What were the protests in Thailand about?

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What were the protests in Thailand about?


Left:Thousands of pro-government supporters rally in Bangkok on Nov. 30 in a face-off with anti-government protesters. Right:Anti-government protesters gather at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport on Nov. 25. [REUTERS]

Many people who traveled to Thailand recently found themselves having to stay in the country longer than they had planned.

Those who got out as scheduled were lucky. Some 300,000 travelers who were visiting Thailand late last month were stranded in the airport for more than a week.

You probably saw TV images of endless lines of frustrated travelers craning their necks toward the airline counters.

You may also have seen thousands of protesters clad in yellow T-shirts occupying Bangkok’s two major airports.

What was going on?

The crisis first erupted after members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy started protest marches in the country’s main cities, demanding that then-Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat step down.

They said Somchai, from the People’s Power Party, had rigged last December’s election and was a puppet of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in 2006 amid a series of corruption charges and has been in self-imposed exile in Britain, both he and his wife convicted of corruption and tax fraud.

The protests was met with intense crackdowns by the government, which only further escalated the confrontation.

The number of protesters swelled day by day. Finally, they made their way to the prime minister’s office, the National Assembly, police stations and the country’s two main airports.

With the protesters occupying the airports, normal operations were suspended from Nov. 26. What started off as a domestic political feud had become an international crisis that affected tens of thousands of people from around the world, as well as cargo and air traffic in the surrounding Southeast Asian region.

For nine days, thousands of foreign tourists in Thailand were turned away from the airports. Airline companies, foreign embassies, airport authorities and the tourists themselves scurried to find other alternatives. The tourists were put up at nearby hotels at the expense of the airport authority and the government.

Thai Airways, the national airline, estimated the nine-day airport occupation cost the company 20 billion baht ($572 million). Airport authorities said they were hit by losses of about 100 million baht for each day of the crisis.

Bangkok’s main English newspaper, The Nation, estimated the overall damage to the country’s tourism industry at about 100 billion baht. And next year, the industry foresees an additional loss of 140 billion baht.

The protests showed no sign of abating and international pressure on Bangkok mounted.

So the Thai constitutional court ruled on Nov. 2 that the PPP, the party in power, was responsible for election rigging and ordered the party disbanded.

The court also banned Somchai and 58 ruling party legislators from politics for five years, prompting Somchai to resign immediately.

The protesters burst into tears and cheers when the court rulings came out.

At first glance, the events look like the victory of ordinary Thai people hoping for a cleaner, corruption-free government.

But the reality is not that simple.

For a start, the protesters were Thaksin opponents, a minority who are backed by relatively wealthy, elite voters and possibly by the nation’s much-revered royal family.

The majority of the population are Thaksin supporters, low-income and low-educated voters from poor rural regions.

When he assumed power in 2001, Thaksin pledged to roll out dramatic social welfare programs for rural farmers and low-income families, whose lives were tough in the aftermath of 1997?98 Asian financial crisis.

The Thaksin government enjoyed much popularity among rural farmers and poor urban voters, who were showered with state-backed loans, social welfare programs and low-cost medical services.

But this alienated the country’s elite groups and relatively wealthier urban voters, who felt sidelined.

Thaksin’s populist platform eventually became his downfall. He has become increasingly estranged from the three major pillars of Bangkok’s political culture: the revered royal family led by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the military and the government bureaucracy.

Thaksin was also accused of abusing his position of power to amass a huge fortune.

In 2006, for example, Thaksin reaped a profit of nearly $2 billion by selling a stake in his company to a Singaporean state firm, but did not pay any tax on the transaction. This drew the ire of many voters.

Finally, the nation’s military, which has played a significant role in domestics politics in the past, stepped in and staged a coup while Thaksin was out of the country.

The bloodless coup stripped Thaksin of power, but elections held months later to replace him also gave his followers a landslide victory.

The People’s Power Party, which won the national elections in early 2007, was led by Samak Sundaravej, Thaksin’s political protege.

Samak was an active proponent of many of Thaksin’s own policies, including resuming state-backed loan programs for poor rural farmers.

But he did not last long in office. Thaksin’s opponents also accused him of election rigging and launched an investigation against him on charges of embezzlement.

As a result, Samak stepped down from the post earlier this year. He was replaced by Somchai, another pro-Thaksin figure and Thaksin’s brother-in-law.

Thailand’s parliament yesterday voted in Abhisit Vejjajiva, the 44-year-old leader of the opposition Democrat Party, to be the country’s new prime minister.

He is Thailand’s third prime minister in four months.

With the Democrat Party’s win, it is the country’s first administrative change in seven years since Thaksin came to power in 2001.

The announcement immediately prompted protests by angry Thaksin supporters.

They clashed with police and threw traffic barriers outside the gates of Parliament House to try to prevent lawmakers from leaving after the parliamentary session.

The recent upheaval is expected to have a huge impact on Thai politics. There is also likely to be some damage to the livelihoods of the millions of Thais who work in the tourism industry, which accounts for 12 percent of Thailand’s entire economy.

Many travelers, spooked by the recent airport blockage, may choose not to return to the country anytime soon. The global economic recession will add to this impact.

The new government has its work cut out. It needs to stabilize Thai politics, which has been disrupted by frequent military intervention and intensifying clashes between the poor rural voters and relatively well-off urban voters. It also needs to attract foreign travelers back.

By Jung Ha-won Staff Reporter [hawon@joongang.co.kr]

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