Thailand faces revived protests

Weeklong antigovernment rallies have raised concerns of a second coup in two years.

Sukree Sukplang/Reuters
Prime MInister: Protesters want Samak Sundaravej to resign.

Two years after mass antigovernment protests convulsed Thai politics, scared off foreign investors, and culminated in a military coup, the barricades are back. For more than a week, thousands of Thais have flocked to a protest camp on a downtown royal avenue where many of the nation's past political dramas played out, sometimes violently.

The same organizers who led the 2006 campaign have vowed to stay on the streets until they bring down Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who took office in February after democratic elections that ended 16 months of military rule. They also want to see former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whom the military ousted, put on trial for corruption.

The revival of rowdy street rallies, which has fanned speculation of another coup, is a reminder that Thailand's political troubles are far from over. Instead, they may be intensifying as rivals for power joust over the future makeup of the political elite, including the role of the monarchy, military, and other traditional power bases.

Analysts say the result is likely to be greater instability and a drift in economic policymaking at a time when Asian governments are grappling with inflation.

"A lot of people were giving this government nine to 12 months, but it may only get six to nine months with the way that things are going," says James Klein, country director of the Asia Foundation.

Among the gloomier scenarios is a perpetual cycle of politicking, protests, and military meddling that recalls the Philippines and other coup-prone democracies. Most observers say Thailand isn't in this camp yet, though. They play down the prospect of another coup, pointing to divisions among the generals and the lackluster showing of the last military government.

Western diplomats warn that international reaction to a military power grab would be much harsher than in 2006.

Current protests began over Mr. Samak's efforts to amend last year's Army-drafted Constitution. Critics say his changes would undercut the legal basis for prosecuting corrupt politicians and campaign-finance violators.

Protest leaders have also directed the crowd's ire toward cabinet minister Jakrapop Penkhair, who faces criminal charges for insulting the monarchy. He resigned last Friday, but denies the charges, which carry a maximum 15-year jail sentence.

But the greatest anger is reserved for Mr. Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon whose repeated claims to have quit politics are widely dismissed. "The people know that this government is a nominee of Thaksin. They do everything for Thaksin and his family, to protect him from the courts," says Praphan Koonmee, a former legislator who joined the protests.

Thaksin remains popular with rural Thais, to the frustration of opponents in Bangkok who accuse him and his allies of buying their way to victory. A court last year dissolved his political party and banned him and 110 allies from public office for five years. But the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party (PPP) won December's election.

Weary of divisive politicking, middle-class Bangkok residents who were the backbone of previous protests have largely avoided the barricades this time.

"I think a lot of people who joined them in 2006 are taking a break. They don't agree with the tone and direction of these protests. I don't think they've been able to gain the same momentum," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

The political temperature is unlikely to dip, though, as Thaksin continues to fight a mounting dossier of graft cases, while the PPP faces a potential dissolution over campaign corruption.

Competition for military promotions is also a source of tension, say analysts. "The Army hasn't really withdrawn from the political front lines. It still thinks it should be taking a fairly strong role," says Chris Baker, a biographer of Thaksin.

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