Saturday, June 21, 2008

The final countdown


ON THE eve of the Friday showdown between Bangkok street protestors and the Thai government, the catchphrase in the newsroom of The Nation was: “It’s the final countdown.”

“Tomorrow will be exciting,” buzzed a 40-something editor on Thursday afternoon.

“Hopefully, tomorrow (Friday) will be the beginning of the end of this three-year-old movie. People are bored watching this movie about a fight between two groups (pro and anti-Thaksin Shinawatra).”

He added: “By tomorrow both groups will be finished, hopefully.”

The “movie” the editor was referring to was the battle royal between the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and billionaire politician Thaksin which began in early 2005 when the PAD orchestrated street protests against the then prime minister for alleged disrespect of the monarchy and corruption.

The street protests were interrupted by a coup which ousted Thaksin on Sept 19, 2006, military rule and the general election on Dec 23, 2007 which was won by the People Power Party (PPP) which is a pro-Thaksin party led by Samak Sundaravej.

And on May 23 – four months into the Samak-led coalition government – the PAD resumed its street protest, determined to finish its unfinished business – rooting out Thaksin from the Thai political landscape.

If a movie preview were made of the June 20th showdown between the PAD and the Samak government, it would be something like this:

Thousands of yellow-clad protesters armed with flagpoles trying to storm Bangkok’s Government House – the seat of the Thai government. Standing in their way will be hundreds of policemen who will take action according to international crowd control principles (water cannon and tear gas).

On Tuesday night, during a speech at the PAD’s 24-hour protest on Ratchadamnoen Nok street which is near Government House, its co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul announced its plan to oust prime minister Samak and his Cabinet and “demand the country back” from those who corrupted and exploited it.

“On Friday June 20 at 1pm we will pack everything (to go to Government House). And we won’t give up until we win,” the media mogul said.

Samak, the prime minister, was not amused.

“Why are they doing this? Don’t they realise how much the country is damaged by the rallies?” he asked reporters on Thursday.

“I don’t understand why the PAD has announced that they will take over Government House. There is no reason. Was the election illegal? There were voters who cast their votes, the government was installed and took the royal oath. Is the government illegal? We are not street gangsters.”

The prime minister’s problem is not only on the streets but also in parliament.

On Wednesday, the Democrat Party – the sole opposition – lodged a motion of no confidence against him and seven Cabinet ministers.

Among the Democrat Party’s complaints and accusations were: the Samak administration’s mishandling of soaring global oil prices and rising inflation (sparking threats of nationwide protests) and that the prime minister was acting as a proxy for Thaksin who was banned from politics for five years by a military-appointed tribunal in 2007.

If a simple majority of MPs vote against the government, Samak would be forced to step down.

However, the prime minister will survive the censure vote as his coalition government (PPP and five other parties) have 316 of the 480 seats in the lower house. And the Democrat’s motion can be tied up in procedural delays for months.

The June 20 protest is, however, a more immediate problem, as some political analysts see this as the “bullet” the PAD needs to fire up its dwindling three-week-old protest.

“This is a decisive battle,” Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political science lecturer at Thammasat University, told Bloomberg. “The PAD wants the outcome to be decided now because the longer they wait, the weaker they will be.”

Yesterday, hours before the PAD rally, The Nation’s managing editor Thanong Khanthong wrote: “At this point, Thais are totally in the dark as to what is going to happen next.

“But this time it is a consensus that all the conflict must be brought to a decisive end once and for all.”

By now, the world probably knows whether the PAD’s protest led to an impasse, bloodshed, a coup or a finale.

Editor’s note: Thousands of PAD protesters wearing yellow in honour of the Thai king camped outside the office of Thailand's prime minister yesterday demanding his resignation, after police removed barricades blocking them. Riot police were on guard, but the protest was largely peaceful. No violence was reported.

(Published in The Star on June 21, 2008)