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Mass protests shake Thailand government
Will a U.S.-backed strongman fall?

By Lee Sustar | March 24, 2006 | Page 8

WILL MASS protests succeed in ousting Thailand's would-be strongman ruler--who was publicly embraced by George W. Bush just six months ago?

The series of mass protests against Thailand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra somewhat resemble U.S.-backed "revolutions" in which mass protests forced out governments in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Georgia in recent years.

The difference in Thailand is that Thaksin, a billionaire businessman, is a Washington ally who is aggressively prosecuting a war on Islamist separatists and pushing a free-trade deal with the U.S.

The Thai protests were triggered by growing corruption allegations against Thaksin and his family, which reached new heights when the family-owned telecommunications firm Shin Corp. was sold off to a Singapore investment firm at a $1.9 billion tax-free profit. An estimated 100,000 people protested in the capital city of Bangkok March 14, demanding that Thaksin resign.

Initially, the crowds were mostly middle class. Many of Thaksin's former allies are in the forefront of the movement--including Chamlong Srimuang, leader of a small but influential Buddhist sect known as Dharma Army.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej--who has moral authority but no formal power--urged the government to negotiate with the opposition, reprising his role from 1992 when similar protests ousted a military dictatorship.

But while powerful politicians head the opposition, organized labor has played a growing role. Workers from the state-owned electrical power system have organized strikes, and unions from other public-sector enterprises slated for privatization have also joined in. "Clearly the government is not listening to the will of the majority, but only to a powerful few," Somsak Kosaisook, general secretary of the State Enterprise Labour Association of Thailand, told reporters.

In response to the protests, Thaksin--first elected in 2001 and re-elected last year with a huge majority--has called snap elections for April 2, which the opposition has vowed to boycott. He's counting on winning re-election thanks to widespread support in rural areas that have benefited from government-subsidized loans and a low-cost health care system.

Thaksin's rural programs are credited with reducing poverty by one-third--a massive improvement in the wake of the suffering during the 1997 East Asian economic crisis.

The epicenter of that crisis was Thailand, where a crash in the currency led to a harsh restructuring plan ordered by the International Monetary Fund. In the nationalist backlash that resulted, Thaksin capitalized on disillusionment with the Thai political establishment to found a new party, Thai Rak Thai (TRT), or Thais Love Thais.

A former cop who got advanced degrees in the U.S., Thaksin made his first fortune leasing IBM computers to the Thailand police in the 1980s. His government connections helped him buy 7 of 22 telecommunications companies privatized in 1988, and soon made him one of the richest men in Asia.

In running for election, he played up his modest background and business experience to appeal to middle-sized companies and merchants that had been left out of the 1990s economic boom, as well as peasants and the rural poor. He promised to serve as the CEO of a Thai economy geared to the needs of the Thai people, rather than transnational corporations and foreign investors.

Once in office, however, Thaksin combined his rural program with a turn toward the world economy--for example, inviting investment from auto manufacturers, which now produce 3 million cars per year in Thailand.

According to Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, authors of several books on Thai history and politics, Thaksin won re-election on the basis of a booming economy, bringing former members of other parties into his TRT party and promising to keep delivering for both business and the poor. "As long as the economy barrels along, this balancing act may be manageable," they wrote following his re-election a year ago. "But if the economy slows, the conflict will rapidly emerge."

In fact, rising oil prices have cut sharply into working class incomes, and the next wave of privatizations and free trade agreements are seen as threats by sections of Thai capital. To many Thai business leaders and the middle class, the sale of Thaksin's telecommunications company to foreign investors was seen as a surrender of Thai sovereignty--and the outrage dovetailed with labor's campaign against privatization.

A crackdown by Thaksin can't be ruled out. He's already launched a military crackdown on a small Islamist separatist movement in the southern province of Pattani, which had been an independent sultanate before being annexed to Siam (as Thailand was formerly known) in 1902.

Since 2003, more than 1,000 people have been killed in Pattani and nearby Narathiwat and Yala, the other mainly Muslim areas. At least 78 Muslim men suffocated in police custody in October 2004 after being arrested and stacked like cordwood in trucks.

An estimated 2,000 others have been killed by government forces in extrajudicial executions in the name of a "war on drugs"--a policy praised by Bush when Thaksin visited the U.S. in September.

While occasionally noting Thailand's human rights abuses in State Department reports, the U.S. has signaled its firm support for Thaksin by staging annual military joint ventures known as Cobra Gold.

The military relationship was close throughout the Cold War, when Thailand was ruled mainly by military governments. U.S. forces were based in Thailand to wage war on Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia, and Thai military officers are trained and equipped by the U.S. Thus, if the Thai military shifts and ousts Thaskin in a coup--the top brass are alienated by Thaksin's promotion of his cronies--Washington will still have plenty of channels into the Thai military.

Thaksin may survive the protests. The business executives and politicians at the head of the opposition movement have no real alternative to his economic policies and will try to curb labor struggles. Nevertheless, Thaksin's troubles represent a major crisis--one that the U.S. could do without.

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