Thailand Declares Emergency Rule

They've occupied the prime minister's office, stormed airports near popular beach resorts and crippled national railway service across Thailand. Next up, the coalition of antigovernment agitators calling itself the People's Alliance for Democracy vows to cut power, water and telephone service in the capital, Bangkok, then incite labor unions to declare a general strike. Though such tactics echo past "people power" uprisings in neighboring Indonesia and the Philippines, they're means to a very different end in Thai politics today: the People's Alliance campaign, launched back in May, aims to unseat a government put into power just seven months ago in elections widely hailed as free and fair.

This morning, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej struck back in defense of his government, declaring emergency rule just hours after rival mobs clashed on Bangkok's streets. His decree bans gatherings of more than five people, prohibits media reports with a propensity to "cause panic" and puts sweeping police powers into the hands of Thailand's military, which is often the final arbiter in Thai politics. The generals seized power in a September 2006 coup--the country's 13th since 1945--and held it until democracy was restored with national elections last December. Ironically, Prime Minister Samak and his allies posted a landslide victory in that contest by opposing martial law and pledging to revive the populism of ousted tycoon-turned-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Yet in a televised decree Tuesday, Samak described emergency rule as "the softest means available" to restore order in the country of 65 million, then added: "Because the situation turned out this way, I had no other choice."

However reluctant, Samak's decree stuck a blow to Thailand's already-fragile democracy. The question now is whether it will enable him to restore order without further bloodshed, or play into the hands of demonstration leaders who for months have sought to goad a violent crackdown. The two sides disagree on just about everything, including the extent to which Thailand's economy should embrace globalization, the role of foreign investors in the economy and the suitability of Western-style democracy in the predominantly Buddhist kingdom. Samak and his People's Power Party gained power by courting the rural vote, which outnumbers the Alliance's mainly urban power base. Unable to win on the hustings, "the PAD's ability to paralyze the government has become its instrument of choice," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who heads Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok. "They want to bring the Thai economy and industry to heal and show that the government has no control."

The chaos spreading across Thailand is largely the vision of a single figure, media baron Sondhi Limthongkul. In early 2006 he led mass demonstrations against Prime Minister Thaksin, not letting up until the military staged a bloodless coup some eight months later. Although he initially supported a return to full democracy, Sondhi changed his position after the candidates he backed fared poorly in elections last December, declaring the victors--and Thailand's electoral system--corrupt. Now, his People's Alliance supports limited democracy in which 70 percent of parliamentarians are appointed.

In a recent NEWSWEEK interview, Sondhi expressed the view that "representative democracy is not [currently] suitable for Thailand." He also claimed Thailand to be part of a "Third World [where] people lack intelligence and wisdom" and therefore are easily manipulated by opportunistic politicians. His conclusion: "We have seen representative democracy in Thailand for 75 years, and it always fails."

Sondhi and his allies began losing out when Thaksin used rural empowerment to build a national political machine following the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. Those who populate the People's Alliance include prominent Bangkok-based politicians, retired military officers and conservative religious leaders as well as union bosses representing state enterprises and civil servants. This "old elite" is seen to fear deregulation, unfettered global competition and greater foreign participation in Thailand's economy that both Samak and Thaksin favor. They have accused both leaders of manipulating poor, uneducated rural voters to upset Thailand's long-established social order and even challenge the monarchy.

Though the PAD claims widespread middle class support, a recent Bangkok University survey suggests their confrontational tactics are unpopular. Seven in 10 respondents disagreed with the blockage of roads and storming of government buildings, and just 5 percent said they would support a military coup to oust the Samak's government. Those numbers suggest that today's antigovernment demonstrations may be more a last-gasp effort from Thailand's old guard than a groundswell for change, argues John Virgoe, a Thailand watcher for the Brussels-based risk consultancy International Crisis Group. He calls Sondhi and his cohort a "waning force" in Thai politics that must take ever-greater risks to stay relevant.

Through that prism, their attacks on of Thailand's lucrative tourism industry (an area once deemed sacrosanct in domestic politics), seizure of three airports and nationwide railway disruptions, are "signs of not strength but weakness." Though he warns: "I'm also struck that [the People's Alliance] seems nonetheless in a position to do a lot of destruction to the country."

How much hinges on what happens next. The police have issued arrest warrants for Sondhi and eight other People's Alliance leaders; should they be swiftly and peaceably detained, many doubt that their top-down antigovernment movement would survive decapitation for very long. At the other extreme, street violence could intensify until Thai generals succumb to their traditional urges and install a junta into power. When they did that two years ago, their effort was bloodless, but similar interventions in 1976 and 1992 left scores of civilians dead on Bangkok's streets. In a third possible scenario, Samak could dissolve Parliament and schedule a new election. "But the same guys would get in again, so it wouldn't resolve anything," says Virgoe. "[Politics] is manifestation of the serious divisions in Thai society."

At a news conference held after the emergency rule declaration, the head of Thailand's armed forces, Chief Gen. Anupong Paojinda, pledged to use dialog to end the standoff. "Our main task is to avoid any clash between two groups with different opinions," he said. He also pledged that soldiers would not evict demonstrators forcibly from government offices seized by the People's Alliance last week. Despite such assurances, various foreign governments and business groups have warned that the situation in Thailand could deteriorate. "Thailand is having stability problems," says Nandor von de Luehe, chairman of the Joint Foreign Chamber of Commerce in Thailand. On Tuesday, Thailand's benchmark SET Index fell to its lowest point in 19 months, and its currency plummeted to its lowest level in a year.

Many experts fear that Thailand is heading toward a crisis akin to the one it suffered back 1992, when 200 or so pro-democracy demonstrators, many of them students, were shot dead by soldiers before Thailand's deeply revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyade, intervened to halt the violence. He could do so again, to be sure, but that alone wouldn't heal the rifts dividing his country by class, geography and political philosophy. Thitinan, the political scientist, sees big trouble ahead if the People's Alliance succeeds in toppling Samak's popularly elected government. "We'll be just like the Philippines," he laments. And for a country so recently billed as Asia's next rising tiger, that's a huge step down.