Magazine article Newsweek International

Thailand Slides toward Civil War

Magazine article Newsweek International

Thailand Slides toward Civil War

Article excerpt

Byline: George Wehrfritz and Jaimie Seaton

The public siege of its airports may be over, but the country's political crisis is just heating up.

Last week, after Thailand's high court disbanded the country's ruling party and antigovernment demonstrators finally ended their weeklong occupation of Bangkok's two airports and their three-month siege of Government House, weary stranded travelers could have been forgiven for thinking that the political crisis was over. The estimated 350,000 foreigners who'd been trapped by the blockage have begun their journeys home. Yet for Thailand's citizens, its politicians, its business community and its foreign investors, nothing concrete has been resolved. Thailand remains a nation divided. Its beloved 81-year-old king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is in decline and had to unexpectedly cancel his annual birthday speech last Thursday due to illness. King Bhumibol had never previously missed his birthday address, and his absence dashed hopes that he would use the occasion to help resolve the crisis. Instead, political extremism is now mounting, and a frightening new phrase has slipped into the political lexicon: civil war.

Most analysts acknowledge that a civil conflict in the strict military sense--with rival armies fighting over territory and national control--is unlikely. Yet a uniquely Thai version, featuring extreme political violence and dividing the nation into rich vs. poor, urban vs. rural, north vs. south and pro- vs. antiglobalization, has already begun to play out. Its salient aspects include a winner-take-all political culture, a rising authoritarian bent among the country's traditional elite and the erosion of democratic institutions. "Who will fight? All of the above," warns Sunai Phasuk, Thailand representative for Human Rights Watch. "It will be both a horizontal and vertical conflict, like a football game that goes very nasty and eventually the crowd jumps in."

That football match reached fever pitch last week when, for the second time in three months, Thailand's constitutional court toppled a democratically elected government. A nine-judge panel removed Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from office, dissolved three political parties central to his coalition and banned a handful of top officials for allegedly permitting fraud during the December 2007 election. The ruling came just three months after the same court ousted then Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej for briefly hosting a televised cooking show while in office (which violated a no-moonlighting rule he was unaware of). The latest decision was an attempt to strike out at "dishonest political parties [that] undermine Thailand's democratic system," said Court President Chat Chalavorn. Critics called the decision a "judicial coup."

The new verdict was widely anticipated, partly because Thailand's judiciary is increasingly seen as a tool of an old ruling troika comprised of the military, the monarchy and the Bangkok-based national bureaucracy. Since democracy was restored last year, the judiciary has flagged the government for even the tiniest infractions while refusing to rein in an antigovernment pressure group calling itself the People's Alliance for Democracy as it sought to impose mob rule. In August, the PAD's yellow-clad supporters occupied the prime minister's office, and late last month they shut down both of Bangkok's civilian airports. Yet the judiciary did nothing. It is also legally proscribed from bringing criminal charges against any participant in the 2006 coup that ousted populist firebrand Thaksin Shinawatra from power. Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says Thai politics have polarized to such an extreme that even the king--who intervened to stop political violence in 1992--might be unable to broker a lasting truce this time. "That's not how Thailand works anymore," he argues. "Each side sees so little reason to compromise that any deal wouldn't last very long. …

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