Thai protest ends but crisis is far from over

Around 40 people have died in clashes in the past week Keystone

The Thai authorities have put the capital, Bangkok, and more than 20 provinces under curfew after leaders of the anti-government street protest surrendered.

This content was published on May 19, 2010 minutes

But the economic crisis that has hit Thailand is expected to continue to jeopardise the stability of the Southeast Asian region.

Armed forces stormed a protest encampment in Bangkok on Wednesday forcing anti-government leaders to give up. The assault put an end to the occupation of the city’s commercial centre.

At the beginning of the crisis two months ago Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva tried his best to offer a political solution proposing early elections. But the anti-government protesters, known as Red Shirts, responded by making more demands.

“The government came to power with the help of the army in 2006. It came in for heavy criticism over its handling of the crisis and by now has lost its entire legitimacy,” said Jean-Luc Maurer, director of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

Observers point out that the authorities did not have much choice but to take drastic measures to try to break the political standoff.

But there is little hope that the social and political problems will go away any time soon. They began when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was forced to resign in September 2006 triggering the Red Shirt protests and the unrest.

Uneven growth

Thailand is going through a serious crisis resulting from a number of problems, which have been piling up for a long time and were not tackled. They stem from uneven growth, according to Maurer.

“The country went through a strong growth period. But this was limited to the capital, the industrial centres and benefited mainly the urban middle class,” said Maurer.

“The majority of the population was left out,” he added.

The gap between rich and poor, as well as between the north and the south, has deepened for more than ten years. Thailand got through the economic crisis that hit Asian countries in 1998, but the steps taken by the government did not help to reduce the disparities.

Maurer says the unrest reflects a legitimate criticism by those left out and parts of a middle class squeezed by the old military and aristocratic ranks, which are represented by the Yellow Shirts.

The crisis is made worse by the fact that King Bhumibol Adulyadej – revered by the majority of the Thai population - has refused to intervene and at the age of 82 is said to be in ill health.

He is seen as the guarantor of the stability and unity of Thailand. The role of the monarch is crucial in a country which has seen more than 30 coups d’état since 1932.

Investor confidence

To date, the events have not led to a mass exodus by foreign businesses.

"But the crisis has nevertheless affected business and dented investor confidence," said Akapol Sorasuchart, president of the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau, who arrived in Geneva this week to tout the advantages of Bangkok as a centre for international congresses.

Nor has the role of Thailand as a regional hub been put in jeopardy. Numerous foreign companies, including most Swiss multinationals, run their operations for Southeast Asia out of Bangkok, and there are not many alternatives apart from Singapore.

But if the crisis continues to worsen, the entire region could be affected.

"Thailand has always been perceived as a stable element in Southeast Asia," said the Geneva-based editor Matthias Huber, a frequent traveller and expert on the region.

A member of the Swiss-Burma Association, Huber is particularly concerned that a continuing crisis in Thailand and the maintaining of troops in Bangkok will serve to reinforce the ruling junta in Burma.

Meanwhile, Maurer warns that other Thai issues currently niggling at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) could be exacerbated.

"Thailand is undergoing a border dispute with Cambodia, which led to skirmishes between the armies of both kingdoms last year. Thailand is also grappling with a strong Islamic rebellion with ties to Malaysia, a country that also face serious difficulties on the political level," he said.

"In the final analysis, Indonesia - the other Asean heavyweight - has become the most democratic country in the region after 32 years of dictatorship and a decade of difficult transitioning."

Frédéric Burnand, (adapted from French by Urs Geiser and Jessica Dacey)

Clashes Timeline

March 14: Tens of thousands of "red shirt" protestors converge on Bangkok to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

April 2: The protesters occupy a second area of Bangkok, Ratchaprasong, the commercial and tourist heart of the capital.

April 7: The government declares a state of emergency in Bangkok.

April 10: First violent clashes between demonstrators and police. 25 people, mostly "red shirts", are killed and over 800 injured.

April 22: Five grenades explode during clashes between pro and anti-government protesters, leaving one person dead and 80 wounded.

May 3: Hope of a way out. Abhisit proposes a road map with elections on November 14 in exchange for a lifting of the blockade. The "red shirts" welcome this initiative.

13 May: New tension builds. Abhisit cancels the planned elections because the protesters "did not leave". General Sawasdipol Khattiya, alias Seh Daeng, a "red shirt" supporter, is shot and dies.

May 14-17: Scenes of urban warfare in Bangkok. The protesters use petrol bombs, firecrackers, stones and sometimes handguns against the forces of order, who are using real bullets. 39 people died and 300 are wounded in four days.

May 19: The army launches an early morning assault against the "red zone".

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Swiss-Thai relations

5,318 Swiss live in Thailand.

150 Swiss firms do business in Thailand.

150,000 Swiss tourists visit Thailand every year.

Swiss exports to Thailand have trebled in the past decade to SFr1,045 million.

Swiss imports from Thailand have almost doubled over the same period to SFr1,012 million.

Thailand is Switzerland's second-largest trading partner in the region, after Singapore.

Switzerland is also well-known in Thailand since King Bhumipol spent seven years of his childhood in Switzerland.

(2009, Source: Swiss foreign ministry)

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