Dec 6, 2012

Thailand - Bumpy ride ahead for Thai PM

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A Cathay Pacific stewardess had to leave her job earlier this week after posting on Facebook that she felt like throwing coffee at the daughter of Thailand's former prime minister during a recent flight.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest of Thaksin's three children, was on her way to Hong Kong two Sundays ago to see her father, a man the Thai flight attendant reportedly regarded as her "enemy".

It is just one of the many signs of tension simmering beneath the calm political facade of the Thai capital Bangkok as bitter foes cool off for the next few weeks out of respect for the country's revered monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turned 85 yesterday.

Fits of unrest have wracked Thailand since Thaksin was ousted by a coup in 2006 and left the country to evade a jail term meted in 2008.

The government, headed by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, survived one of the largest anti-government rallies of the year on November 24. It withstood a no-confidence vote in the parliament four days later.

The opposition Democrats had hoped to take it down a peg by grilling Yingluck over the government's alleged corruption and mismanagement. Instead, she reeled in 308 of the 467 votes cast and surprised observers with a newfound confidence in addressing her critics.

"Until the censure debate, she never answered questions directly… But she was more confident in the debate and she didn't succumb to personal attacks," said Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Chulalongkorn University political scientist.

In a Bangkok University poll too, she remained more popular than Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, although her lead dropped by more than 5 percentage points after the censure debate.

But analysts expect the old rivalries to surface again during several key events next year.

Bangkok will elect a new governor in February. Yingluck's Pheu Thai party is seeking to wrest control of the Democrat stronghold, although both parties have yet to announce candidates.

The gloves have already come off even though incumbent Sukhumbhand Paribatra's term ends only on January 10.

On Monday, the ruling party asked the Department of Special Investigation to probe possible irregularities in the construction of a futsal stadium built under Sukhumbhand's watch.

On the other side of the divide, the Democrats have been playing "the politics of fear", said Thai ethicist and political science lecturer Mano Laohavanich, by urging Bangkok residents to vote against Puea Thai to prevent it from ruling with impunity.

Early next year, the Pheu Thai government is expected to face what is perhaps its most intractable hurdle yet - trying to change the country's Constitution in a way which its supporters say will give more power to elected bodies over appointed ones. The Constitution, drawn up by a military-appointed assembly in 2007, created a senate with half its seats filled by appointment instead of election and granted amnesty to the generals involved in the coup that unseated Thaksin.

As all this plays out, investors are keeping close watch.

Santitarn Sathirathai, a Singapore-based economist at Credit Suisse, said: "Political instability is still top of the list of potential risks for investing in Thailand."

But for now at least, a hush has descended upon Bangkok as political rivals put aside their protracted battles to celebrate the birthday of the world's longest-reigning monarch.

Tan Hui Yee

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