Thais take to the streets to protest military regime

The Thai military frees up some political parties, while banning the most popular one.

In what amounts to the largest display of dissatisfaction with Thailand's military junta since a bloodless coup last September, thousands have taken to the streets in the Thai capital to protest what critics of military rule say is an illegitimate government that seeks to disenfranchise a large segment of Thai society.

Many critics are incensed by government plans to speed up both a referendum on a draft Constitution and a new election that may exclude many followers of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thousands have attended daily protests in Bangkok to hear rants against the coup leaders and praise for the deposed prime minister, who has trotted around the globe in exile since the putsch last fall. On Saturday, about 13,000 people showed up – the largest group yet – and some ended up marching to Army headquarters where they demanded the military leaders resign.

"We have a volatile situation that could lead to violence," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "The dismantlement of Thai Rak Thai [TRT] and the ban of the 111 executives has exacerbated the political scene, and now TRT people are cornered. They don't have much more to lose."

The protests, largely dormant in the months after the coup, have since intensified after a May 30 decision by a junta-appointed court to dissolve TRT, Mr. Thaksin's old party, and ban 111 senior leaders from politics for five years. In the wake of the decision, the military-backed regime has taken steps to allow existing political parties to campaign while excluding former TRT members and seizing Thaksin's assets.

Immediately after Thaksin's party was dissolved, the government lifted a ban on political activity that had been in place since the coup, but it still prevents citizens from registering new political parties to contest the elections. Since TRT officials say they hope to register a new party with the same name, the party may not be eligiblee to participate in the December elections.

In statements to reporters last week, Chaturon Chaiseng, TRT's former acting leader, said that without representation for the millions of rural poor who form TRT's base, the country faces perpetual instability.

"If there is no way out in Thai politics in terms of fighting in the parliamentary system, the situation will be worse for the country," Mr. Chaturon said. "That means people will see that it's no use for them to try to fight in the parliamentary system because that channel is closed. So they will find some other ways out."

The week of intensifying protests was marked by the consolidation of disparate antijunta groups. Dozens of political groups merged to form the "Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship," a foil of the "People's Alliance for Democracy" that marched to oust Thaksin last year.

Last year before the coup, thousands of protestors attempted to push Thaksin from office, accusing him of corruption and claiming he co-opted the Constitution's independent bodies.

In the wake of the coup, public support has waned as corruption investigations against Thaksin have turned up little and policy miscues have sent the economy reeling.

Even so, the government has gone on the offensive this week. In a nationally televised speech on Sunday night, interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont again blasted Thaksin's government for corruption and insisted elections would go forward as planned. On Monday, military-appointed graft investigators suddenly announced they would seize 21 bank accounts holding about $1.5 billion in assets.

Thaksin, who made his fortune building up Thailand's largest telecommunications firm, has denied any wrongdoing and fears he can't get a fair trial until democracy returns to the country. No formal charges have been filed against him yet.

Even as General Surayud takes aim at Thaksin, he says he will not crack down hard on the ousted premier's followers. Surayud knows that the government must appease disgruntled TRT supporters if it wants to hang on another six months until the election.

But Surayud's influence has diminished considerably due to his wishy-washy leadership. His pleas for talks and reconciliation will likely fall on deaf ears as the protest groups become bolder and bridge their differences on the polarizing Mr. Thaksin.

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