For the last six months Thailand has been splashed across our headlines on an almost daily basis, as its government disintegrated and violent protests gripped the Southeast Asian country. Our newspapers and television news programmes have been filled with stark images of clashes between protestors and the police. But many outside Thailand only sat up and took notice last week, when protestors occupied Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport.
This is a conflict that has been simmering—and at times boiling over—for nearly a year now, in a country as populous as Britain, that has the world’s twenty-fourth biggest economy, through whose borders pass 750,000 British tourists each year; and yet it remains a situation that the general public has little knowledge of, a situation not helped by the media’s often shallow coverage of the crisis.
This particular crisis has its roots in January of this year, when Samak Sundaravej became Prime Minister, but its real origins lie with Samak’s former ally, the notorious former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin is famous to many in Britain for being until August 2008 the owner of Manchester City F.C., but is infamous in Thailand for his brutal five-year premiership in which thousands of Thais were murdered, political freedoms were trampled, and government institutions were subverted for the gain of Thaksin and his family.
Public and institutional support for Thaksin finally ran out in September 2006, when the military overthrew his government while he was visiting the UN in New York City. His Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved, his assets were frozen, and he was charged with corruption. Thaksin settled in Britain, and pursued an interest in football by buying Manchester City for £81.6 million.
Thaksin returned to Thailand in February 2008, after Samak had taken power, despite facing charges of corruption. He was arrested and released on bail, but fled Thailand for Britain in August 2008. He was tried in absentia and sentenced to two years imprisonment.
In response to Thaksin’s return to Thailand, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) was reformed. PAD had been a thorn in Thaksin’s side throughout his time in office, but had voluntarily dissolved itself when Thaksin was ousted in 2006. The return of their old enemy to a country run by one of his old friends was the last thing they wanted, and in late March PAD threatened to resume their anti-Thaksin protests.
In May, with Samak still in office and Thaksin still free, protests began in earnest. Calls for Samak’s resignation were followed by a vote of no confidence in the Thai parliament, which Samak managed to survive. Things remained relatively calm until late August, when PAD invaded Government House—the official residence and offices of the Prime Minister.
Violence seemed likely, but Samak promised to pursue only a peaceful solution while steadfastly refusing to resign. A court ordered the arrest of PAD leaders and the dispersal of the protestors, but their occupation of Government House continued.
Tensions rose, and a state of emergency was declared by Samak on September 4 2008. Public assembly was banned, and free speech was heavily restricted. Immediately legal complaints were launched, accusing Samak of tyranny, and the foreign minister, Tej Bunnag, resigned in protest. Samak was found guilty of conflicts of interest—relating, bizarrely, to his hosting of popular television cooking shows while in office—and was forced to stand down as Prime Minister on September 9.
The removal of Samak and appointment of Somchai Wongsawat, another PPP member, as Prime Minister did little to dissuade anti-government protestors. In October, demonstrations became still more intense. Hundreds of protestors were injured in clashes with the police, and several PAD leaders were arrested. Protestors on October 7 attempted to take parliament hostage, and Somchai only barely managed to escape parliament.
Further fuel was added to the flames when, in mid-October, Queen Sirikit apparently came out in support of PAD and the opposition movement. The monarchy is supposed to remain impartial in political matters, but Sirikit publically attended the funeral of a PAD protestor and donated THB 1 million to cover the medical expenses of those injured in the clashes.
In November, PAD escalated their protests further still by occupying Thailand’s newest and busiest international airport, Suvarnabhumi. Armed with clubs, knives and metal bars the protestors managed to overpower riot police stationed at the airport and took control of roads leading into and out of the compound. Between 100,000 and 350,000 foreign tourists were stranded, unable to leave the country, and the stand-off has so far cost the Thai economy an estimated US$1 million every day.
The stand-off at Suvarnabhumi brings us to the precarious situation Thailand now faces. At the time of going to press, the PPP has been forcibly dissolved by the Supreme Court and Somchai has been ousted from the premiership. The PPP has reformed as the For Thais Party (FTP) and has launched a protest against the court’s decision, calling it a “judicial coup”. The crisis looks certain to continue and, unfortunately, to get worse before it gets better.