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December 4, 2008

Thailand Political Stalemate:
Crisis defused but dangers ahead

Flights in and out of Bangkok resumed Wednesday after anti-government protests that paralysed the capital's international airport for more than a week ended with the peaceful ouster of the prime minister, reported the Associated Press.

But most of the explosive issues that have divided the country for more than two years remained unresolved and long-term prospects for stability were dim.

"It is nothing more than an intermission. It is not over until the two sides of the political spectrum can reconcile and the prospect of that happening is very bleak," said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a historian and former rector of Bangkok's Thammasat University.

The People's Alliance for Democracy, which has led six months of street demonstrations and the airport protests, warned that it would be back on the streets if a new government maintained links to the man who has torn apart the Thai political fabric since being ousted in a military coup in September 2006 - Thaksin Shinawatra.

Although exiled, Thaksin remains extremely popular among the rural poor and the new government is certain to include his allies. The alliance, commonly called PAD, has vowed to eradicate his influence, accusing him of massive corruption and seeking to undermine Thailand's much-revered monarch.

All sides awaited the annual birthday speech Thursday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who over the past four decades has stepped in to defuse several bloody political confrontations.

"Expectations are very high. If the royal comments are seen as fair and balanced with a way (out of a crisis), people will try to think about that and maybe to push for that way forward," said Thitinan Pongsidhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

But Thitinan said that the king's guidance, if any, might not be sufficient to heal the deep polarisation.

"It's also possible that one side or the other will see it as insufficient, in which case they will not stand down and go home quietly. It is uncertain whether all sides will accept the royal comments," he said.

On Wednesday, PAD supporters cleaned up Suvarnabhumi international airport and handed it and the domestic Don Muang airport over to authorities after a weeklong occupation, which had stranded more than 300,000 travelers.

The first commercial airliner to arrive - a flight by the national airline Thai Airways from the resort island of Phuket - landed at Suvarnabhumi at 2:15 p.m. (0715 GMT). Also Wednesday, a Thai Airways flight took off from Suvarnabhumi for Sydney.

Meanwhile, about 700 soldiers inspected the airport for bombs and weapons, and airport security officials set up a perimeter around the airport as they dismantled blockades and checkpoints set up by the alliance.

Following months of protest by the alliance, in which at least six people were killed and scores injured, the country's Constitutional Court ruled Tuesday that the three ruling coalition parties were guilty of committing fraud in the December 2007 elections which brought them to power.

The ruling banned Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, and 59 executives of the three parties from politics for five years.

A meeting Wednesday among the three ousted parties, which vowed to stick together in a coalition, endorsed Deputy Prime Minister Chaowarat Chandeerakul as the caretaker prime minister.

Charnvit said that despite its losses the coalition was still strong enough to form a government dominated by pro-Thaksin politicians.

"Neither side has been completely ruined and until that happens, Thailand will go from one crisis to another," he said. "Both sides are beyond reconciliation or typical Thai-style compromise."

The anti-government alliance claims Thailand's rural majority - who gave landslide election victories to the Thaksin camp - is too poorly educated to responsibly choose their representatives and says they are susceptible to vote buying.

It wants the country to abandon the system of one-person, one-vote, and instead have a mixed system in which most representatives are chosen by profession and social group.

Pro-Thaksin politicians have been pushing to amend the constitution to allow Thaksin, who is also banned from politics and convicted on corruption charges, to make a comeback.

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