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Thailand teeters on the brink

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

PAD protesters at Suvarnabhumi airport 26/11/2008
Many feel the PAD's anti-government protests have gone too far

The occupation of Thailand's main international airport is the boldest and riskiest move yet by the People's Alliance for Democracy, after a string of similar stunts over the past four months.

It has certainly done immense damage to the vital tourist industry, and even many sympathetic Thais will feel that this militant, anti-government movement has gone too far in its quest to unseat the government.

But could this be the shock that finally breaks the deadlock which has paralyzed the country for most of this year?

It has certainly shocked army commander Anupong Paochinda into playing a hand that, while even-handed on the surface - it calls for both new elections and for a PAD withdrawal - is being viewed by many in the government camp as little short of a silent coup.

The reason is complex, but such is the mistrust among different factions in Thailand now they tend to assume the worst of each other.

Political quandary

The governing party, the still Thaksin-influenced PPP, faces possible dissolution by the courts for vote-buying in the last general election.

PM Somchai is miked before a TV address in northern Thailand 26/11/2008
PM Somchai Wongsawat has rejected calls to quit

If that happens, the PPP has already planned to shift its MPs to another party, called Puea Thai.

But the constitution requires candidates to have been members of a party for 90 days before they can contest an election.

If an election is called now, there is a real risk the PPP would then get dissolved, and its MPs would not have enough time to contest an election under their new name.

The party believes the judiciary is firmly biased against it, and it has little chance of avoiding this fate.

No wonder, then, that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat turned down Gen Anupong's offer.

So what happens now?

Coping with PAD

The PPP's strategy for months now has been to turn the other cheek to the PAD's provocations, calculating that its position as the constitutionally-elected government gives it the long-term upper hand.

On the occasions when the government has tried to use force against the PAD, it has backfired, with pictures of badly-injured PAD protesters splashed across the local newspapers.

But holding Bangkok's brand new, $4bn (£2.6bn) airport hostage - the centre-piece in Thailand's massive tourist industry - is probably too much to swallow.

Thaksin supporters rally in Bangkok 01/11/2008
The PM's party also commands masses of supporters

As it happens, the airport was one of Thaksin Shinawatra's most cherished infrastructure projects while he was in office, and one his critics say was ridden with corruption.

The government might be tempted to try to storm the airport, using loyal police units, like the paramilitary Border Patrol Police.

But that would risk large-scale bloodshed, and could persuade the army to stage a coup.

General Anupong does not want to do that, but some of his commanders may be less inhibited.

The PPP could unleash its own mass movement, the red-shirted UDD, to confront the PAD - but with similar, or more bloody results.

Opinion polls suggest the PAD was already losing public sympathy before it took the airport.

But that probably won't deter its hard-core members.

Democratic roll-back

The airport operation was impressively well-organised.

Within hours they had a formidable series of road-blocks up, mobile stages, food and drink supplies, and a seemingly endless supply of the plastic hand-clappers that have become the movement's trade-mark.

There are plenty of well-meaning, ordinary followers there who passionately believe the PAD line - that the very soul of the country is at stake, that Thaksin Shinwatra could at any moment make a vengeful comeback.

But there are clearly still some very powerful figures behind the PAD, close to the palace or the military.

PAD protesters head to the occupied airport 25/11/2008
The Thai king is unlikely to help resolve the latest political crisis

All are pushing for a kind of reverse-revolution, a roll-back of democracy.

In many ways, the PAD seems more like an insurgency than a protest movement.

It seems unlikely to flag now it holds such a prize.

There are plenty of people in Thailand's poor north and north-east who are equally outraged by watching the government they voted for less than a year ago crippled by a relatively small movement.

Wooed for their votes by Mr Thaksin and his slick electoral machine, this rural constituency is now thoroughly politicised, and sees this administration, whatever its obvious flaws, as one that represents its interests.

Thailand is now hopelessly divided.

There are no leaders who enjoy sufficient respect to drive a grand bargain between its polarised parties.

The age and frailty of King Bhumibol Adulyadej make intervention by him a forlorn hope.

Its tourist industry has been holed below the waterline, investor confidence badly shaken - and with two airports out of action, the capital is now cut off from the rest of the country.



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