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Thailand awaits king's word on political conflict

December 4, 2013
Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) — As violence between anti-government protesters and police died down Wednesday in the Thai capital, people of all political persuasions waited to hear if their king would offer advice in his annual birthday speech to help resolve a crisis that has left the nation deeply divided.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turns 86 on Thursday, has often served as a unifying figure in times of crisis.

Many people are hopeful the king can step in — as he has done decisively before — to ease the current standoff, which results from years of enmity between supporters and opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was deposed by a 2006 military coup after being accused of corruption and disrespect for the king.

As a constitutional monarch, the king has no official political role, but no other figure commands the same moral authority or the same loyalty from the armed forces in the coup-prone country.

On two occasions when the country seemed to be coming apart, his intervention turned the tide, restoring peace literally overnight.

When a pro-democracy uprising against a military dictatorship in 1973 left Bangkok in a state of anarchy, with the army ready to unleash a bloodbath, he showed support for the demonstrators and persuaded the dictators to go into exile.

A similar disaster was avoided in 1992 during another mass protest against a military-backed government. After a crackdown threatened to spin out of control, the king summoned the protest leader and the prime minister to a late-night televised meeting where he chastised them for tearing apart the nation.

The latest conflict is far less severe, but it is violent and seemingly intractable.

Traditionally the king speaks his mind during his birthday speech, one of the rare occasions on which he talks directly to the public. He often makes his points through humor and aphorisms, but their meaning is usually clear.

Sukanya Chaisilapin, 27, an employee for a courier company, said she thought his speech "will be a way out."

"Previously his majesty has given speeches about reconciliation and unity, and it could help with this kind of situation," she said.

Janwadee Jilao, 24, a marketing executive, said the king has never ignored political strife. "He comes out and looks after and cares for all of his people. Even though there are two political factions, I believe that if Thais go back to loving each other, it will be because of his majesty."

However, Thailand's political environment has changed vastly since 1973 and 1992, when public sentiment was solidly on one side against abusive military leaders.

The king is a less vigorous figure than he used to be. In July, he ended a nearly four-year hospital stay — initially for treatment of a lung infection — to live in a palace in the seaside town of Hua Hin, where he is to deliver his speech.

The monarchy, once an untouchable institution, has also fallen in esteem in recent years after being abused for political gain by different parties.

Those who sought to oust Thaksin accused him of trying to usurp the king's authority, and some alleged that he sought to establish a republic.

The 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin polarized Thailand. He had won the support of the country's urban poor and rural majority by implementing populist programs such as cheap health care, while many in the urban-based elite see Thaksin as a corrupt threat to their privileged positions and to the monarchy.

Thaksin's supporters believe the king's top adviser helped arrange the 2006 coup. While the king kept out of the fray, his wife, Queen Sirikit, made a show of support in 2008 for anti-Thaksin demonstrators, creating the perception that the palace had cast its lot with one faction.

Thaksin-backed parties have won every election since 2001, and his supporters feel that moves against the former prime minister and his allies amount to disenfranchising them. Thaksin's opponents have proposed a change in the democratic system that would shift power away from directly elected politicians.

Despite laws mandating harsh punishment for any insult to the monarchy, critical discussion of the institution has grown in recent years, though normally in private. Even ardent monarchists voice concern about the institution's future, fearful that the heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, cannot live up to the legacy of his father.

Political street fighting that had wracked pockets of Bangkok since the weekend ended abruptly Tuesday ahead of the birthday celebrations. The protesters are seeking to bring down the government of Thaksin's sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and institute an unelected "people's council" to administer the country.

Although they pledged to march peacefully Wednesday, demonstrators knocked over concrete barriers, cut barbed wire and tried to scale the fences at the national police compound in central Bangkok, which is across from some of the capital's biggest and fanciest shopping malls.

Police opened the gates to let the group of a few hundred protesters inside, and after claiming a symbolic victory, the protesters filed out peacefully.

Authorities used the same strategy of tolerance a day earlier at sites where violent clashes had erupted between police and protesters intent on seizing government offices, including the prime minister's compound and the nearby city police headquarters.

The government's move was widely seen as offering demonstrators a face-saving way out of a crisis that has killed five people and wounded at least 277 since the weekend.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, however, has vowed to keep up the struggle to topple Yingluck, saying that "our battle" will resume Friday.



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