Thaksin returned to Thailand in February 2008 to a mixture of jubilation and outright hostility. By May 2008 the PAD were back out on the streets, fearful that Thaksin was once again pulling the strings and that the 2006 coup they’d helped precipitate had been rendered meaningless by the PPP’s general election victory. This time, though, things were different. Previously, the PAD had a broad base that had supported the pre-2006 coup, but as a result of their increasingly excessive actions, the PAD became alienated. In short, the PAD had transformed from a popular movement into an extremist vanguard.
In August the yellow-shirted PAD (yellow is the king’s colour) seized Government House, the home of the Thai cabinet, facilitated strikes with its allies in the public service trade unions and, in actions that would foretell of things to come, briefly occupied Krabi and Phuket airports. Thaksin, who was awaiting trial on a number of corruption charges presciently took flight to the opening of the Beijing Olympics with a diplomatic passport (by February 2009 he had not returned to Thailand and is yet to serve the resulting prison sentence).
PAD demagogue and media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul kept up a steady flow of pro- PAD/anti-Thaksin propaganda on his ASTV television station, while the demonstrators entrenched themselves in Government House. Armed PAD goons (many of them allegedly street criminals or ex-army colleagues of another senior figure in the PAD, ex-Thai army Major General Chamlong Srimuang) placed razor wire around the encamped demonstrators and dragged anyone who they suspected of opposing them off the street to be beaten or humiliated. The PAD needed some form of defence as regular attacks, some involving RPGs and explosives, occurred.
As the rhetoric and ranting became increasingly hysterical, Prime Minister Samak, who was also moonlighting as a TV chef, vowed to hold onto power. But in another bizarre twist, his culinary endeavours ended him up in hot water – Thai prime ministers are forbidden from earning money from other sources (he was paid peanuts for his chef appearances) and Samak was removed from his position by a military appointed court.
Samak’s replacement, the mild-mannered Somchai Wongsawat (Thaksin’s brother- in-law), was initially accepted by Sondhi as a compromise prime minister. Nonetheless Somchai’s appointment did nothing to placate the PAD and a new list of demands was produced, including the establishment of something called ‘New Politics’. The PAD’s (now firmly backed by middle-class Bangkokians and sectors of the elite) belief was that the wrong thinking of the uneducated, poor masses of Isaan and the north had led to Thaksin’s rise to power. In order to get around the ‘failings’ of ‘democracy’ the PAD now wanted a 70% unelected parliament filled with army officers and bureaucrats appointed by the king and his advisors. Any notion of the PAD being agents for democracy was now melting away and with them regularly engaging in nationalistic tub thumping the highly respected Asian Human Rights Commission declared of the PAD “although they may not describe themselves as fascist, they have fascist qualities.”
With the beginning of October things took another dramatic turn. Due to the PAD blockade, the Somchai government was unable to announce or implement the policies they had been democratically elected to carry out (Thailand’s constitution states that a government cannot implement all but the most very basic policies if they cannot be announced) and so they sent in the riot police to throw out the increasingly fanatical PAD from Government House. The result was hundreds injured and at least one dead PAD demonstrator. The PAD fully renounced non-violence and stated that their new aim was to provoke a coup and get their supporters in the Democrat Party installed as the party of government. As all this was being played out, on 21 October the absent and still massively popular Thaksin was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for his role in a crooked land deal. Tensions continued to rise.
With the Thai queen attending the funeral of the dead PAD activist and Thaksin speaking via telephone to mass rallies of Red Shirts (a popular anti-PAD and anti-coup movement) Thailand seemed to be splitting apart.
Then in late November, the PAD, with their popular support draining away, took their most dramatic action to date and while clutching portraits of the king occupied both of Bangkok’s main airports in what they termed ‘Operation Hiroshima’.
The most obvious impact on the international community was that Thailand’s tourism industry ground to a complete halt. Hotels and resorts stood empty as no flights could take off or land through the nation’s main entry points. Images of hundreds of thousands of stranded tourists flashed around the world – the ‘Land of Smiles’ was transforming into angry frowns. More importantly, but less high profile, Suvarnambhumi airport was also one of busiest cargo airports in the world, largely being built to export the goods made in the vast factories of Thailand’s eastern seaboard. With the world in economic meltdown the last thing Thailand needed was a seriously damaging incident like this. But still the PAD held sway, refusing to budge until the PPP government resigned.
What was incomprehensible for outsiders was the way in which the PAD had so easily taken over important facilities such as Bangkok’s main airports. The entire internal mechanics of Thai politics was momentarily laid bare. The PAD had been able to take control of the airports because their backers in the elite were linked to both the military and other shadowy power structures. No police officer or soldier would stand against the PAD as it would mean standing against a group whose actions were perceived to have the backing of Thailand’s highest institutions. The result was that democracy in Thailand was unofficially suspended – the will of the people had been circumnavigated by 3000 violent demonstrators and their secretive backers.
Thailand seemed to be heading towards another coup, but the military was rumoured to be split. If the army did take to the streets on this occasion it was unlikely they would receive the same passive response they did in 2006 and civil war was a likely outcome.
In the end a military coup wasn’t necessary. On 2 December the constitutional court dissolved the PPP (and coalition members Chart Thai and Matchima) banning many of its key people, including Prime Minister Somchai, from politics for five years. While none of the PPP’s MPs and cabinet members had any allegations of any wrongdoing against them the Election Commission had brought charges against a single PPP official for misconduct during the December 2007 general election (similar charges against the Democrat Party were conveniently forgotten). The military-sponsored Thai constitution of 2007 was explicit that any political party official found guilty of one of a number of offences meant that that entire party could be dissolved and its executive banned. And so, with all hint of Thaksin’s influence now absent from government and any semblance of democracy finally demolished the PAD departed the airports and claimed outright victory. Many commentators quite fittingly called this a ‘judicial coup.’
But things weren’t quite over. The PPP had anticipated such a move by the courts and had founded a new political party, the Puea Thai Party (PTP), which wouldn’t fall under the constitutional court’s verdict. Yet the PTP’s numbers were immediately reduced due not only to the banning of up to 37 PPP and coalition MPs but also intervention by the Abhisit led Democrat Party and the head of the Thai military, General Anupong.
In the first few days after the dissolution and with MPs still figuring out where their ‘loyalties’ might lie, the Democrats were the de-facto largest party in the Thai government giving them the right to try and form a government. With reports of MP’s being bought for millions of baht and General Anupong meeting with potential Democrat-coalition partners to ‘advise’ them what to do, Prime Minister Abhisit was voted in with a majority of standing MPs on 15 December. What was most remarkable about this coalition was that key Thaksin allies, most notably the Newin Faction (led by a banned politician Newin Chidchob), were now sided with the Democrats – Newin was previously a bogeyman for both the PAD and Abhisit’s democrats.
With the shiny, handsome, alternative rock-loving PM Abhisit installed, a new era of accountability and democracy was promised. Abhisit himself had personally vowed to root out corruption and restore the rule of law, yet things started to go wrong almost immediately. The new foreign minister, Kasit, told the press how much he enjoyed attending the PAD occupations at the airports and several other key PAD supporters were installed in government positions. The obvious implication was that the highly illegal and murderously violent activities of the PAD wouldn’t only be tolerated but even validated by the new administration. A huge clampdown on lese majeste was implemented by the Democrats with over 4000 perceived anti-royal websites closed and several anti-PAD/anti-2006 coup activists arrested. Organizations such as Amnesty International, whose local chairperson was linked to the PAD, refused to take up lese- majesty cases and the elite seemed to have a free hand in rolling back 20 years of democratic advances.
At this point the Harry Nicolaides case came to court and the international media began to openly question the role of the Thai elite in recent events – even if leading NGOs such as Amnesty refused. The Economist was in the vanguard of the international press and published a series of damning articles aimed at the most senior elements in the Thai elite – the result was that several editions of the magazine were effectively banned in Thailand.
As if to show how widespread the rot had advanced in Thai society, on New Years’ Eve 2008 a huge fire engulfed one of Bangkok’s most popular nightclubs, Santika. Once again unsavoury images of Thailand flooded the international media – over 60 horribly burned bodies, most young party goers and several tourists, were pulled from Santika’s ruins.
It didn’t end there. A story concerning the treatment of several hundred Burmese refugees – from an ethnic Muslim group known as the Rohingya – at the hands of the Thai military began to circulate in the international press. Apparently the Rohingya were attempting to reach Malaysia by sea but had drifted off-course and ended up in Thai waters instead. Caught by the Thai navy the Rohingya were allegedly beaten, starved and then towed out to sea and set adrift on unseaworthy boats with little or no food and water. Those that refused to board the boats were murdered. Up to 500 Rohingya were thought to have perished, with similar independent allegations of maltreatment at the hands of the Thai military surfacing in both India and Indonesia. The Democrat Party-led government’s reaction was to blame the media – some even called it a BBC hoax. Abhisit, his much vaunted humanist credentials on the line, refused to take a hardline against the military who’d seemingly carried out the Rohingya murders – after all this was the same military who’d helped both him and the Democrats gain power.
And it wasn’t all quiet on the home front either. The red-shirted National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), who’d formed out of a broad coalition of pro-Thaksin, anti-2006 coup and anti-PAD activists, took to the streets. Tens of thousands of people took part in almost completely peaceful demonstrations with their key demand being a general election (The Democrat Party haven’t won an election since 1976) and the prosecution of PAD activists. All the UDD’s demands were rejected by the government who now seemingly lurched from crisis to crisis – several members of the Democrats were then involved in corruption scandals surrounding the sale of tinned milk.
As 2009 entered March and with Thailand now caught between years of Thaksin- inspired cronyism/corruption and the current flagrant disregard for both the rule of law and democracy by the elite, more bitter divisions certainly await the kingdom. It is almost impossible to predict any outcome at this point but with an ageing king on the throne and demonstrators back on the streets, Thailand’s democratic future, as it enters a period of massive economic downturn, is looking decidedly bleak.