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Thai Political Confrontation Provokes Debate over Democracy

  • Scott Bobb

In Thailand, tens of thousands of protesters continue their daily rallies demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, while thousands of farmers from the provinces have gathered in Bangkok to show support for the prime minister. Mr. Thaksin has refused to resign, saying he will launch political reform after snap elections in two weeks. But the fate of the election is in doubt because of a boycott by the three main opposition parties.

For one week, opponents of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have maintained an around-the-clock vigil outside his offices, chanting for Mr. Thaksin to "get out."

But one week ago the embattled prime minister brought together 100,000 supporters, who chanted for him to "fight."

Mr. Thaksin enjoys wide support in the countryside, where two-thirds of all Thais live, and he says to resign would be to betray the poor he has sworn to help.

The prime minister responded to the protests by dissolving parliament last month and calling early elections. He says he is acting democratically and accuses his opponents of trying to oust him through non-constitutional means.

Chulalongkorn University Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak says the standoff is highlighting divisions within Thai society.

"A minority of Thailand has chosen to eject a popularly elected leader from office. So now the minority who are trying to overthrow Thaksin, they must pay more attention to the countryside," he said. "The urban-rural divide was what led Thaksin to power in the first place."

Independent observers acknowledge that Mr. Thaksin's populist policies have done a great deal for Thai people, in particular the poor.

But they say the prime minister has become authoritarian and has used his power to undermine independent regulatory bodies, muzzle the news media and intimidate his critics.

They also say that because of self-censorship in the Thai mass media, the rural poor, who have less access to other sources of information, are not aware of the abuses.

The author of several books on Thailand, Chris Baker, says Mr. Thaksin's critics believe that Thai democracy, which is just emerging from decades of military dictatorship, is under threat.

"It puts a lot of onus on the people who feel that to allow him [Thaksin] to continue will be to allow the democratic gains of the last 30 years to be further and further eroded. Therefore they feel some kind of duty to get out on the streets and try and get rid of him," Baker said.

Both Mr. Thaksin and his critics agree that changes to Thailand's nine-year-old constitution are needed, but they cannot agree on procedures.

Mr. Thaksin proposes to convene an independent panel after the election to draft amendments. The opposition says there can be no real reform as long as the prime minister is in power.

But author Chris Baker says the crisis has underscored the need for constitutional reform.

"One of the gains from this event is a chance to correct some of the mistakes in the 1997 constitution," he said. "But it is very difficult, given the way the independent institutions were undermined by Thaksin and his group so easily."

Baker concludes that it will take a great deal of political intelligence to correct the constitutional deficiencies.

Senior military officers and royal advisors, fearing violence, have called on Mr. Thaksin and his opponents to negotiate a compromise.

But Thammasat University Professor Somphob Manarangsan says positions have hardened.

"I do not think it is going to be easy for both sides to have a dialogue because they use a different framework, different points of agreement to debate or dialogue," he said.

Some Thai experts say that if the deadlock continues, an article (7) in the constitution could be invoked that allows Thailand's King Bhomibol Adulyadej in times of crisis to appoint a neutral government to oversee constitutional reforms and new elections.

The revered monarch has intervened directly in Thai politics only on a few occasions and then only after violent confrontations.

Thailand, in June, is to begin celebrating the king's 60th year on the throne. Professor Somphob says, as a result, a solution to the current crisis is urgently needed.

"That is a very important and critical point for Thai society. The quicker we can settle this dispute, the better for the Thai people," he said.

Many are praising the Thai people for demonstrating political maturity in avoiding violence.

And some of the country's institutions are showing greater independence.

The state-owned broadcast media, after an initial silence, have been broadcasting full coverage of the anti-government demonstrations. And a Thai court this past week dismissed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against a journalist who had criticized the prime minister.

But fear continues to mount that a prolonged confrontation could degenerate into violence, which would further undermine the democracy that both sides say they seek to protect.

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