Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Judgement Day

How will the military react to large scale angry street protests? No one is sure because, so far, they have been very small. Yet tomorrow's uncertainty could force the junta to act.

The only thing certain on the eve of Thailand's historic constitutional ruling is that it is a perfect recipe for chaos.

Tomorrow the Constitutional Tribunal will hand down its verdict on the conduct of the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) and Democrat parties in last April’s elections.

TRT is accused of fronting smaller parties in place of a legitimate opposition because most political parties had boycotted the elections. The Democrats, in turn, are accused of luring TRT into electoral fraud by encouraging small parties to accept TRT funds and fill the required opposition role.

Although shady elections are the norm rather than the exception the current crisis is threatening to see both the TRT and the Democrat parties disbanded and their executives barred from running for public office for five years.

The consequences of dismantling the country’s two main political parties is fraught with long term consequences but the short term consequences are what most are worried about now.

TRT alone has 16 million supporters and their reaction to a negative ruling has the very real potential to be expressed with violence.

Yet it isnt as one demensional as only TRT supporters as there are various factions with grievances to express. Anti-Coup protesters, whose strength and ferocity has been steadily growing, are likely to gain further support from the Tribunal ruling. The legitimacy of the junta is already weak but the dissolution or punishment of mainstream political parties is certain to bolster the numbers of protesters waving anti-coup placards.

Mixed into the equation is the consistent threat of politically motivated bomb attacks in the capital. Since the New Year’s Eve bombings there have been at least two more attacks and foreign embassies have been issuing near-monthly warnings that a new wave of attacks is immanent. Already, bomb squads are on the prowl around shopping centers, transportation hubs, political party headquarters, and the Constitutional Tribunal building.

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s highly revered monarch, has already expressed his wishes that this political crisis will pass without bloodshed but his outlook was somewhat bleak. He warned the tribunal judges to "make a right interpretation (of the law) or the country will be doomed" yet he said that any decision they make will still result in heavy criticism.

One of the few leaders that might be able to scale down the potential violence is the former Prime Minister. Yet any plea for calm from Thaksin is unlikely. Although he is prone to populist rhetoric claiming love for his country he knows that blood in the streets does more to damage the image of the military than his TRT party.

In preparation for massive protests the Council for National Security (CNS) has deployed a 15,000 strong security force in strategic locations across Bangkok and setup road blocks in the provinces to stop protesters from entering the city.

On another front, the military has been deployed to TV and newspaper stations. Although initially it seemed to suggest a crackdown on the already restricted media it actually falls in line with the climate of coups. The soldiers are ‘guarding’ the media outlets in case a rouge faction of the military – obviously unhappy with the Tribunal’s decision NOT to dissolve TRT and/or the Democrats – decides to launch a fresh coup.

Although there is now way to know if violence will be ignited on the Bangkok streets tomorrow and what that chaos might actually mean for the country it could be a preferred outcome of some in the military.

The junta, when justifying last year's coup d’etat, claimed that they were duty bound to intervene because ‘unprecedented divisions in society’ would lead to prolonged political violence. If violence does erupt, the junta can use the same logic they used to seize power but this time to extend their time in power.

Initially, such a senario might seem a bit farfetched yet one worried reporter at Thailand’s T-ITV reminded me that the junta in Burma has been using that same excuse to remain in power since losing the general elections there back in 1990.

Tomorrow might just be a point in history that illumiates the true motives of those in power. The military has, since their coup, maintained that they will return power to the people. If the junta does not capitalize upon tomorrow’s expected chaos then they might actually be telling the truth about Thailand’s return to democracy.

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