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The failed ASEAN summit in Pattaya has set the grouping back. TOC Editorial.

Two strikes against Thailand

The failed ASEAN summit in Pattaya has set the grouping back, but it may yet prove mortal for the Thai government

The abandoned Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Pattaya on 11th April 2009 was an unmitigated disaster for the grouping.  Coming so soon after the summit was originally blown off course in December 2008 due to similar turmoil in Thailand, it is a severe blow to ASEAN’s credibility, especially for its relations with its dialogue partners.  The summit had already been somewhat overshadowed by the successful G20 meeting in London which featured most of ASEAN’s dialogue partners – events in Pattaya only seemed to underscore the grouping’s irrelevance.

Even so, ASEAN will eventually recover from the Pattaya calamity, if only because it has advanced too far along and is too important a project for its members to concede easily.  Countries like China and Japan also have their own considerations for engaging ASEAN, fully independent of the G20.  But ASEAN’s shortcomings have been starkly exposed, particularly when compared with the organisation it has long sought to emulate: the European Union barely registered a hitch when the Czech Republic (the current chair) recently suffered a change of government.

However, it is perhaps a little more difficult to assess whether the current Thai government can recover from the summit fiasco.  Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s newish administration may find itself struck out after coming under pressure from all sides, and not just from the loutish red-shirted supporters of deposed Prime Minister in exile Thaksin Shinawatra who had forced the government to cancel the summit. 

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a motley crew of democrats and royalists that was instrumental in Mr Abhisit’s ascension to power, has criticised the government’s handling of the protests.  There are even doubts about whether the police and the army will obey the government: some have observed that the security forces had been less than enthused about stopping the protestors in Pattaya. Furthermore, the situation seems to be deteriorating – the red-shirts, buoyed by their successful disruption of the summit, are out in force in the capital and other provinces as well.

There are fears that a soft coup by political parties affiliated with Mr Thaksin could be on the cards, if Mr Abhisit’s government can be pressured into resigning.  There is little doubt that Mr Thaksin’s forces are also gunning for several of the King’s close advisors – particularly Prem Tinsulanonda, a bitter rival of Mr Thaksin and seen as one of the hidden hands behind the PAD – to quit, though the red-shirts have been careful to train their ire at Mr Abhisit to avoid any charge that they are undermining the monarchy. 

In fact, what seems surprising is the rejuvenation of Mr Thaksin’s cause just a few weeks after he had been deemed by many to be a spent force.  The red-shirts, who are consciously mirroring the tactics the PAD adopted in ousting the last Thaksin-affiliated government in December 2008, may prove to have same staying power as the PAD.  Mr Thaksin is said to have relatives and close allies in key positions in the country to advance his cause and the red-shirts have also skilfully taken advantage of the declining economic situation in Thailand to rally support. 

This would have alarmed the PAD and other forces aligned against Mr Thaksin.  Nonetheless, their best bet is still to rally behind Mr Abhisit.  The military is loathe to institute another coup, perhaps realising it cannot repeat the bloodless performance of 2006 in today’s charged atmosphere and because it is still discredited after a poor showing in its two years in office.  The PAD depends very much on the political legitimacy provided by Mr Abhisit’s Democrat Party-led majority to keep itself from being prosecuted for its part in past anti-Thaksin demonstrations.

And so Thailand is, as one of its leading papers has said, on the “brink” again.  Yet there is still a chance that things might be resolved peacefully.  Mr Abhisit, perhaps cognisant that bloodshed would make his position untenable, has restrained from authorising troops to use force on the protestors, though he has threatened to change this if the situation becomes chaotic.  A way out may be offered by Mr Thaksin – rumours have been circulating that he wants to cut a deal with Mr Abhisit for fresh elections and for the government to drop charges against him.  Mr Abhisit, who has been avoiding such an eventuality that might result in his government collapsing, may find that he has little choice this time.

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Read also: Pattaya incidence - a sad day for ASEAN by The Jakarta Post.

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