Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Thailand’s convoluted Politics The tranquil site of the temple itself. First Hindu, then Buddhist, now infuriating

YELLOW polo shirts? Check. Plastic hand clappers? Check. Nationalist banners? Check.
And so the supporters of the right-wing People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) once again took to the streets of Bangkok on Tuesday, ready to stand up to a treacherous government. In the past, the PAD staged marathon protests against the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and his allies. They claim credit for toppling two elected governments in 2006 and 2008, though on both occasions the army or the courts delivered the coup de grâce.

This time their fire is directed at the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is accused of betraying the nation along its border with Cambodia. The protest’s speakers took turns fuming over Thailand’s limp-wristed response to Cambodian incursions and other provocations. PAD draws much of its support from Bangkok’s well-heeled classes—in contrast to their rival “red shirts”, who held a separate, much larger protest on Sunday. The two groups have done much to stoke Thailand’s political polarisation since Mr Thaksin fell from power.

How long the yellow-shirt crowds stick around this time is anyone’s guess. Only a few thousand people turned out to brave Tuesday’s afternoon heat, but they were joined by more after the working day had ended. In their numbers, the yellow shirts made an all-night affair of it, hanging on into Wednesday afternoon. Judging by the tents, food stalls and stages they erected near the prime minister’s official compound, the PAD could be in for the long haul. In 2008, it occupied the compound for several months, before upping the ante with an airport sit-in. On Tuesday, the stock market fell for a fourth day and its currency hit its lowest level since September, suggesting that investors are wary of prolonged protests in the capital.

Mr Abhisit took office with the PAD’s help, just over two years ago, but alliances are fickle in Thai politics. Critics in the PAD camp say that Mr Abhisit must get tough on Cambodia or expect more disruption. The border dispute, at the ancient Khmer temple of Preah Vihear, has simmered since 2008. The issue has been back to the front burner since Cambodian border guards arrested seven Thais last month for illegally crossing the border. Among those arrested was an MP from Mr Abhisit’s party, who happens to be a PAD hothead; he and his aide are the only ones still waiting to be sent home.

Their supporters claim that the men were on the Thai side of the border and were kidnapped by Cambodian troops. Not so, according to Thailand’s army and foreign ministry, who seem anxious to end the squabble and get back to the job of demarcating the border. The PAD wants the government to tear up a decade-old agreement on border negotiations with Cambodia. It also wants Thailand to evict Cambodians accused of squatting on land around the temple complex. Finally, it has called for Thailand to pull out of a UN committee on heritage monuments.

Among the PAD crowd, Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, is not well loved. That he is chummy with Mr Thaksin only reinforces the frustration. “Hun Sen wants Thailand’s land. He wants to change the border,” grumbled an architect. Others in the crowd say that Thai politicians were too busy seeking commercial deals in Cambodia to stand up for Thai sovereignty. Such fiery talk goes down well with nationalists. But it may not strike a chord with ordinary Thais fed up of street demonstrations and political violence. The Economist

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