Into the cauldron

Well I hope things don’t get as dramatic as the title suggests, but I’ve arrived in Thailand just before the political climate here is about to get very interesting again. A critical court decision will be released on Friday 26th February that could cause great upheaval: there are reports of a million-strong anti-government rally to be held this week, threats of martial law if events get out of hand, even rumours of a potential coup. Thailand’s own Tourist Council has warned Australians to avoid Bangkok during the next two weeks.

Some recent history for those who are not fully up to speed with this story. In 2001 Thai telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was elected Prime Minister of Thailand. He was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2005, but in 2006 he was accused of a massive conflict of interest and abuse of power. That year a law was passed that allowed him to sell his telecommunications empire tax-free thus making hundreds of millions of dollars extra profit, and as a result there were court actions and widespread popular protests against him. Thaksin called a snap election to regain a mandate but the opposition boycotted the poll, and eventually the whole election was annulled. On 19 September 2006, after months of instability, the military launched a bloodless coup and ousted Thaksin from power.

In late 2007 new elections were held and a party aligned with Thaksin, the PPP, won power. Thaksin was by this stage in exile but remained a very polarising figure in Thailand, with his largely rural base still supporting him and his allies strongly. Opponents of the PPP (and Thaksin) began organising demonstrations and peaceful sit-ins in public and government places aimed at disrupting the Government. Known as the “yellow shirts” because of their distinctive colours, these anti-government and anti-Thaksin forces were well-organised and drawn largely from the middle and upper classes.

Pro-Thaksin and pro-PPP groups organised their own movement, known as the “red shirts”. Both the Reds and Yellows had significant popular support from different quarters, and during 2008 Thai street politics began to tend towards violence with isolated skirmishes between the groups leading to more than a dozen deaths. In September 2008 the Prime Minister – the leader of the PPP and therefore aligned with Thaksin – was forced to resign because the Constitutional Court ruled that his hosting of a television cooking show while still being PM was against the law (truly!). His replacement as PM was Thaksin’s brother-in-law; this enraged the Yellows and caused them to invade and shut down Bangkok’s international airport for a week in November 2008. Eventually the Army called for the Yellows to withdraw and new elections to be held, resulting in yet another Prime Minister who was not aligned openly to either group.

Despite all that has happened, Thaksin is still keen to fight. Thaksin’s Thai assets – the bulk of his multi-billion dollar fortune – were frozen in 2006 pending various court actions. In 2008 he was convicted in absentia of conflict of interest and sentenced to two years in jail. He has never served any part of this because he has remained outside of Thailand in various countries around the world. Nevertheless in September 2009, on the third anniversary of the coup that ousted him, he openly called for the Red Shirts to help bring him back to power to save Thailand from becoming “a failed state”. Any way you look at it, Thaksin is still a powerful and divisive force in Thai politics.

Why is this all suddenly important? This coming Friday (26th) the Supreme Court will announce whether the Thai state can confiscate Thaksin’s Thai assets that have been frozen since 2006. These assets are worth more than US$2 billion. This is obviously the biggest story in Thailand by a mile, and the prestigious Bangkok Post is calling it “Judgement Day”. If the Court rules that Thaksin can be stripped of his fortune, the Red Shirts will go nuts and noone really knows what will happen then. That is why numerous western governments have urged foreigners to stay clear of political protests, especially in the capital. More than 20,000 extra security personnel have been deployed around the country in case things turn violent, and during the 80 km journey from the Cambodia border two days ago we passed through no less than three military checkpoints.

I don’t expect the protests to turn violent, though they may cause disruption in the capital for a while. I certainly don’t expect foreigners to be in danger, unless they are unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In any case I will be staying well away from the action: I’m currently in the small provincial town of Trat and I intend to be spending Friday sunning myself on a beach on Ko Mak, a beautiful and tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand. In fact I’ll be spending the whole week there. There’s no better way to ride out a political crisis than some serious beachside indulgence, I say 😉

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