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Thailand: Status as regional leader in doubt

Inter Press Service | 29 November 2008

THAILAND: Status as Regional Leader in Doubt

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Nov 29 (IPS) — 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.

Cambodia and Laos have queried if Thailand is in a position to host a summit of South-east Asian leaders planned to be held in mid-December in the northern city of Chiang Mai.

‘’They said so on Wednesday, after the Suvarnabhumi airport was taken over,’’ a Bangkok-based South-east Asian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IPS. ‘’These are concerns that even others have begun to ask.’’

Vietnam joined that list by Thursday, increasing the pressure on Bangkok to postpone the annual leaders’ meeting of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN).

And by the week’s end, two of the region’s more prosperous nations, Singapore and Malaysia, also had messages that have painted Thailand into an unenviable corner due to a situation on the ground that hovers between anarchy and mob rule.

‘’We are very troubled by it. We hope that all groups in Thailand will have the political will to compromise and find a way out for the country,’’ Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo was quoted as having told Channel News Asia, a television station based in the affluent city-state. ‘’The tourism industry is badly affected. I worry that the ASEAN summit will be affected.’’

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is reported to be in two minds about attending the Chiang Mai summit, the national news agency, Bernama, revealed. Abdullah is the first of ASEAN’s leaders to say so, although the reason he gives is a valid one — the summit coincides with an important parliamentary session.

‘’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.’’

‘’Even if the government takes back the airport, the damage to Thailand’s reputation cannot be mended soon,’’ she explained in an interview. ‘’In no other country in the world have protesters been able to take over a major international airport and hold it for so many days.’’

Bangkok, however, is still keen on sticking to the original plans as the host of the 14th ASEAN summit, since a change will cost the country’s already beleaguered reputation more damage. ‘’I have not decided whether to postpone (the summit), but to postpone it will damage our country’s image,’’ Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat told reporters on Friday.

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 percent 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.

The PAD’s success — and implied sympathy towards it by the country’s powerful military — has also resulted in another unprecedented feature in Thai politics, justifying the concerns of stability raised by some ASEAN countries. Somchai, the premier, has opted to abandon Bangkok and seek refuge in Chiang Mai, the home town of his wife, where support for the government is high.

‘’As there are still uncertainties in the tensions between the government and army, for his safety the prime minister will stay in Chiang Mai,’’ government spokesman Suparat Nakbunnam was quoted as having told the AFP news agency. ‘’He has no schedule to return to Bangkok, he will stay in Chiang Mai indefinitely for his security.’’

The inability of the government to function also lessens the prospect of Thailand failing to get parliament’s approval of trade deals vital for ASEAN’s economic agenda. The country needs to get the legislature’s backing for 30 agreements, including an ASEAN-India free trade agreement and an ASEAN-South Korea free trade agreement.

‘’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.’’

 source: IPS