Government teetering as Thailand seeks way out of political crisis that turned deadly

By Grant Peck, AP
Monday, April 12, 2010

Thailand seeks way out of political crisis

BANGKOK — Thailand is locked in a political conflict that took a deadly turn Saturday when failed government efforts to evict protesters from city streets turned into a savage nighttime battle. Twenty-one people were killed and hundreds wounded.

Some questions and answers about the crisis that has threatened political anarchy in the country:

Q. What are anti-government protesters in Thailand demanding?

A. The so-called “Red Shirt” protesters want Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve Parliament immediately and call new elections. They say he came to power illegitimately because his Democrat Party was not the top vote-getter in the last election in 2007. Military pressure on lawmakers of other parties allowed him to cobble together a coalition government in December 2008.

Q. What is the government’s response?

A. Abhisit says he came to power through legal parliamentary processes. In two inconclusive rounds of talks with protest leaders late last month, he offered to dissolve Parliament by the end of the year.

Q. Who are the major players in the conflict?

A. The Red Shirts, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, consist largely of supporters of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the 2006 military coup that ousted him after months of demonstrations. The anti-Thaksin protesters — led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy, or “Yellow Shirts” — demanded he step down for alleged corruption and disrespecting the country’s constitutional monarch, 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Q. What are the roots of the problem?

A. The 2006 protests against Thaksin polarized the country. Those who voted for him — mostly the rural majority who appreciated his social and economic welfare programs — felt their votes were ignored after he was ousted from power.

Thaksin’s political allies came to power in a December 2007 election to restore democracy, but courts forced two successive pro-Thaksin prime ministers out of office on grounds their supporters found dubious.

Thaksin’s foes insist he was a corrupt megalomaniac who abused his power and tried to quash all opposition.

The fault lines between rich and poor, city and countryside have led many to paint the conflict as a class war.

Q. How can the crisis be resolved?

A. It is likely some sort of compromise will ease tensions. Army Commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda indicated Monday he did not want to send soldiers in to try again to disperse demonstrators. The coalition partners in Abhisit’s government could withdraw their support, or use that threat to have him call a new election soon.

The country’s Election Commission has recommended that Abhisit’s Democrat Party be disbanded for a 2005 electoral law violation. If that happens, Abhisit would be removed from office immediately.

Abhisit could undercut the Red Shirts’ demands by calling an election on his own schedule, but earlier than the end of the year.

If the standoff continues, third parties could intervene in the form of a coup by military officers unhappy with Anupong’s noninterventionist stance.

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