Tuesday, September 2, 2008

One Killed in Thai Protests; Emergency Is Declared

September 2, 2008

By SETH MYDANS and THOMAS FULLER

BANGKOK — Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej imposed a state of emergency Tuesday in Bangkok after groups of demonstrators clashed on the street, but he called it “the most gentle way to bring the country back to peace” and said it would be in force for only a short time.

The prime minister, who has been under pressure to resign from a weeklong occupation of the grounds of his office compound, imposed the emergency after a predawn street fight between pro-government and anti-government groups that left at least one person dead and dozens injured.

Shortly afterward, in another blow to the government, the Election Commission recommended that Mr. Samak’s People Power Party be disbanded for electoral fraud.

The vote in the five-member commission was unanimous in recommending that the Supreme Court disband the party because of vote buying in last December’s general election.

The ruling, which could bring down the government, could take months to make its way through the courts.

Mr. Samak ordered troops into the streets to reinforce riot police officers, but after quelling the violence, they withdrew and the area around the prime minister’s office was calm in mid-morning.

The street fighting escalated a confrontation between the government and protesters who had occupied the grounds of the prime minister’s office for a week. It was the first serious violence in what had become a stubborn class struggle between the Thai middle class and a beleaguered government backed by a business and financial elite acting in the name of Thailand’s poor.

The protest broadened Monday when labor unions representing 200,000 workers at 43 state enterprises said they would cut off water, electricity and telephone service to government offices beginning Wednesday. Thai Airways employees said they would delay flights beginning Wednesday, and transportation workers said they would halt service on 80 percent of Bangkok’s 3,800 buses.

The announced job actions came on the 100th day of street protests demanding the resignation of Mr. Samak, whom protesters accuse of corruption and incompetence and of being a front man for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Inside the grounds of Mr. Samak’s compound, Chamlong Srimuang, a former army general and governor of Bangkok who has led the anti-government protests, was defiant in the face of the state of emergency.

“We must fight. We will not go anywhere,” he said shortly after it was declared. “We will be here. There are not enough prisons to detain us.”

The state of emergency does not impose a curfew but it bans gatherings of more than five people and meetings or any activities that might disturb the public order. The order also bars any news reports, published materials or any other media that could cause misunderstanding or that would affect the stability of the state. The army chief and the chief of police were given charge of Bangkok.

The early morning clash occurred when supporters of the government pushed through a police line and battled protesters in a melee that involved sticks, clubs, slingshots and firearms.

Among the injured, four were in serious condition, including two with gunshot wounds. The violence eased only when troops with riot gear arrived to reinforce the police.

Mr. Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, was forced from power in a coup two years ago. He fled last month to London, where he is seeking political asylum in the hope of avoiding court cases in Thailand accusing him of corruption and abuse of power.

“This action is unavoidable,” Sawit Kaewwan, secretary general of a federation of unions representing state employees, said in announcing the planned cutoff of utilities. “It is the way to protect our basic democratic rights.”

Democracy has become a rallying cry in recent days. But while both the government and its opponents espouse the ideal, neither side has a purely democratic vision. Thailand’s progress toward representative democracy peaked a decade ago with the passage of a liberal Constitution and has been in retreat since.

“The People’s Alliance for Democracy is not a pro-democracy movement,” said Charles Keyes, an expert on Thailand at the University of Washington in Seattle, referring to the group that is leading the protests.

According to Mr. Keyes and other scholars, the movement in Thailand is not a broadly popular uprising like those in the Philippines that ousted governments, but rather the product of a relatively small alliance uniting several agendas. It pits a modern middle class allied with supporters of the monarchy against a business and financial elite that is championing the nation’s rural and unskilled poor.

The unionists now joining the anti-government movement are part of the contemporary middle class benefiting from Thailand’s modern economy.

The protests are also a battleground between the mostly rural poor and the middle-class establishment. The divide has deepened since Mr. Thaksin courted a poor constituency as a foundation of power.

It is taken for granted here that the pro-Thaksin government would win a new election because it has the support of the rural and urban poor, a clear majority of the Thai electorate. This makes a democratic election less attractive for the anti-government group. Protest leaders mostly speak for the middle class, in an alliance of convenience with a royalist establishment that feels threatened by the emerging power of the poor.

Until Tuesday’s clashes, the confrontation had been remarkably bloodless, though the possibility of violence hung over the standoff. Some protesters had armed themselves; a small bomb exploded early Monday not far from the protest site. No one was hurt, but the bomb was seen as a warning of possible future actions. On Sunday supporters of the Samak government took to the streets in counterprotest. Parliament also convened in an emergency session.

Mr. Samak, a veteran of decades of Thai politics, had taken pains to say he would handle the protesters gently. He was believed to feel constrained by the brutal role he played in ordering a massacre of student demonstrators in 1976.

The response of the Thai military is always a question, but although there has been talk of a coup — which would be the 18th in Thailand’s history — most analysts say it seems unlikely for now.

After its ouster of Mr. Thaksin two years ago, the military installed a civilian government that was widely accused of being incompetent and ineffectual. Last December, the generals relinquished power and held a parliamentary election. Backers of Mr. Thaksin won the election, and Mr. Samak was named prime minister. 

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