhumi airport, a two-year-old, $3 billion regional hub, and quit Government House.

The Constitutional Court jurists banned more than 50 members of Somchai's People's Power Party, as well as the Chart Thai and Machima Thipathai parties, from politics for five years. "Dishonest political parties undermine Thailand's democratic system," said court president Chat Calavorn. Deputy Prime Minister Chaowarat Chandeerakul is expected to become caretaker prime minister until Parliament selects a replacement for Somchai, which it must do within 30 days. All the moves, however, fail to resolve the issue most responsible for Thailand's long-running political crisis: the question of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin, a billionaire businessman overthrown in a bloodless coup in 2006, remains an incendiary figure; the source of a paralysis Thailand cannot shake. The court's ruling may be less a neat deus ex machina than another plot twist leading to further turmoil. For one thing, supporters of Somchai vow that they will not go away quietly. They want to press charges against PAD leaders, arguing that their takeover of the airports and Government House were illegal and have seriously damaged the country. "The law is the law. Someone who breaks the law must be held to account for it," said one speaker at a pro-government rally in front of city hall. For another, the PAD has made clear it will not accept as prime minister any politician it considers linked to Thaksin. It calls such people Thaksin "proxies." After first helping to force Somchai's predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, from office in September and now effectively hounding the government from office, the group is unlikely to be in a mood to compromise.

The PAD is determined to erase any Thaksin elements from power and also has a bold goal of reshaping Thailand's political landscape by creating a "new" politics. Notwithstanding its name, the group's objectives would not strike many as especially democratic. Founded largely by middle- and upper-class people from Bangkok and other southern parts of the country, the PAD is unabashedly royalist. And its zeal goes well beyond the almost universal reverence for King Bhumibol. Thaksin's populist economic policies and efforts to decentralize power from Bangkok were anathema to the alliance. It apparently has little use for the bedrock democratic notion of one man, one vote. Shrugging off the fact that Thaksin was elected in a landslide and that his successors also were democratically chosen, PAD leaders have called for constitutional amendments requiring that some members of Parliament be royally appointed. Some analysts say the PAD is far more about oligarchy than democracy, and some even quip that it would not be averse to restoring an absolute monarchy.

Small-d democrats, meanwhile, are determined not to abdicate in favor of people they consider "elites." Thaksin, who despite being fabulously wealthy casts himself as an ally of the poor and dispossessed, is beloved by the working classes, especially in the rural north and northeast. Opponents attribute his enduring popularity to corruption, alleging that he won his support by distributing goodies to the masses. Pro-government activists, though, believe the alliance works with big business and the military in an effort to keep power in the hands of those who have held it for generations. Hundreds of such activists gathered outside the Constitutional Court, which they condemned as an organ of the PAD. Even some Thais who once criticized Thaksin's autocratic ways and alleged cronyism bridle at what they see as high-handedness within the PAD.

Thaksin himself shows every sign of adding fuel to the fire. The former prime minister once insisted he was done with politics. But after a series of setbacks, he appears to have abandoned caution. Earlier this year, the British government revoked his visa, forcing him to leave London, where he had been living. A Thai court sentenced him in absentia to two years in jail for corruption. His wife divorced him last month—though many speculate that the split was yet another shrewd business tactic to protect his assets. Seemingly unleashed, the former prime minister is now suggesting Thailand needs him to return to politics. Essentially homeless, the peripatetic tycoon showed up recently in Dubai, where he told a business journal he has "no choice" but to return home because he is "cornered" by his country's travails. "With me at the helm, I can bring confidence quickly back to Thailand," he told Arabian Business.

Airport officials were saying the international airport would resume operations Wednesday, but that is unlikely. "It will take at least a couple of days," Pasan Teparak, the Thai consul-general in Dubai, tells NEWSWEEK. "They will have to recheck everything to make sure the airport runs safely and everything is standardized." Not the least of the tasks now facing Suvarnabhumi is a major sweep to make sure there are no security threats, like flammable material being left behind, says a Thai aviation official. With reports surfacing that authorities had found material outside Government House that could be used to make explosives, it seems a prudent measure.

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