Thailand: An update after spring political protests

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The World's Mary Kay Magistad updates us on the the tense political situation in Thailand. Tensions boiled over this spring when protesters attempted to bring down the current government.

DAVID BARON: Thailand has been taking a tense breather from the political turmoil of this spring. Anti-government protesters occupied parts of Bangkok for ten weeks until government troops cleared them out. But just last week two bombs went off in the capital and authorities are gearing up for renewed unrest. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: The Erawan Shrine, in the heart of Bangkok, is a place where devout Thais come to pray for luck. These performers, in glittery costumes, sing and dance, for a fee, to enhance someone's chances. Lottery tickets are on sale nearby. And just outside the gate, fortune tellers sit at small tables, ready to reveal all. Well, not quite all. Suchart Saengsawangsean, a wisened 83-year-old, says he's been doing this work for almost half a century, but even he can't see Thailand's future. From where he sits, though, he can see the streets that turned into a battlefield this spring. And he blames the hero of the anti-government demonstrators.


SUCHART SAENGSAWANGSEAN: I think that Thaksin, he was a really bad man, and he cheated with the taxes of the Thai people. I see him as a terrorist, and other of my friends do as well.

MAGISTAD: Thaksin Shinawatra is a billionaire tycoon, and the former prime minister. He was ousted four years ago in a coup, and then convicted on corruption charges. He's chosen exile over prison. Still, he calls himself a champion of democracy, as do the Red Shirt protestors who support him, and held weeks of sometimes violent protests aimed at bringing down the current government. Thaksin would talk to them via satellite on the big screen, in messages like this one.


MAGISTAD: Here, he says he's ready to sacrifice himself, and serve again. Sean Boonpracong was a spokesman for the Red Shirts. He says the poor liked Thaksin because he helped them when he was prime minister, with loans, cheap health care, and policies that helped reduce poverty.

SEAN BOONPRACONG: Mr. Thaksin, just like average Asian politician, which has positive attributes and has negative. And I'd like to emphasize the fact that, for Thai people for now, I think economic policies has been really crucial to level the income gap between the have-nots and the haves.

MAGISTAD: Which is why, says Politics Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University, the problem is not just going to go away.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: Thailand is stuck. You have on the one hand the Establishment, a lot of people who have been in power, with entitlements, for the last five, six decades. On the other side, you have newly awakened voices and sentiments that have been empowered by democratization, globalization and so on, and they seem to want a different kind of political order.

MAGISTAD: But the question is whether Thaksin is the one to give it to them. Thaksin himself showed anti-democratic tendencies while in office, conducting a supposed anti-narcotics trafficking campaign that resulted in 2,500 extrajudicial killings. Critics say he also sought to reduce the independence of the courts, and to concentrate power in his own hands, for his own profit. Now, they say, Thaksin is using his wealth and connections to try to destabilize Thailand so he can come back. Panitan Wattaniagorn is a spokesman for the current government. He says Thaksin's Red Shirt supporters use their own media and websites to stir up anger.

PANITAN WATTANIAGORN: But what we do not allow is radio stations or the media that are circulating hateful messages, or calling for, for example, assassination of the prime minister, or calling for the people to arm themselves against the government.

MAGISTAD: Panitan says that's why the government has used the current state of emergency to shut down some of those media, and block some 8,000 websites. The government has also jailed hundreds of Red Shirts, many without charge. This has drawn criticism from international human rights groups, who say the current state of emergency should be lifted. The government says it's doing so, but province by province. And, Panitan says there will be an election by the end of next year, when this government's term ends. The Red Shirts have called current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva an anti-democratic dictator and worse. But Abhisit is an elected member of parliament. And parliament elected him to be prime minister after the winning parties that supported Thaksin were disqualified for buying votes. Abhisit has promised to abide by Thailand's constitution and democratic process in returning Thailand to stability. One of his supporters, medical doctor Tul Suthisawong says what he considers anti-democratic were the Red Shirts' aggressive attempts to bring down the government. They called it peaceful, but video footage shows some of their supporters, in black shirts, used guns and grenades, and were responsible for some of the 90 deaths over two months of protests. Tul says after the first burst of violence in April, he started leading protests calling for an end to the Red Shirt protests. Days later, he says, armed paramilitary supporters of the Red Shirts burst into the hospital where he worked. He wasn't there at the time. He says he still worries about his safety, because the problem hasn't gone away.

TUL SUTHISAWONG: Red Shirts still waiting for the opportunity to fight back.

MAGISTAD: How do you know this?

SUTHISAWONG: My team, my colleagues live in rural area, and listen to discussion, talk, in the rural area, so they know that.

MARGOLIS: And Bangkok police say yesterday they arrested a former soldier trying to set explosives. They say he told them he'd been trained by Red Shirt supporters. The government says it has intelligence suggesting there will be more bombs, like the two that went off in heavily trafficked parts of Bangkok last week. To move beyond all this, Tul says, one thing is necessary.

SUTHISAWONG: We have to stop hate among Thai. And hate among Thai or any country can destroy the country. So, it's not the politics at all, right now, it's the hate. And as a Thai, I love my country, and look at this big problem clearly, it's hate.

MAGISTAD: Some of the Red Shirt supporters say its inequality, and the unlawful ousting of Thaksin in the first place. Beneath it all is the looming question of what happens when the revered but ailing King of Thailand, now 83, is no longer around, with fears the transition will bring its turbulence. Meanwhile, Thailand's politics remain dangerously polarized, and tensions that boiled over this spring still threaten efforts to return to a state of what both sides say they want. Peace and democracy. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad, Bangkok.