Page last updated at 13:45 GMT, Wednesday, 4 June 2008 14:45 UK

Why is Thailand in turmoil again?

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Anti-government demonstrators behind police barricades on 25 May 2008
In recent days anti-government protesters have returned to the streets

So there will not be another coup in Thailand.

Army Commander General Anupong Paochinda has said so, and now the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, General Boonsrang Niumpradit, has echoed him.

Both men played an instrumental role in the 2006 coup that unseated then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

"I don't think any commanders want to launch a coup now," said General Boonsrang. "The problems in the country are too complex to be solved by a coup."

Of course the military said much the same back in 2006, but this time they seem to mean it.

They found the going unexpectedly tough after they seized power two years ago, and recognised early on that the public had limited tolerance for military intervention.

When the party of Mr Thaksin's allies, the PPP, did much better than expected in the election that brought back democratic rule last December, the military accepted the result and handed back power without protest.

So why have coup rumours been sweeping the capital, causing the stock market to plunge?

Clash of ideas

The reason is this. Just five months into the new government, the deep conflict in Thai society, between those loyal to Mr Thaksin and his vision of a dynamic new, business-driven democracy (led by his party of course), and those loyal to a fuzzier concept of democracy in which the traditional, palace-connected elite make many of the key decisions, has come out into the open again.

Former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, pictured on 27 May 2008
Mr Thaksin says he has no more political ambitions

Since his return from exile in March, Mr Thaksin has stayed in the background and publicly vowed that he has no more political ambitions.

But no-one believes that, least of all the traditionalists who took such a risk when they used the military to oust him two years ago.

With his immense wealth and unrivalled political skills, they are convinced he could again amass the kind of unchallenged power he wielded as prime minister from 2001 to 2006.

To counter this they have built their own checks and balances into the constitution, Thailand's 18th, that they brought in last August.

That charter weakens elected governments in all sorts of ways - making impeachment of the prime minister easier, and making the Senate a semi-appointed body.

Crucially it gives enhanced powers to Thailand's top judges, those who sit on the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court.

The judges are far less likely to be swayed by the power or wealth of an elected politician, however popular.

Mr Thaksin is also being held back by a five year ban from politics, a number of outstanding court cases against him for alleged abuses of power, and the fact that nearly $2bn (1bn) of his assets are still frozen.

A Thai soldier stand next to a tank by a government building on 21 September 2006
The military seized power in 2006 - but voters turned against them

Although they campaigned and won the election under that constitution, Mr Thaksin's allies in the PPP argued that it was a flawed charter which should be amended.

Many Thais appeared to agree with them - in a nationwide referendum last August it was approved by only 58% of votes cast.

But the haste with which the new government moved to alter the constitution after taking office surprised many people, who had expected it instead to focus on reviving the economy.

And the clauses it wanted removed - articles 237 and 309 - looked suspiciously like naked self-interest.

Constitutional change

Every Thai election ends with rival parties' accusations and counter-accusations of electoral abuses, mostly vote-buying.

It is the job of the Election Commission to decide which accusations have merit. It can then either "yellow card" the offending candidates, meaning they can contest the re-run, or "red-card" them, which disqualifies them from political office for five years.

Instead Thailand is likely to end up with a caretaker prime minister, presiding over a weak, re-constituted coalition

Such verdicts are inevitably accompanied by accusations that the Election Commissioners themselves have been "swayed".

The new constitution adds some extra bite to the commission's powers in article 237. If the party is judged to have sanctioned the abuse by the candidate, the entire party can be dissolved.

The PPP and two of its coalition partners now face this possibility because of guilty verdicts against some of their candidates. Their fate will be decided by the Constitutional Court.

Article 309 retrospectively legalises all the decisions made by the government appointed after the 2006 coup.

It effectively protects the soldiers who led the coup from prosecution, and crucially extends the life of the Assets Examination Committee, set up to investigate alleged corruption under the Thaksin administrations.

If the article were repealed, the cases against Mr Thaksin might collapse - and he would get his hands on his frozen assets. He could be a big political player again.


The decision by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to push ahead and remove these clauses caused an uproar.

It provoked renewed street protests by the die-hard Thaksin opponents who led the movement against him in 2006.

Mr Samak's offer to hold yet another referendum on the two articles did not appease them. A complete waste of taxpayers' money, they said.

The PPP lacks support in the capital - its main strongholds are in the distant north and north-east of Thailand.

The protesters are still there in the old centre of Bangkok, vowing to stay until Mr Samak and his government go.

They do not have the numbers or momentum they enjoyed back in 2006, but the government has been weakened all the same.

Mr Samak has already been forced to back away from his threat to use force against the protesters, under pressure from the military and police, and he has had to abandon his attempt to change the constitution, handing the matter over to a bi-partisan committee in parliament.

So Thailand is stuck in a stalemate again. There is widespread expectation that the outspoken Mr Samak will lose control of his coalition, and possibly his party.

The threat of dissolution worries many of his MPs, who may prefer a more accommodating approach to their political rivals in the hope of forestalling such an outcome.

No parties can afford the expense of another election. Instead Thailand is likely to end up with a caretaker prime minister, presiding over a weak, re-constituted coalition.

That might be exactly the result the traditionalists, those who supported the military coup, would like.

But it would offer no clear leadership to a country which has been without it ever since Thaksin Shinawatra's fall from power.

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