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Thu, February 16, 2006 : Last updated 17:20 pm (Thai local time)

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Home > Headlines > Real war has just begun

Real war has just begun

Students join the fray.Country faces unprecedented divisions as battle lines drawn.Cris deepens with changes of senators on govt payroll.

Some call it the “missing link”. The resurgence of student activism has added new momentum to the anti-Thaksin movement and drawn a clear battle line in a political war that seems to be dividing Thailand like never before.The late arrival of student activists on the scene is boosting the growing alliance of university lecturers and will complete the picture of the volatile confrontation between Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government and its opponents. On one side is a parliamentarily strong government still popular among the grassroots population and enjoying strong bases with its manipulation of state mechanisms throughout the country as well as reluctant endorsement from business leaders. On the other side stands a coalition of disenchanted intellectuals and the middle-class, with support from labour and NGO activists.

It seems harder and harder for anyone to stand on the middle ground. It’s either you love him or you hate him. Even the Privy Council found itself in the line of fire yesterday when a man perceived as a leading government mouthpiece, Samak Sundaravej, slammed two key council members for allegedly being partisan. Samak’s attacks on Council head Prem Tinsulanonda and councillor Palakorn Suwannarat carry political significance as profound as Prem’s Wednesday speech about moral leadership and Palakorn’s resignation as adviser to the apparently pro-Thaksin Political Science Alumni Association of the Chulalongkorn University.

Who is going to win this war?

Thaksin has countered Satur-day’s massive rally by largely middle-class protesters, with well-advertised morale-boosting visits from villagers and rural signature campaigns in his support. The past few days has seen the embattled prime minister hugging poorly dressed folks from the provinces while calling academics demanding his resignation “ignorant” and “unconscious”. His increasing hostility toward the country’s intellectuals ha prompted sarcastic asides that he is less of a Hitler and more a modern-day Pol Pot. He may also even be more shrewd than the former Khmer Rouge leader because he has managed to appeal to the grassroots community despite his enormous wealth.

Pol Pot or Hitler, or simply a badly misunderstood leader, Thaksin is facing an increasingly strong alliance bent on toppling him through three-pronged assaults. The street rallies will continue, and while the numbers of protesters may not increase on last week, student activists will help add a much-needed youthful vigour to the movement. A legal campaign will be mounted, thanks to the increasing evidence of alleged malpractice by Shin Corp’s major shareholders. And despite his parliamentary superiority, impeachment efforts are gathering steam.

The NGOs have all but fully joined the movement, after much resentment against controversial leader Sondhi Limthongkul, who has agreed to “pass the torch”, or so it seems. Now lecturers from 19 universities have declared war on the government. And, significantly, students are planning to come out in full force, effectively alienating Thaksin from key educational institutions.

Corruption watch groups, led by respectable graft busters Klanarong Chantik and Auditor-General Jaruvan, will join hands with the opposition Democrats in exposing new scandals. A sizeable group of senators will keep the impeachment campaign on track while the print media, with the exception of the largest circulation newspaper, have been questioning Thaksin’s legitimacy with increasing unification.

A weaker government would have crumbled like a house of cards already. But for the first time, the grassroots voters have been made relevant in a national leader’s political survival. Thaksin’s frequent invoking of his “19 million voters” has been effective in countering the massive Sondhi-led rallies, especially the last one at the Royal Plaza. And he is equipped with far more than the 19-million vote claim.

During his five years as premier, Thaksin has consolidated his power through a network he built with all social sectors – from grassroots voters to businesspeople, state officials and Parliament members. He also controls key institutions in terms of the checks-and-balances mechanisms, making any attempts to oust him by exposing evidence of corruption, appear like tennis balls bouncing off a brick wall.

As the prime minister struggles to survive his biggest political crisis that has put his leadership on the brink of collapse, this well-balanced network has proved itself as the pillar that continues to save his sinking ship, at least for now.

Grassroots people – including farmers, taxi drivers and low-income workers – are the very first groups to come out in support of Thaksin, amid a strong call from the anti-Thaksin movement for his resignation. They rule out all allegations against Thaksin, from the tax evasion in the Shin Corp deal to insulting royal power and conducting grafts. Instead, hundreds and thousands of them have come out in recent days to show support for “their prime minister”.

For example, more than 200,000 people are said to have signed a letter of support for Thaksin in Nong Khai, and another 30,000 Thai Rak Thai supporters did so in Nonthaburi. Thousands of others have travelled to Government House to greet Thaksin, while many other supporters have gathered at local, district or provincial headquarters to voice their opinion that he is the only leader in their hearts.

They still believe that ongoing government schemes – including the Village Fund, the Bt30-medical scheme and Community Bank – will eradicate poverty over the next few years.

Thaksin’s position has continually been strengthening, as the support for him goes beyond the grassroots citizens.

Despite Thaksin failing to clarify the allegations of his family’s tax-evasion, businesspeople still back him, as a “big change” in the government’s leadership would surely ruin both their short and long-term investments – particularly mega-projects, on which the bidding will begin over the next few months.

Large numbers of business leaders also met Thaksin at Government House to show the world that the protest would not affect the government’s stability, as Thaksin will stay on as the premier with their support.

And despite the strong opposition to him in academic circles, Thaksin has managed to win support from a number of other government institutes. Lecturers and executives of 45 Rajabhat Universities nationwide turned out to support Thaksin. Some high-school teachers and students have even asked the anti-Thaksin movement to drop all of their attempts to oust him.

Despite some state officials attempting to stay neutral, state departments have also become a major part of the government’s strategy to overcome the anti-Thaksin movement. Provincial governors, members of local administrative organisations and local police officers are reported to have received government orders to make “every possible move” to stop the activities of anti-Thaksin groups.

As happened on Saturday, officials in many provinces successfully blocked anti-Thaksin groups travelling to the capital to join Sondhi Limthongkul’s rally.

The U-turn stance of Thaksin towards key factions in his ruling party has also played a major part in helping him back from the brink of downfall. At the height of Saturday’s mass rally, Thaksin knew that only key factions in his party would help him to survive the day, amid rumours that ministers and MPs planned to quit the government.

Labour Minister Somsak Thepsuthin, a leader of the Wang Nam Yom faction with nearly 100 MPs, is believed to have changed his mind at the “very last minute”, cancelling a plan to resign, after Sora-at Klinpratoom quit as Information and Communication Technology minister just a few hours earlier.

His resignation would surely have lead to the withdrawal of his faction’s support and quite likely to the fall of the government.

Thaksin is believed to have promised to upgrade Somsak’s position and have him head the Agriculture Ministry in the forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle in exchange for his loyalty. The premier has never compromised with his faction before.

While Thaksin is facing trouble outside Parliament, he has ensured that parliamentary means are unlikely to undermine his leadership as his party’s control clearly looms large over the House and the Senate.

With 374 of 500 seats, Thaksin can hold the House hostage, as any attempts to censure him for wrongdoings would be impossible. The no-confidence vote on the prime minister requires the support of 200 MPs. Beyond the Lower House, Thaksin can ensure that the Upper House as a checking mechanism, is still as friendly to him as it has been during his five years in power through the allegedly pro-government senators.

A bombshell was thrown on to the Senate floor yesterday with claims and some admissions that about 60 of the 200 senators were on the payrolls of politicians in or with links to the ruling Thai Rak Thai Party.

The admission came to the surface in connection with the debate on how to rectify the list of nine National Counter Corruption Commission nominees.

Following an hours-long confidential debate on why the NCCC list was sent back for review by the Royal Palace, the session resumed as an open debate on the list rectification. Senator Pichet Patanachote dropped a political bombshell, saying that many of those in the majority vote were obliged to vote for the flawed list in November because they received monetary subsidies from government politicians. “I heard this from Deputy Senate Speaker Niphon Visityuthasart,” he said.

To clarify the matter, Niphon said he had talked about senators being on the payroll of former prime minister Chuan Leekpai and Thai Rath senior editor Manit Sooksomjit on Thammasat University Day. “Chuan and Manit asked me if I knew about the payrolls and Senator Surachai Tangdanaitrakul happened to pass by and answer for me,” he said.

Surachai said in turn that he had replied that certain senators were on these payrolls. “I am not certain that the numbers would be as high as 60,” he said. Senator Anukul Supachaikij said he heard each senator received Bt50,000 to Bt100,000 per month. His colleague Pinya Chuayplod said he had been paid in the past but no longer was.

It seems the turmoil in the political scene will only grow. Despite Thaksin’s utmost attempts to show the public that everything is under control, the war is far from over. And it’s hard to predict right now who, when it comes down to it, will be left standing.

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