This week has seen continuing anti-government street protests in Bangkok which have been led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The background to the whole saga is quite complex and it is yet another twist in Thailand’s complicated political scenery. Despite some scuffles and bottle-throwing at a rally last week, the events have so far remained mainly peaceful. Prime Minister Samak in typical belligerent form had apparently threatened to clamp down heavily on the protesters. He later claimed he was misinterpreted and he wouldn’t use force to break up the demonstrations.
With talk of coups and yet more political turmoil ahead, what does this all mean for tourists visiting Thailand? The short answer is that visitors are unlikely to notice anything different. The protests have been confined to a small area of Bangkok (near Government House and the United Nations building) and the biggest impact on most foreign tourists may be the partial closure of some roads in that area. This is an internal affair between differing political factions. When matters last came to a head back in September 2006, many visitors in Thailand at that time weren’t even aware there had been a military coup until some days after the event had taken place.
People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD)
The PAD is not a political party; they are a coalition of civic groups. They came to prominence prior to the September 2006 coup and were instrumental in leading what became huge street protests in Bangkok against then Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The eventual outcome was the military-led coup.
The original members of the PAD certainly wouldn’t have been happy about the December 2007 election which resulted in a pro-Thaksin party forming the power-base of a coalition government. However, it was only the return of Thaksin himself to Thailand in February that saw the PAD re-emerge. They have steered clear of protests until recently, but have been prompted into action by the government’s desire to amend the constitutional charter.
People Power Party (PPP)
The PPP is basically a reinvention of Thaksin’s former Thai Rak Thai party which was banned from politics following the 2006 coup. Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai never lost the grass-roots support from the north and north-east of Thailand and it was these same voters that would elect the new PPP. Thaksin, although officially banned from Thai politics, is the financial muscle behind PPP. The ‘Big Boss’ as he’s known to supporters, still has a huge influence on the Thai political stage.
Samak was an intriguing choice to lead the PPP. A former political enemy of Thaksin, both men needed each other for their own aims. Samak has achieved the goal of leading the country and Thaksin has had the path smoothed for his return to Thailand. Both men have corruption charges hanging over them and as some observers have noted, these charges may be easier to fight when you have political influence at the highest level. Samak is well-known for his feisty and belligerent style and it comes as no real surprise that at some stage there would be the chance of Thaksin and Samak having a difference of opinion. Samak is viewed by many as Thaksin’s puppet, but Samak is keen to point out he is the leader of the country, not Thaksin. This has been played out against a backdrop of political infighting amongst the PPP and how much longer Samak can remain in charge is open to question. Perhaps the Big Boss will have the final say.
The Prospects for a Coup
There are certainly some similarities to the situation at the time of the 2006 coup; the street protests led by the PAD and the dissatisfaction with the government by the Bangkok middle-classes. The figure of Thaksin also looms large and there are influential figures in the military that do not take kindly to his continuing influence in Thai politics. The whispers of a coup became louder recently when a senior army official cut short his European trip to return to Thailand.
The only thing that is certain in Thai politics is that nothing is certain. As an outsider looking in, I can only offer a simplistic explanation of things as I see them, but beyond the facts there is a whole lot of other factors at play. Political expediency, loss of face and saving of face will all play a part in whatever happens in the future. The present king of Thailand has seen it all before and it is the King who remains as the one person who has been able to unite the people of Thailand in a way that the politicians can only hope to aspire to. With the rock of the nation suffering from poor health, many ordinary Thais are saying with even more feeling, Long Live the King.