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Protesting bad government in Thailand

By Seth Mydans  Posted by martin weiss (about the submitter)     Permalink       (Page 1 of 2 pages)
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The New York Times

September 2, 2008
Thai Protesters Target Utilities

BANGKOK — Anti-government protests broadened Monday with the announcement of an array of job actions that would affect utilities and transportation.

The latest protests intensified what had become a stubborn class struggle between the Thai middle class and a beleaguered government backed by a business and financial elite acting in the name of Thailand’s poor.

Labor unions representing 200,000 workers at 43 state enterprises said they would cut off water, electricity and telephone service to government offices beginning Tuesday. Thai Airways personnel also said they would delay flights beginning on Tuesday, and transport workers said they would halt service on 80 percent of Bangkok’s 3,800 buses.

In the face of this escalation, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej canceled a trip to Japan planned for Tuesday. A sit-in, now in its sixth day, at his office compound has forced him to work elsewhere since last week.

Hundreds of railway workers on Monday continued a strike that had cut off service between Bangkok and the far northern and southern parts of the country and idled more than half the cargo trains scheduled to run Monday.

The announced job actions came on the 100th day of street protests demanding the resignation of Mr. Samak, whom protesters accuse of corruption and incompetence and of being a front man for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

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Mr. Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, was forced from power in a coup two years ago. He fled to London last month, where he sought political asylum in the hope of avoiding court cases in Thailand accusing him of corruption and abuse of power.

“This action is unavoidable,” Sawit Kaewwan, secretary general of a federation of unions representing state employees, said in announcing the cutoff of utilities. “It is the way to protect our basic democratic rights.”

Democracy has become a rallying cry in recent days. But although both the government and its opponents espouse the ideal, neither party has a purely democratic vision. Thailand’s progress toward representative democracy peaked a decade ago with the passage of a liberal Constitution and has been in retreat ever since.

“The People’s Alliance for Democracy is not a pro-democracy movement,” said Charles Keyes, an expert on Thailand at the University of Washington in Seattle, referring to the group that is leading the protests.

According to Mr. Keyes and other scholars, the movement in Thailand is not a broadly popular uprising like those in the Philippines that ousted repressive governments, but rather the product of a relatively small alliance uniting several agendas. It pits a modern middle class allied with supporters of the monarchy against a business and financial elite that is championing the nation’s rural and unskilled poor.

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“The present crisis is in part a real conflict between two very different classes in Thailand, the urban middle class and the working class,” Mr. Keyes said. The unionists now joining the anti-government movement are part of the contemporary middle class benefiting from Thailand’s modern economy.

The protests are also a battleground between the mostly rural poor and the middle-class establishment. The divide between them has deepened since Mr. Thaksin, a dynamic and polarizing figure, courted a poor constituency as a foundation of power.

It is taken for granted here that the pro-Thaksin government would win a new election because it has the support of the rural and urban poor, a clear majority of the Thai electorate. This makes a democratic election less attractive for the anti-government group. Protest leaders mostly speak for the middle class, in an alliance of convenience with a royalist establishment that feels threatened by the emerging power of the poor.

Though the confrontation has been remarkably bloodless thus far, the possibility of violence hovers over the stand-off. Some protesters have armed themselves and a small bomb exploded early Tuesday not far from the protest site. No one was hurt, but the bomb was seen as an explicit warning of possible future actions. On Sunday supporters of the Samak government took to the streets in counter-protest. Parliament also convened in emergency session.

Mr. Samak, a scarred veteran of decades of Thai politics, has taken pains to say he will handle the protesters gently. He is believed to feel constrained by the brutal role he played in ordering a massacre of student demonstrators in 1976, still a subject of intense resentment.

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