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The Battle for Thailand

7 minute read
Hannah Beech/Bangkok

The Thais know how to throw a good party — and the one unfolding in the center of Bangkok was a doozy. With the scent of grilled squid and beer in the air, thousands of citizens from across Thailand grooved to rocking guitar riffs and cheered until their voices grew hoarse. But beneath the revelry lay a measure of menace. These were not simple partygoers but protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who on Aug. 26 besieged Government House, Thailand’s seat of power, vowing to occupy the manicured grounds until Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej resigned. At first, the demonstrators — many middle-class professionals who took to hanging their washing lines over Government House’s hedge topiaries — clapped as their leaders called for the government’s downfall. But after a week, the celebratory mood began to fade. On Sept. 2, after a deadly street battle erupted between the PAD and a counterprotest group, Samak declared a state of emergency. The decree didn’t deter many in the antigovernment camp. “When the party is over, we are ready to fight,” vowed Jantana Klinchan, a sandwich vendor from Saraburi province, as she swayed to a folk song calling for political change. “We are not scared to defend ourselves.”

Even at the best of times, politics in Thailand hardly hews to the script of a mature democracy. But the current stalemate is rapidly reaching that of political farce, with a distinct possibility of degenerating into tragedy. The PAD demands Samak’s ouster but it isn’t entirely sure who should lead the country should he resign. The feisty PM has refused to step down, even if he can no longer work at his own office. The impasse has brought parts of the country to a halt. PAD mobs forced three airports in key tourist areas to shutter, and strikes in support of the opposition have hampered rail services. The country’s benchmark stock index has dropped nearly 25% since the protest movement began in late May. In the heart of Bangkok, pro- and anti-government forces are teetering on the edge of an armed conflict in which any implement — sticks, knives, even the odd golf club — can be used against a political enemy. Already, the clashes on Sept. 2 claimed at least one protester’s life.

The Sept. 2 skirmish marked the worst political violence to hit the Thai capital since 1992, when protesters were gunned down by security forces. But the tense face-off around Government House is about far more than the bloody airing of grievances. At stake is nothing less than Thailand’s political future. Will it continue as a fragile democracy attempting, in however flawed a manner, to allow voters to choose their leaders through the ballot box? Or will it return to a past where the upper class took it upon itself to decide what is best for Thailand? “This way of trying to overthrow the government will create turmoil,” warns Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political-science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, of the opposition alliance’s tactics. “If the PAD gets its way, it will do far-reaching damage to our democratic system.”

Populism vs. Elitism
The brittle state of Thailand’s young democracy was highlighted back in 2006 when the military masterminded a bloodless coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. That confrontation, which is echoed in today’s showdown, pitted members of a traditional Bangkok élite against an upstart billionaire whose populist policies intoxicated many rural-poor voters. Although the military claimed legitimacy by accusing Thaksin of misrule, the appearance of tanks on the streets pulled the country back to the bad old days when putsches, not polls, were the mechanism for changing governments. Thaksin’s party was banned, and the deposed PM was charged with corruption and abuse of power. The generals did keep a promise to hold elections, which Samak’s People Power Party (PPP) won handily last December. But Samak initially campaigned as a proxy for Thaksin, the very man whom the coup was supposed to remove from the political scene. (Last month, Thaksin fled to England, claiming he will not receive a fair trial back home.) “If democracy brings Samak, then I don’t want it,” says Wijeau Noinoo, a finance executive from the southern city of Trang who was relaxing on the terrace of Government House. “We have to figure out another way.”

The PAD has charged itself with finding that alternative path. Led by a motley crew that includes a retired army general, a media mogul and a labor activist, it organized anti-Thaksin rallies back in 2006 that swelled to tens of thousands of people before the military finally toppled the former Prime Minister. Back then, the PAD accused Thaksin of graft and human-rights abuses, even going so far as to imply that the telecom tycoon had disrespected Thailand’s monarch — an incendiary charge in a country where the King is deeply revered.

Unlike Thaksin, Samak has deep connections with the palace; his family served as royal courtiers for generations. And though the former Bangkok governor defined his earlier career as a blustery hard-liner, Samak has so far used restraint against the people occupying his offices. The riot police charged with breaking up the Sept. 2 confrontation, for instance, did not carry guns. While Samak is hardly a touchy-feely politician, he, like his predecessor Thaksin, displays a deft common touch that is often lacking within Thailand’s political class. If a snap election were held tomorrow, Samak’s PPP would most likely win again.

That reality infuriates many members of Thailand’s élite, whose financial backing helps pay for all those free drinks and grilled squid at Government House. Indeed, even though the PAD’s very name includes the word democracy, many of its supporters are skeptical of electoral politics. Some PAD leaders have advocated replacing an elected parliament with one in which some members are appointed, arguing that widespread buying of rural votes delegitimizes the polls anyway. “It’s taken for granted in the West that democracy is the best system,” says PAD leader and media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul, sitting on a blue tarp that serves as the alliance’s makeshift headquarters at Government House. “But all we are getting in Thailand is the same vicious circle of corrupt, power-hungry leaders. This system is not working.”

No Way Out
Underlying the entire situation is the frail health of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Now 80 years old, the world’s longest-reigning monarch is viewed by many Thais as the adjudicator of last resort, even though the King forswears any involvement in day-to-day politics. No one is quite certain what will happen when he is no longer there to provide moral guidance for the nation. Complicating matters further is the military, which has shown a historical disregard for attempts to nurture Thai democracy. Now, with the army empowered to control security in Bangkok because of Samak’s state-of-emergency order, tanks could again roll through the capital. But army chief Anupong Paochinda vows he won’t sign off on a coup. “The door to use force,” he says, “is closed.”

Back at PAD central, behind barricades made from coils of razor wire and stacks of tires, Sondhi muses on what he envisions for Thailand’s political future. Maybe, he says, parliament could be rejiggered so that leaders from professional blocs sit alongside elected district representatives. Or perhaps, he continues, an unlikely national leader will emerge from the ranks of, say, teachers or human-rights activists. Then, Sondhi excuses himself. He goes and prays to the weather deities to ask them to forestall rain, lest the thousands of protesters at Government House get drenched by the monsoon. That night, Sondhi is lucky. No downpours come. But what will happen in the coming days, only the gods will know.

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