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Making sense of Thailand’s turmoil

Written By vibykhmer on Thursday, April 9, 2009 | 6:15 PM


(Photo: Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images)

Thu, 04/09/2009
By Roberto Herrera-Lim
Foreign Policy


Bangkok's streets are again filled with protesters this week in what will likely prove a boisterous but futile attempt to force the government's resignation. But behind all the noise, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been directing these demonstrations from outside the country, may well have a more subtle, longer-term agenda.

Thaksin and his supporters have been attacking the country's "aristocracy"--and top adviser to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Prem Tinsulanonda, in particular. This suggests that Thaksin's maneuvers are related less to any effort to immediately oust the current government but instead to undermining the power structures centered around the monarchy, particularly the King's privy council, and the succession process that Thailand will face once ailing King Bhumibol passes from the scene.

The protests are generating more noise than usual thanks to warnings from Thaksin that "the time for talks has passed" and the sense that protesters (known as "red shirts") are pushing for a confrontation. The former prime minister, ousted in a 2006 coup, is still able to create tension in the capital by rallying his supporters from Thailand's northeast and among Bangkok's poor. But without support from the military, the monarchy, and Bangkok's middle class, these protests are highly unlikely to divide the country's political elite and threaten the current regime. Even Thaksin's allies know that even if they could force new elections, the elite-controlled institutions could undermine their administration. Thaksin is believed to be in either Dubai or Cambodia, and evidence suggests that the military is trying to block his satellite telephone calls to followers inside Thailand.

The real motive behind Thaksin's use of these protests is probably to weaken Prem, which would then allow him to position himself to eventually take advantage of a government weakened by the economic crisis, to negotiate his return to the country, and to settle his many outstanding legal and financial problems. The big unknown is whether Thaksin's moves reveal that he has inside information on how and when the succession process (and resulting power struggle) will begin to unfold, and whether his rhetoric is an attempt to position himself in the conflict for power that could follow.

To up the ante, Thaksin has warned that he expects to see a "revolution by the people" that is more intense than the civilian unrest that rocked the country in 1973 and 1992. He has also explicitly accused Prem and retired General Surayud Chulanont of having organized the 2006 coup that ousted him from office.

These are bold (and unprecedented) criticisms, because Prem has been considered for the past decade a direct representative of King Bhumibol and therefore beyond this kind of accusation. Protesters have organized demonstrations near Prem's home. By proving that he still commands considerable public support and boldly attacking Prem (and members of the military complicit in the 2006 coup), Thaksin may well be trying to establish himself as a political force to be reckoned with following the King's death-particularly if the succession process fails to produce a strong monarch.

In short, Thailand is in the midst of a power struggle that could reach deeply into its institutions and power structures. It started with a fight between the elites and Thaksin in 2006, and has begun to spill over into the public sphere. The stakes have been magnified by the uncertainty around the royal succession in a country in which the monarchy remains the most powerful political institution. Thailand's history shows that this type of conflict will take time to resolve, with results ranging from the absurd to the tragic.

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