Thai Unrest Has Regional Impact

Violent unrest in Thailand may have a lasting impact on its neighbors and on how Western governments operate in the region.

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thailand-protest-305.jpg Supporters of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra protest in front of hotel hosting ASEAN meeting, April 10, 2009.

BANGKOK—The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has welcomed the end of several days of violent protests in Thailand.

The protests had humiliated Bangkok by disrupting a planned leadership summit during Thailand's chairmanship of the regional grouping.

"I am confident that Thailand as well as ASEAN will emerge from this chaos stronger and more determined to promote dialogue and cooperation," ASEAN chief Surin Pitsuwan said.

"I hope and pray for normalcy to return to Thailand quickly,” Surin said in a statement.

Indonesia now becomes much more important to the United States in terms of...cementing a strong alliance with a stable partner in Southeast Asia."

Asia scholar Sheridan Prasso

Red-shirted supporters of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra stormed security cordons in the southern Thai town of Pattaya at the weekend, forcing ASEAN leaders to flee the venue, some by helicopter.

The protesters had already staged a three-week rally outside the office of the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, agreeing finally to disperse on Tuesday following pitched battles with riot police in the nation's capital.

Thai police said the protest organizers would be prosecuted for violating a state of emergency banning large gatherings.

State of emergency

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared the state of emergency on Sunday to curb mass protests calling for his resignation.
But protesters gathered across Bangkok on Monday and lobbed petrol bombs at security forces, which responded with volleys of automatic weapons fire and tear gas.

ASEAN's Surin praised the Thai government's response to the unrest in Pattaya, calling it a sign of the government's integrity.

"I am grateful to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of Thailand and the Thai government for the safe evacuation of the leaders of ASEAN member states and their dialogue partners," he said.

What happened in Pattaya and Bangkok would not erode the credibility and dignity of Thailand's chairmanship of ASEAN, Surin added.

"On the contrary, the restrained government responses showed the integrity of the Thai government in restoring law and order with admirable respect for life, safety, and constitutional rights of all," he said.

Long-term effects

Sheridan Prasso, an author and associate fellow at the Asia Society in New York, said the Thai unrest could have broad and lasting implications for the region.

Indonesia, “long neglected under the previous U.S. administration, now becomes much more important to the United States in terms of the necessity of cementing a strong alliance with a stable partner in Southeast Asia,” Prasso said.

“As last week’s elections in Indonesia show, the country has become a strong, stable model of a regional democracy, quite the opposite of the situation in Thailand. The U.S. needs a strong alliance with a stable democracy like Indonesia more than ever,” she said.

But the unrest in Thailand could also serve as a warning to some of Southeast Asia’s more authoritarian regimes, Prasso said.

For Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, and to some extent Cambodia, “Thailand’s instability is an example of how free-wheeling democracy can descend into political chaos, and is likely to increase the resolve of their governments to maintain a strong hold on power,” she said.

“Singapore as well, which has long restricted gatherings of five or more people, recently proposed to further tighten its restrictions on public gatherings ahead of its APEC summit in November. It wants no repeat of what happened last weekend … in Thailand,” Prasso added.


Analysts say the protests have already done considerable damage to Thailand's economy, which is already reeling from the global recession and from political chaos last year.

Global credit agencies Standard & Poor's and Moody's said the unrest would put downward pressure on Thailand's already weak ratings despite an otherwise healthy financial system.

Economic analysts also said investors would now tread warily in Thailand following the red-shirt violence.

Several countries issued fresh warnings against travel to Thailand during the demonstrations, potentially damaging the country's crucial tourist industry.

Thaksin, a billionaire businessman who lives in exile overseas, has urged protesters to continue with their anti-government struggle. The threat he poses to Thailand's precarious stability does not appear to have faded, commentators said.

Original reporting by RFA's Southeast Asian services. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.


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