News / Asia

Thai Government Faces Grilling

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva takes his seat at parliament for a no-confidence debate, March 15, 2011 in Bangkok, Thailand
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva takes his seat at parliament for a no-confidence debate, March 15, 2011 in Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand’s government is facing a no confidence vote this week, accused by the opposition of mismanagement, corruption and orchestrating the violent end to last year’s anti-government protest.  Lawmakers are holding three days of debate on the allegations, even as anti-government protests continue.

Analysts say Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s coalition is likely to survive the vote, as long as the established powers continue backing it.  However, it will be weakened and an upcoming election is not likely to heal divisions.  

Discontent

Thailand’s main opposition, the Puea Thai party, is accusing Abhisit and nine other ministers of abuse of power and mismanaging the country.

The government is defending its actions during three days of debate among Thai lawmakers, who will then vote on whether to dissolve the government.

The opposition’s accusations range from failing to control rising food prices to shirking responsibility for last year's violent clashes in Bangkok between the military and anti-government demonstrators.

From March through May, about 90 people, mostly civilians, were killed after the government ordered soldiers to clear thousands of protesters demanding new elections from the city’s streets.

Thai authorities say security forces fired only to defend themselves from armed elements among the protesters.

One year later, critics decry the lack of a full and independent investigation into the violence.

"What happened in May last year has not really been resolved.  And, then the key issues have not been seriously addressed by the government.  And, also the fact that the government has been reluctant to admit any guilt during the crackdown, I think that could be a serious issue that could kind of cause an impact on the government's credibility and legitimacy,"  said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Despite the criticism, spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn insists the investigation is operating independently and that final results are delayed by the sheer scale of the investigation and court procedures.

Red vs yellow shirts

Many of the protesters, known as the Red Shirts, support the opposition and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown by the military in 2006 and now lives in exile to avoid prison on corruption charges.

They say those who helped bring Abhisit to power conspired in the coup and in removing successive governments loyal to Thaksin, through court orders.

The government denies this, while critics of Thaksin say he was authoritarian and corrupt.

Abhisit’s government has faced down two votes of no confidence since 2009.  Panitan says he is confident it can do so again.

"This is not the first time that these issues have been submitted," he said. "In the last few months the government successfully defended many of the issues.  Some of the issues are quite old.  For example, the handling of demonstrators in the last year or two.  It has been already submitted in the parliamentary system and the government also already passed the  [censure] motion once already on this issue."

The Red Shirts are gathering regularly to pressure the government.  On Saturday, they held their largest demonstration since last year's violence.

Meanwhile, nationalist protesters who demonstrated to remove Thaksin have turned against Abhisit, accusing him of being soft in a territorial dispute with Cambodia.  Known as the Yellow Shirts, they are also holding regular protests against the government.

Will he survive?


Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a visiting professor of Southeast Asia studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, says that despite the growing pressures, Abhisit’s government is likely to survive the vote if its coalition partners stick with his ruling Democrat party.

"It depends on whether the backers will pull the plug on Abhisit or not," he said. "So far, they don't have a better solution, a better arrangement than Abhisit.  So, I think that the government will be weakened by this censure debate. But, the coalition partners enjoy having the pie, access to the pie and the backers - the military, the army, the palace, and others - are still lining up behind Abhisit, not because he's the best that they want, but because they don't have anyone better."

The government says it will soon announce an election date, expected around June.

Opinion polls indicate no one party has enough support to win a clear majority and a coalition government is likely.

But analysts say the election will not likely heal Thailand's deep divisions and that, unless opposition forces are somewhat accommodated, the country could see further polarization or even a resumption of clashes.  

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