By Jocelyn Gecker
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
BANGKOK, Sept. 2 -- Thailand's embattled leader struggled to keep the peace and his grip on power Tuesday after declaring a state of emergency that was openly flouted by thousands of government opponents in the capital.
While Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej sought to tamp down newly violent unrest pitting largely prosperous urban forces against the country's impoverished rural majority, he also was hit by an electoral commission finding that could disband his party and bar him from politics.
Samak said he had no choice but to impose emergency rule in Bangkok after a week of political tensions exploded into overnight rioting and street fighting between his supporters and opponents that left one person dead and dozens injured.
His decree gives the military the right to restore order, allows authorities to suspend civil liberties, bans public gatherings of more than five people and bars the media from reporting news that "causes panic."
Samak and the army chief, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, both said that emergency rule was a last resort and stressed that they wanted to avoid violence.
Anupong said that if troops are ordered into Bangkok's streets, they will be armed only with riot shields and batons. "If the military has to get involved, it will not use force and will be on the people's side," Anupong said. He dismissed speculation the army was positioning itself to seize power again, less than two years after a 2006 coup.
Democracy in Thailand has a history of fragility, with the military staging 18 coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Samak's face-off with government opponents is only the latest conflict in two years of political tumult.
Tensions remained high as thousands of protesters who are demanding Samak's resignation defied the ban on assembly by camping out at the prime minister's compound, known as Government House, which they had seized seven days earlier.
As a precaution, City Hall ordered 435 public schools closed for three days, while some international private schools opted to shut for a week. The United States and other countries warned their citizens of the danger of violence in the capital.
By nightfall Tuesday, there were no signs of renewed clashes or attempts to evict the protesters. But the festive atmosphere of recent days had evaporated. Families were mostly gone, and helmet-clad demonstrators armed with sticks patrolled the grounds.
Some groups taunted authorities by threatening to switch off water and electricity at police stations and other government offices Wednesday and to disrupt train, bus and air service.
The Election Commission recommended Tuesday that Samak's People's Power Party be disbanded for fraud during elections last year. If judicial authorities uphold the ruling, Samak and other party leaders would be banned from politics for five years.
The group behind the anti-Samak demonstrations, the People's Alliance for Democracy, was formed in 2006 to demand the resignation of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and eventually opened the way for the bloodless coup that removed him.
Many of the same allegations behind the uprising against Thaksin -- corruption, stifling the media and the ruling party's buying votes from the rural poor with cash and other benefits -- dominate the demonstrations against Samak, who led Thaksin's allies to victory in last December's election.
Despite its name, the alliance -- a mix of royalists, wealthy and middle-class urban residents, and union activists -- argues Western-style democracy doesn't work for Thailand. It says the ballot box gives too much weight to members of the impoverished rural majority, who the alliance says are susceptible to vote buying that breeds corruption. It wants most lawmakers appointed rather than elected.