News / Asia

Conflict, Protests Roil Thailand Ahead of Elections

Thai security personnel collect evidence as they investigate at the site of a bomb attack in the southern Yala province, Feb. 21, 2011.
Thai security personnel collect evidence as they investigate at the site of a bomb attack in the southern Yala province, Feb. 21, 2011.

Thailand’s government is under pressure from all sides; the insurgency in the south is ramping up, it is fighting with Cambodia over territory, and two different groups are staging regular, anti-government protests.

Some regional political analysts say nationalism is fueling the conflicts, in some cases to stir up support for elections expected later this year.

A border fight between Thailand and Cambodia appears to have cooled after Indonesia this week mediated an agreement to send observers to the disputed area. But their militaries remain on high alert.

Artillery and gunfire along the border this month left several people dead and both sides blaming the other for starting the fight.

An author and analyst of Thai politics, Chris Baker, says the dispute appears aimed at raising nationalist sentiment ahead of elections this year.

He says groups within the army and business community fear that, otherwise, supporters of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra could be voted back into power.

"They do not want the pro-Thaksin forces to win an election and then have to manage the aftermath," says Baker. "Because, after all, they have overthrown two elected governments already ,and three in a row does not look very good at all.  So, perhaps they need a crisis."

Tensions flared up in December when Cambodian authorities arrested a group of Thai nationalists after they entered disputed territory.  

Most were released, but Cambodia sentenced two of the leaders to prison, infuriating Thai nationalists aligned with the People’s Alliance for Democracy, known as the Yellow Shirts.

They are holding regular demonstrations outside government offices demanding it tear up border agreements with Cambodia and stop cooperation with the United Nations cultural agency over an ancient temple near disputed territory.

The government rejects their demands and has lost support among the PAD, once a key ally.

Political Science Professor Surat Horachaikul of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, says if the stand-off continues the protests could grow.

"If the government does not solve it between the PAD and the government, then, of course, the PAD will have to come out like this," Surat says. "Because they will try to demand what they want.  And, if the government does not reply, you know, they will try to mobilize more people."

Another group, the Red Shirts, also are piling pressure on the government with monthly protests.

The Red Shirts last year occupied parts of Bangkok for ten weeks demanding new elections. They contend the current government was put in place illegally, after court rulings ousted two Red Shirt-aligned governments.

The government ordered the military to clear the protest, and clashes left 90 people dead.

Many of the Red Shirts voted Mr. Thaksin into power and feel his ousting by the military in 2006 was orchestrated by Bangkok elites, backed by the Yellow Shirts, who fear his influence. Mr. Thaksin’s critics say he manipulated populist sentiment and was authoritarian and corrupt.

While political posturing and pressure builds in Bangkok, violence is spiking in Thailand’s south where ethnic Malay Muslims are seeking autonomy from Thai Buddhist rule. In recent weeks, shootings and bombings blamed on insurgents have become an almost daily occurrence, and attacks against a large Thai military presence more brazen.

Professor Duncan McCargo, who teaches Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds in England, says the insurgency and Red Shirts movement, while different in nature, share a complaint.

"At core, the same problem is there. It is that Bangkok knows best. It does not really trust people in the regions to take care of their own affairs, feels that they are not ready for democracy, if you like, not ready to take on responsibility for dealing with their own issues," says McCargo.

The insurgency has claimed more than 4,400 lives since 2004.

If Bangkok allowed elected governors and regional assemblies, McCargo says it could go some way to meeting demands for representation.

But other political analysts argue decentralizing power could increase local corruption and abuses of power. Other than in Bangkok, Thailand’s provincial governors are appointed by the government.

Thailand must call elections this year, and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva indicates he expects to do so around June.

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