Thailand faces embarrassment

For years, Thais affected an air of superiority when talking about their regional neighbours on mainland South-east Asia. Such pride came from the country’s record of political stability — despite numerous coups — that attracted foreign investment. But the siege of Bangkok’s international airport by a right-wing anti-government protest movement, which entered its fourth day on Saturday, is shredding the superior edge Thailand

had enjoyed. This is the fourth airport in the country that this right-wing movement has succeeded in shutting down since it took to the streets in May to force a democratically elected government to resign. And the countries that Thais looked down with contempt, the much poorer Cambodia and Laos, are asking deeply embarrassing questions of Thailand.

“All this will be deeply embarrassing for Thais, especially the questions being asked from the smaller countries on mainland South-east Asia,” says Puangthong Pawakapan, a political scientist at the international relations department at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “It shows how neighbours are perceiving us as a country out of control. Our reputation for economic, political and social stability has been lost.” ASEAN, which was founded in 1967 as a bulwark against the spread of communism in the region during the height of the Cold War, is a 10-member bloc. It includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The call to postpone the summit comes after Thailand already took a desperate decision to change the venue of the summit due to the anti-government protests led by the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The announcement in October, to shift the venue from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, came after the PAD ratcheted up its campaign to cripple the Somchai administration, resulting in a clash with the police outside the parliament, where two protesters were killed and hundreds injured.

The PAD, despite its name, does not have expanding electoral democracy as a goal. It is calling for the military to stage another coup — the country’s 19th — and wants to impose a political regime that drastically cuts the one-citizen-one-vote rule and replace it with a parliament where 70 per cent of the legislators are appointed. Its well-organised campaigns, forcefully taking over symbols of power, such as occupying the prime minister’s office since late August, and surrounding the parliament to prevent the legislature from sitting, have preceded the current takeover of Suvarnabhumi airport, a vital economic lifeline to Thailand.

The PAD, which is backed by middle-class urban Thais, royalists and the entrenched elite, has also won the backing of influential figures in this kingdom. Ignored, consequently, are the voices of the country’s majority, most of who are rural poor, who closed ranks to vote for the current six-party coalition government at last December’s polls. “Thailand as the host and chairman of the summit would lose face as it would be the only ASEAN member unable to sign the agreements,” Noppadon Sarawasi, deputy director-general of the trade negotiations department, warned this week, according to the ‘Bangkok Post’ newspaper. “This would affect the confidence in its leadership in the ASEAN region.” — IPS