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Political Uncertainty in Thailand Grows After Court Ruling

December 2, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Thailand's Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was removed from power, banned from politics for five years and his People Power Party disbanded on Tuesday as Thailand's three-year political crisis continued. An analyst explains the what's next for the troubled nation.

JANE DODGE, ITN Channel 4 News Correspondent: Tears of relief at the news of the fall of the Thai government. This is what the yellow-clad People’s Alliance for Democracy have been waiting weeks for.

Some of them have now begun to leave Bangkok International Airport after a week-long occupation. The rest will go tomorrow.

Security staff have been allowed back in, but flights won’t resume until the end of the week. Confidence in the Thai prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, was already shaky after he proved unable to end the protests.

Today, the constitutional court found him and his party guilty of rigging the 2007 election. He was banned from politics for five years, and his party and two others disbanded.

But all six parties in the ruling coalition vowed to form a new government.

WITTHAYA BURANASIRI, Chief Government Whip, Thailand (through translator): We will elect members of parliament by majority of the people, and we will continue to proceed with our democracy principles. Coup d’etat is the only way to take this legitimacy from us. We will fight on.

JANE DODGE: Pro-government supporters in this color-coordinated conflict jostled police outside the court, one of them seen here being chased and then beaten by anti-government protestors, evidence of the growing rift in Thai society.

Earlier, an anti-government supporter was killed and a dozen injured in a grenade attack at another airport in Bangkok. Six people have been killed and scores injured in the recent unrest.

Source of unrest is years old

JIM LEHRER: And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on all this, we turn to Brian Joseph, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the National Endowment for Democracy, a private nonprofit organization that promotes democracy around the world.

Welcome to you.

BRIAN JOSEPH, National Endowment for Democracy: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have these large demonstrations. You have major airport shut down. Now a government ousted. Before we get to the who's who details, some context here on, how do people understand what's going on?

BRIAN JOSEPH: It's actually a very complicated situation, but the gist of it is, in 1997, the Thais began to enter into a new democratic era after a series of coups had plagued the country for the previous 60 years, which gave rise to a new force in Thai politics that was led by somebody named former Prime Minister Thaksin.

It's his forces which were overthrown in a 2001 coup that are now the current government. And those opposed to Thaksin continued. The PAD, the People's Alliance for Democracy, those are the people in the airports who have taken over the two major airports in Thailand who threatened the -- who wanted the government removed, who want Thaksin and his followers removed from power again.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is a country that for most people, when they think about it, they think of as perhaps a tourist destination, a peaceful country.

BRIAN JOSEPH: That's right. I mean, the perception in most people's eyes is Thailand is a beautiful country. It's known as amazing Thailand, and Bangkok is famous for a whole range of things. It's got some of the most beautiful beaches in Southeast Asia.

The northern parts of the country are famous tourist destinations. So when most people think of Thailand, they think of it as a destination, a tourist destination.

It's also a huge economic engine for Southeast Asia, so the picture most people have is of a peaceful, tourist country open to tourism, open for business. And politics of this nature are something that we're not used to seeing in Thailand.

King's role is unclear

JEFFREY BROWN: So tell us, you started to tell us who the protesters are. Flesh that out a bit. Who are they? And what did they want?

BRIAN JOSEPH: I mean, in essence, the protesters are a group of people largely from the middle class, from Bangkok, the urban elite, who are opposed to Thaksin.

Thaksin was a prime minister who came to power earlier in this decade, was subsequently overthrown in a coup, found -- and these are people -- his party was still popular, so those people who were elected in his place, in a sense, a surrogate party, Prime Minister Somchai is his brother-in-law -- came to power.

Those opposed to Thaksin see this as nothing but an extension of Thaksin and want him removed from power, along with his party.

JEFFREY BROWN: As I recall, when he was ousted two years ago, I think the last time we looked at this, it was cast as a kind of conflict between the rural areas supporting Thaksin and his successors and the elites or middle class of Bangkok. Is that still the way to see it?

BRIAN JOSEPH: That's absolutely the way it is. In a sense, what Thaksin was able to do was to mobilize a group of people in Thailand who had largely been excluded from power since, you know, the last century.

So when Thaksin came to power, he mobilized a political coalition that was removed from the Bangkok elite who had been traditionally the holders of power in Thailand. And that was a real threat to the traditional powers in the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: The king continues to play a strong role, but is it well understood what that role is?

BRIAN JOSEPH: Absolutely not. The king certainly plays a strong role. The monarchy is the dominant institution in the country. He's a deeply revered man.

Later this week, he will turn 81. There are lots of questions about his succession. What role the king plays in all of this is to much speculation and rumor in Thailand. It's extremely important to understand the politics of the country, but it is not well understood.

Military stays on sidelines

JEFFREY BROWN: And the military, because the military played a role two years ago in the ouster of Thaksin?

BRIAN JOSEPH: That's right. The military has overthrown governments in Thailand regularly. This is not something this military has no history with.

But this time, for a variety of reasons, they have chosen to remain on the sidelines. They refuse to sort of accede to the PAD's demands to dismiss this government. They did not help in -- they also did not help in removing the PAD from the airports themselves.

So the military and the monarchy are both extremely important political institutions in Thailand.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, clearly, another player now is the courts, because the courts stepped in and ousted this government.

BRIAN JOSEPH: That's right. The courts stepped in and ousted this government. The court dismissed the previous prime minister earlier this year in September, who was actually dismissed on conflict-of-interest charges stemming from a cooking show, so this court has become...

JEFFREY BROWN: A cooking show, because he took money for participating, right?

BRIAN JOSEPH: Exactly. Excuse me. That's right. And so this court has become very activist in dismissing governments. The problem is those it dismisses and the people they represent continue to vote surrogates or other people in place of those who had recently been dismissed

Turmoil impacts Thai economy

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned that this is an economic power in the region. What has been the impact of the turmoil? Clearly, some economic impact.

BRIAN JOSEPH: Oh, it's got to have huge economic impact. I read a report the other day that 3 percent of the world's air transport and goods are trafficked through the Thailand airport. It's a huge tourist destination.

So by shutting it down, there's something like 350,000 tourists stranded in Thailand. It's going to have a huge impact on the economy. Reports are even that it's going to stop -- slow the economy down by 1.5 percent next year.

JEFFREY BROWN: And with reports now of pro-government demonstrations in the streets, is there some danger of this spinning out of control, of new violence even to, I guess, a point of civil war? Is that possible?

BRIAN JOSEPH: Oh, absolutely. I don't know if it will break into a civil war. That largely depends on what the king and the army decide to do.

But it's absolutely the case that the opposition, the PAD, has triggered a reverse opposition, which is those who are supportive of the government. So when the court steps in to dismiss the government itself, the opposition -- the pro-government forces are once again going to rally behind those dismissed from power, like they did previously.

And whether or not these two forces can be separated is a really open-ended question.

JEFFREY BROWN: So a very complicated tale, but clearly the stakes for Thailand's democracy are pretty high?

BRIAN JOSEPH: I think the stakes for Thailand itself are very high.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really, OK. Brian Joseph, thanks very much.

BRIAN JOSEPH: Thank you very much.