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Thailand Humiliated

Posted in Uncategorized by malaysiasms on April 13, 2009

The military may see the aborted summit as proof of government weakness

thailand1The Times UK

Few governments have ever suffered the humiliation of having to airlift visiting foreign leaders out of the country to protect them from mobs. The cancellation of the 16-nation summit of the Association of SouthEast Asian nations in Thailand at the weekend is not only a national embarrassment; it is a potentially fatal blow to the credibility of the Government, brought low by the tactics that its own supporters used only six months ago to overthrow their rivals.

Thailand has been made a laughing stock throughout Asia. And it is not only the loss of face that hurts. Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Prime Minister, who was one of those evacuated, was ready to announce a $10 billion fund for investment in infrastructure. Leaders from Japan and India were also preparing, with the United Nations Secretary-General and the president of the World Bank, to propose measures to stimulate the economies of Asean’s poorer members. All must now wait until the summit can be reconvened in a more secure environment.

The red-shirted demonstrators who stormed the summit venue in Pattaya, unchecked by police or security forces, are not the only ones to blame for the current mayhem (see page 29). From the start of the latest street protests a week ago, the Government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the British-born Prime Minister, has appeared at a loss. Its appeal for order has met only a mocking response from around 100,000 demonstrators. After all, it was Mr Abhisit’s yellow-shirted supporters who used the same tactic last autumn, occupying the Prime Minister’s office and blockading the international airport, when they tried to force out the democratically elected government loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled millionaire populist who is revered by the rural poor but hated by the urban elite.

Mr Abhisit called for tough action against the protesters. But he found the police and the Army unwilling, as they had been during the airport blockade in November, to intervene. The demand yesterday by his deputy that they “fully and forcefully carry out their job” only underlined the Government’s impotence.

Many Thais look with bemusement at the antics of their politicians. But the vacuum in authority is ominous. Tourists are fearful that they will be stranded if the airport is again blockaded. Last year Thailand lost an estimated $3.7 billion in tourist income. The country can ill afford a further loss of tourist confidence this year. In the far south, the separatist rebellion is still taking a heavy toll on the three mainly Muslim provinces. Around the King, factions are trying to advance their cause. And the military, frustrated by the violence in the south and the political feuding, may well consider the summit fiasco proof that the Government is unable to govern, despite yesterday’s declaration of a state of emergency. The last military coup was only in 2006, one of 18 since the 1930s. A new coup would be unlikely to lead to a swift return to democracy.

Thailand is an important Western ally. Its democracy, however chaotic, has been a beacon in a region where repressive governments have often been the norm. The last three years, however, have seen an erosion of tolerance. Street demonstrators may think they are battling for freedom and justice. The danger is that they may be heralding the extinction of both.

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