Thai Opposition to Test Stability With Gatherings to Mark Coup
Thai anti-government protesters plan to hold nationwide events this weekend to mark a 2006 military coup, testing the nation’s ability to cope with demonstrations after clashes left 89 dead four months ago.
Supporters of ousted ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives overseas after fleeing a jail sentence in 2008, will lay flowers, light candles and release balloons in Bangkok, according to organizers. Protesters will also gather in Chiang Mai, Thaksin’s home province.
“Our aim now is to make the judicial process become fair,” Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the red-shirted demonstrators, said by phone Sept. 15. “We are not planning more political demonstrations.”
The gatherings take place as the Red Shirts struggle to organize before an election that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva must call next year. Abhisit used troops to clear the group from the business district they occupied for 47 days earlier this year and has kept Bangkok and several other provinces under a state of emergency ever since.
“We will not allow any lawbreaking,” Abhisit said yesterday. The prime minister’s warning follows similar statements from his security staff.
“There is a group of unhappy people who want to incite unrest,” Tawil Pleansri, secretary-general of Thailand’s National Security Council, said Sept. 14. “People who want to demonstrate in line with democracy should be careful and try to separate from this group.”
Since the government’s May 19 military assault on protesters, Thailand’s benchmark SET Index has risen 21 percent, the third-best performance after the Philippines and Indonesia in that time among Asia’s 15 biggest markets, according to Bloomberg data. The baht has strengthened 5 percent to a 13-year high in that period, the biggest gain among Asia’s top 10 most traded currencies.
“It’s probably safe to say that on the political front things look reasonably stable for now,” said Sriyan Pietersz, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Bangkok-based head of research for Southeast Asia. “The opposition is gearing up for elections, and the focus is going to be much more on the activity in Parliament rather than on street protests.”
Southeast Asia’s largest economy after Indonesia grew 9.1 percent in the second quarter as exports countered the impact of political clashes.
Most of the leaders of the April and May demonstrations, which were marred by gun battles and arson attacks, are sidelined. Six of 25 leaders charged with terrorism for the protest violence, including Thaksin, are outside the country. Nineteen other cases are with the courts, with all the suspects behind bars except for three, including Jatuporn.
Courts have used rules written after Thaksin’s ouster to disband two political parties linked to him and ban more than 200 of his allies from standing for office. The protests earlier this year began two weeks after a court seized about 60 percent of the 76.6 billion baht ($2.5 billion) Thaksin’s family earned from its 2006 sale of holding company Shin Corp. to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings Pte.
Cases against Thaksin-linked protesters have progressed faster in the past four months than similar ones against a rival group that seized Bangkok’s airports and the prime minister’s office in 2008. Earlier this week, a court rejected a police request to issue arrest warrants for 45 people suspected of helping seize the airports for the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy, which supported Abhisit’s rise to power.
“We are never afraid to go to the court because we know we can fight,” said Parnthep Pourpongpan, a spokesman for the People’s Alliance, which has rejected a proposal from a coalition party for a mass amnesty. “If someone who creates violence can be amnestied, that is a failure of the justice system.”
The military, whose budget has more than doubled to $5.4 billion since the coup, refused orders from Thaksin’s allies to break up the 2008 People’s Alliance protests. Since Abhisit took power in a parliamentary vote later that year, soldiers have twice followed his orders to break up pro-Thaksin demonstrations.
The emergency decree, in place in seven of 76 provinces, allows the government to detain suspects for 30 days without charge, freeze bank accounts, censor opposition media outlets and block websites. Three grenades have exploded in Bangkok since July, killing one and wounding about a dozen, and soldiers are guarding train stations and other public spaces to deter more attacks.
Since the crackdown, which came after Thaksin’s supporters rejected an offer for a Nov. 7 election, Abhisit has appointed four committees with a mandate to propose political changes aimed at reconciliation. One is seeking the facts of the shootings, while another will recommend changes to the constitution written after the coup, which gives the generals amnesty and makes it easy to disband political parties.
Thaksin-linked parties have won the past four elections on support from the impoverished northeast, where his micro-lending programs and cheap health-care plan proved attractive. Abhisit’s Democrat party has sought to woo those voters with programs to refinance loans, guarantee crop prices and give cash to the elderly in a bid to win the most seats in a nationwide vote for the first time in two decades.
“All conflicting parties must understand that they have to accept the election results,” said Suranand Vejjajiva, a former spokesman for Thaksin’s government who was banned from politics after the coup. “The government can talk all about loving each other, being united for Thailand, but those are empty words if you don’t respect the rules of the game.”