Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thai Round Three: Nation on the Brink

By Tulsathit Taptim

The political showdown has reached the point where everyone can only pray and nobody dares to predict the outcome.

Thaksin Shinawatra says he wants to "conclude" it during, if not before, Songkran. Abhisit Vejjajiva says everything will return to normal after Songkran. What will this dangerous common ground of the two men who have become arch-rivals lead us to is anyone's guess.

One day after the whole of Thailand is the ultimate loser, the nation is staring at one of the most monumentous political showdowns in modern history. And interestingly, both warring parties are up against the ropes. Thaksin and the red-shirted movement have gambled with everything they had, alienating themselves from non-partisan Thais with the kind of aggession that has put the already weak Thai economy in jeopardy and further threatened frabics of nationhood. Abhisit, on the other hand, has cornered himself with the Mr Nice Guy approach and the only way to shore up his wavering legitimacy is to act tough.

Thaksin has nothing to lose, albeit except Bt76 billion which may be the final answer to the question "Why?". Abhisit has everything to lose and some values to protect.

The prime minister was said to have lashed out at the police, military and government kingmaker Suthep Thaugsuban after the Pattaya debacle which is costing much more than just his face. The turmoil that caused the cancellation of the Asean summit with dialogue partners, however, has eaten into public sympathy for the red shirts as much as Abhisit's leadership.

Declaration of state of emergency in Bangkok and its suburbs was Abhisit's only choice. If it wasn't his last throw of the dice, it was something very close. A failed state of emergency like the one declared by the ill-fated government of Samak Sundaravej last year could doom Abhisit's reign. But a bloodshed as a result of the state of emergency could also generate political repercussions that are as bad, if not worse.

And Abhisit's state of emergency will be enforced against a backdrop of doubtful loyalty from the police and, to a lesser extent, the military. Conspiracy theorists are seeing an increasingly isolated prime minister after what should have been a high-alert security routine in Pattaya provided a non-existent barricade allowing protesters to sleepwalk to the summit hotel in great numbers. Other analysts, however, simply view the outbreak of red-shirted aggression as a result of a too-cautious approach of authorities too fearful of things getting out of control.

It will become evident very soon whether Abhisit is acting tough when it's too late. If they had failed in Pattaya on Saturday, the red-shirted protesters could have been tamed or calm today. But now that they have been buoyed by the Pattaya "victory", the movement will naturally be more difficult to contain.

One thing remains unchanged for Thaksin. A crumbled government, or a House dissolution, or a large-scale bloody riot, or even a coup, will not be enough to bring him home, let alone restore him politically. This is a war just for the man to get even, or at best some leverage to push for return of the frozen Bt76 billion.

So, it's fast becoming a war between enemies whose only way to go is forward. One side is very desperate, while the other has been jolted into a near panic mode. This is the kind of situation where no pundit dares predicting the immediate result, let alone a long-term one.

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