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Tensions rise as key Thai parties call for protests

Publication Date : 04-06-2012


The political heat is rising again in Thailand as major parties call for street protests and the ruling Puea Thai finds itself up against what it calls an interfering judiciary.

Up to 5,000 "red shirts" who gathered in an auditorium outside Bangkok on Saturday were told by former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, speaking via video link from abroad, that "the process of robbing the people has begun again".

Speaking to a crowd of 2,000 in Bangkok the same evening, former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva - whose Democrat Party lost last year's general election - said the party would urge supporters to take to the streets in a movement called Sai Loh Fa, which translates as "lightning rod".

There are two bones of contention: proposed legislation aimed at reconciling the political divide in Thailand, and amendments to the Constitution.

The first would annul political convictions handed down by agencies and institutions set up by the army - after it grabbed power in September 2006 - paving the way for Thaksin to return to Thailand. He left the country in 2008 to dodge a jail sentence for corruption.

The royalist-bureaucratic-military establishment is strongly opposed to his return as it believes that he is intent on eroding the power of the monarchy. The Democrat Party and royalist groups say the draft Bills are aimed at whitewashing his crimes.

Said Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in her radio programme: "Isn't it too soon to judge that the reconciliation Bills will specially benefit someone?"

She added: "If the majority will not accept the Bills, they will surely be dropped. But if the reconciliation process stops, how will the country go on?"

The second issue - amending the Constitution - would swing power back to political parties and the electoral system. The current Constitution, drawn up in 2007 by a committee packed with conservatives picked by the military, tilts the balance against political parties.

The Puea Thai wants to push through both issues but a rowdy protest by royalist groups led by the right-wing People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) last Friday forced the ruling party to backpedal on the reconciliation Bills.

Meanwhile, efforts to amend the Constitution have stalled after the Constitution Court accepted a petition from the Democrat Party and four individuals questioning the legality of the government's action.

"The 'judicial coup' has begun," a Puea Thai minister said in a text message, using a common term to describe a stream of court judgments against Thaksin and his parties since 2007.

"And they (the PAD and Democrat Party) are trying to stir up violence so that the army can step in," the minister added.

The developments came after a week of near-brawls in Parliament and Friday's protest.

On Saturday, Thaksin attempted to heal the rift with the red shirts, urging them to come together and protect the government against attempts to oust it.

Many in the red shirt camp were earlier dismayed by his move to "reconcile" at the expense of accountability and justice for Thaksin supporters killed in Bangkok protests in 2010.

"I must apologise. I had no intention to trample on the hearts of red shirts," said Thaksin, who wore a red shirt. "We ourselves must not be disunited."

On the other side of the divide, the anti-Thaksin PAD is not as strong as it used to be but "they are committed - and they hate Thaksin", noted political science professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak.

The army, which implicitly sided with the PAD in the past, stayed neutral this time, he said.

"In the past, the courts and the army stepped in but, if they do that again, it will radicalise the red shirts and the backlash will be severe," he added.

Said The Nation in an editorial: "Nothing has changed in the big picture...All the ingredients of a politically volcanic eruption remain."


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