By The Nation
Published on April 27, 2009

Simmering political turmoil and unreliable coalition partners won't make life any easier for PM

In spite of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's removal of the State of Emergency last week, the political turmoil is far from over. We have witnessed only the first round of the unrest. Jakrapob Penkair, one of the leaders of the red-shirt protesters, vowed to continue the fight on the ground or underground until he could bring down the bureaucratic polity (elite class) in Thailand. Ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has not stopped fighting either.

Abhisit would like to send a signal that he has been able to bring the crisis under control. First, he said he is willing to consider constitutional reform and political amnesty for politicians barred from politics for five years and who were not directly involved in alleged election frauds. But the road ahead for political compromise is not going to be easy as it is likely to face opposition from the Thai public, who stand opposed to the red shirts.

Second, Abhisit took part in the parliamentary debate on the red-shirt demonstrations and violent protests. He took time to explain the incident prior to and during the Songkran turmoil, while the Opposition Pheu Thai attacked him over his government's handling of the protesters. It was a rather bizarre show because nobody was debating why the rallies took place or what objectives they were trying to achieve. Instead, they were debating the military's use of force to quell the protesters, who should have been squashed any way because they were setting fire to buses and destroying public properties.

Third, before the parliamentary session ended, Abhisit rushed to announce his decision to end the State of Emergency. The PM had declared the emergency on April 12, one day ahead of the clashes between red-shirt protesters and the military forces. This allowed him to consolidate all power into his hands. It created an atmosphere of high political risks. Businesses and tourists had been hard hit by the State of Emergency. Thai companies doing business abroad faced a premium on their transactions due to the risk associated with the State of Emergency.

Initially, many expected that Abhisit would move swiftly, backed by the emergency decree, to reshuffle the top police and military commanders who failed to secure peace during the turmoil and who might have stood idle intentionally while the rallies were going on. As it now happens, Abhisit has not announced any reshuffle. The premier is more concerned with the country's image in the international community. He would like to hold the Asean Summit in June in Phuket after it was postponed in April due to the red-shirt protest. It is not certain whether regional leaders would give him another chance, given the ongoing turmoil.

Over the weekend, the red shirts held rallies again at Sanam Luang after Abhisit's removal of the State of Emergency. It was soft music this time. Without a clear signal from their leaders, the red shirts would only say that they won't go away easily.

The red shirts suffered a big set back on Songkran Day when they thought that they would be able to triumph with a people's revolution. In the people's revolution, supporters of Thaksin were to topple the Abhisit government including the elite class. Thaksin was reported to be staying in one of the neighbouring countries, ready to get into the country to lead the charge. But when he realised that his red-shirt rallies could not make the advance in the capital because Abhisit had put up a big fight, he decided at the last minute not to enter Thailand. It was one of the most dramatic episodes in modern Thailand's history.

Thaksin's top lieutenant, Jakrapob Penkair, escaped the authorities' net when he managed to sneak out of the country during the ensuing turmoil. But he told BBC later that he would continue to fight, an armed struggle if necessary, on the ground or underground to fulfil his goal. Jakrapob is facing an arrest warrant for his role in instigating the turmoil during Songkran. Jakrapob is a key operative of Thaksin. He had been telling the foreign community in Bangkok for more than a year that he would one day lead a people's revolution to topple the elite in Thailand. Many foreign media did not take his words lightly. Several had written editorials to suggest afterwards that Thailand would risk plunging into a Nepal-like situation.

The people's revolution did not take place as Jakrapob predicted. For whatever reason, it took place without him standing in the front. The people's revolution was quelled by a military group, who supported Abhisit. Without a counterattack, the history of Thailand would have been completely changed by now.

The road ahead remains bumpy. The polarisation is still alive. There is little room for a political compromise. The red shirts will not stop until Thaksin can prevail or at least get his Bt76 billion in frozen money back. The stability of the Abhisit government is shaky. His allies are planning to backstab him. Abhisit has few allies around except that his approval rating has been soaring in the aftermath of the Songkran turmoil. Without a strong mandate and coalition support, Abhisit might find it difficult to last beyond this year.