The rampage of “red shirt” supporters of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand this week may be a last, desperate attempt of the exiled billionaire to return to power.
In nightly phone-ins and video link-ups from his unknown place of exile, Thaksin has been exhorting his legions besieging Government House in central Bangkok to rise up and throw out the “illegitimate” government of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
They responded by smashing into the venue of an Asia summit this weekend in the southern beach resort of Pattaya and battling troops after they blockaded a key junction in Bangkok on Monday.
The aim, it appeared, was to provoke a bloody crackdown that would feed a groundswell of support for the populist Thaksin, still the only Thai prime minister ever to win two elections.
If that was Thaksin’s gamble, then it was a long shot.
His loyalists began streaming out of the Government House on Tuesday, ending their three-week-long siege, and raising the question of whether — despite the millions of rural poor who still idolize him — the 59-year-old’s star has finally fallen.
Thailand’s seemingly intractable political divide pits an urban middle class, the military and royalist elite against the more populous and impoverished masses in the countryside.
History shows it has been the urban middle class that has led successful protest movements in Thailand, often with support from the monarchy and military.
Abhisit, moreover, has been bending over backward to avoid bloodshed in containing the “red shirt” movement.
Indeed, his orders to treat them gently backfired when they came smashing through a glass facade at the Asia summit venue, troops tumbling haplessly after them, forcing leaders to evacuate by helicopter.
Although at least 113 people were injured in Monday’s clashes between troops and protesters, the only two deaths were due to clashes between marauding red shirts and angry citizens in one neighborhood of central Bangkok, authorities said.
Thaksin’s “red shirt” movement (red stands for nation in Thailand’s red white and blue flag; blue is for the monarchy and white is for Buddhism) wants a new constitution and elections.
Abhisit, 44, said on Monday he is willing to consider both — once law and order is restored throughout the country.
“Who can say that it would be an election that would showcase democracy if we see the kind of phenomenon that we saw over the last couple of days?” he said.
But he ruled out making any deal with his nemesis, Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and now lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail on a corruption conviction.
Thaksin has said repeatedly he is ready to return “at the right time” and lead his followers in a “peaceful uprising.”
He told CNN on Monday he is not bankrolling the red shirt movement but only providing “moral support.”
The former policeman and telecoms billionaire may be running out of options.
His considerable assets have been frozen in Thailand, probably the main reason he was forced to sell his ownership of the English Premier League soccer club Manchester City.
He also wants amnesty on his corruption conviction, his family’s assets released, security guarantees for himself and his family and a ban on politics lifted for him and his cohorts.
“Despite the chaos Thaksin has been able to orchestrate, he is operating from a position of fundamental weakness,” Stratfor said.
“Apart from his assets being frozen, the Thai courts are against him, he is at risk of being imprisoned and the government he is seeking to destabilize still retains the support of the military, monarchy and bureaucracy,” it said.
Thaksin’s trump card has always been his ability to win elections. But at least one poll shows his popularity has waned.
A poll by Abac University, the most respected pollster in Thailand, found that 55 percent of 2,178 respondents in 18 provinces from throughout the country wanted the red shirts to end their protest and let Abhisit continue to run the country. Only 11 percent wanted Abhisit to resign.
An Abac poll last month showed Abhisit with a popularity rating of 51 percent against only 24 percent for Thaksin.
The writing on the wall for Thaksin appeared on March 21 when Abhisit easily survived a no-confidence vote mounted by the pro-Thaksin forces in parliament.
Days later, red-shirts began besieging Government House.
With the protests petering out on Tuesday, Thaksin now finds himself in a tight corner.
Political loyalties are fickle in Thailand. If the protests are indeed at an end with a minimum of casualties, it would likely induce his political allies to switch sides. Many already jumped ship in December, throwing their support behind Abhisit.
All of this would certainly send strong, positive signals to the Thai markets, which have been heavily discounted for political risk for the past several years.
The World Bank’s World Governance Indicators, a set of estimates of political risk widely followed by investors, rated Thailand’s political stability at 44.7 out of 100 in 2003. By 2007 this had plunged to 16.8 — far below regional peers like Malaysia and South Korea, and not far above the Philippines.
The World Bank is yet to release figures for last year but most analysts agree instability worsened over the past year.
The key question going forward is how long will any political peace last without resolving the deep-seated electoral divide.
After Thaksin was re-elected in 2005, he was overthrown by a military coup the following year. Thai voters elected Thaksin allies when the army-backed government held elections in 2007.
Abhisit came to power only after that government was overthrown after months of street protests culminating in the occupation of Bangkok’s major airports and controversial court rulings against Thaksin and his political allies.
After leading his party’s boycott of the 2005 election, it can only be a matter of time before the Oxford-educated son of physicians has to seek a mandate from the people.
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