Viewpoint: Why Thailand's "Final Showdown" Will Have Plenty of Sequels

  • Share
  • Read Later
Chumsak Kanoknan / Getty Images

Anti-government protesters move a bus to block the road outside the Parliament house on Nov. 24, 2008, in Bangkok

Hollywood, the land of ultimate battles and last stands, doesn't have a monopoly on dramatic endings. On Nov. 24, thousands of anti-government protesters swarmed Thailand's parliament in what they called — drumroll please — the "final showdown."

This was, in fact, one of several self-proclaimed final showdowns by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which has long been intent on erasing from government any influence of billionaire populist Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed as Prime Minister in a 2006 army coup. After surrounding Parliament and forcing lawmakers to abandon their work, the PAD moved on to Bangkok's old airport, where a VIP lounge now serves as the makeshift headquarters of current Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat. A brother-in-law of Thaksin, Somchai was evicted from his real office by the protesters, who have besieged Government House for the past three months. (See pictures of Thai people boxing their way out of poverty and prison.)

Somchai only took the reins because his predecessor Samak Sundaravej, who PAD also accused of being a Thaksin puppet, had to resign after he was found guilty of accepting money to host a T.V. cooking show while in office. (One of Samak's culinary tips: braise pork legs in Coca-Cola.) Meanwhile, Thaksin, who has been sentenced in absentia to two years' imprisonment for conflict of interest, has hinted at a political comeback. Earlier this month from self-imposed exile, he divorced his wife in a sham process designed to protect assets that are in her name. Almost immediately after, the former PM, who recently had his British visa revoked and is scrambling to find a new home in exile, unveiled his new think-tank called Building a Better Future Foundation. In giant ads in international newspapers, Thaksin instructed readers: "Are you one of Asia's best talents? Join me."

A Hollywood writer couldn't make this stuff up. But satire aside, Thailand's leadership crisis is derailing what once was one of the region's most promising economies. Political street violence in Bangkok has claimed several lives over the past couple months, and spooked investors and tourists, on whose dollars Thailand depends. Growth forecasts for 2009 hover at a bleak 3%. But even as these troubles mount, neither the government nor the opposition appears willing to give ground. Somchai has refused to resign, and the PAD vows to keep up its campaign even if it means further tarnishing Thailand's reputation as a stable democracy. Further complicating matters, the lead party in Thailand's ruling coalition could be dissolved in the coming weeks because of vote-buying. But even if new elections are called, Thaksin's supporters would likely reconstitute themselves in another proxy party. Support from rural voters probably would ensure another victory for the pro-Thaksin camp, much to the disgust of the PAD. Get ready for the sequel — Bangkok Battle: The Final, Final Showdown.

See TIME's Pictures of the Week.

See the 50 best inventions of 2008.