Clashes in Thailand Further Divide Nation

By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 10, 2008

BANGKOK, Oct. 9 -- When Thailand's political stalemate erupted into open conflict this week, government opponents had hoped for a decisive battle. But the country is now even more divided and further than ever from a solution.

The dim hopes of compromise that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat had carefully nurtured since taking office three weeks ago were abruptly snuffed out Tuesday when police armed with tear gas grenades clashed with protesters carrying sharpened sticks and iron bars. At least one person was killed and hundreds were injured.

The protesters, from the People's Alliance for Democracy, were picketing parliament in an attempt to prevent Somchai from addressing the opening session.

On the surface, the protest was part of the alliance's attempts to force Somchai, whom they accuse of corruption and cronyism, to resign. But many analysts say the group's underlying goal is to create a state of violent political paralysis that will provoke the military into launching its 19th coup since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

"Some PAD members would like the military to intervene," said Somchai Pakapaswiwat, a political scientist at Thammasat University in Bangkok. "But this is normal. When people are fighting a big power, they want another big power to intervene."

If the alliance's attempt to surround parliament was aimed at provoking a crisis that would fundamentally change the terms of the standoff, it failed. The prime minister has refused to step down, and the head of the armed forces, Gen. Anupong Paojinda, has declined to take the bait.

"The situation does not warrant staging a coup," Anupong said on Thai television Thursday. "We have to consider the whole country, so it's not right to take sides with any groups. The military belongs to the people."

The turmoil and uncertainty have begun to hit the economy, amplifying the effects of a slowdown in the country's major export markets in the United States and Europe.

In the short term, the violence is likely to discourage tourists and further damage investor confidence. Tourism, which accounts for more than 6 percent of gross domestic product, was already declining before the recent clashes because of the global economic slowdown.

In the medium term, Thailand's revolving-door politics -- the country has had four leaders in just more than two years -- is making it much more difficult for the government to implement the sort of infrastructure and investment projects that many say will be crucial to stimulating a slowing economy.

The clashes this week seem to have made a compromise even less likely.

The alliance's predominantly urban, middle-class supporters are angry and have turned vindictive. In some hospitals, doctors have refused to treat policemen injured in the violence, and the captain of a Thai Airways flight barred one of the prime minister's supporters from his plane.

A fresh election is widely expected in the next few months, and Somchai's People Power Party is considered likely to win again. It has the support of much of the country's rural poor, who were ignored by the traditional political elite until Somchai's mentor and brother-in-law, Thaksin Shinawatra, became prime minister in 2001 and offered them cheap health care and rural loans. Thaksin was overthrown in a coup in September 2006.

With the political system in deadlock, many Thais are looking to the country's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, to use his moral authority to save Thailand from itself. But given that the stalemate has descended to a zero-sum game -- what would satisfy one side would automatically alienate the other -- it is difficult to see how even he could find a satisfactory way out of the impasse.

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