Thailand votes on August 19 in a referendum for a new constitution that should be the first step towards a return to the democracy snuffed out 11 months earlier in the military coup that toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But for many commentators it is a recipe for a return to pre-Thakson days of constantly collapsing coalitions with real power leaching to nameless bureaucrats, the judiciary and the military.
The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission summed it up with this grim forecast: “It is by now clear that if the referendum is passed and the bogus draft constitution brought into law, it will return Thailand to a 1980s model of elite-bureaucratic government under military guidance.”
Even so, it appears that most Thais are prepared to take the military-backed interim government’s advice and vote “yes” in the referendum, with elections for a new parliament likely to follow before the end of the year. There is an overwhelming desire for normalcy, to put the endless crisis talk, the demonstrations and rumours of further coups behind them and get back to the business of making a living.
Outwardly they appear to be succeeding. The beaches in Phuket and Pattaya are busy again, the bars and restaurants are full and tourists are again besieged by locals selling everything from cheap suits to massages. The 2004 tsunami is a fading memory, bird flu is under control and the economy is booming.
Yet behind the façade all is far from well. The insurgency in the predominately Muslim south of the country and centred on the province of Pattani, is increasingly vicious with bombings, shootings or violence of some kind now an almost daily occurrence.
This unpleasant little conflict gets little coverage in the international media mainly because, as one Bangkok journalist puts it, “the rebels are concentrating their attacks on Thai police and other security forces and are not targeting Western tourists - yet”. Even so, the conflict is consuming huge amounts of Thailand’s manpower and resources - 30,000 troops deployed and around $5 billion spent so far - without any tangible results.
There is now a growing feeling that the insurgency could spread to other parts of the country, including Bangkok. A top security analyst and adviser to the government, Panithan Watanayakorn, has even raised the spectre of civil war while slamming “20 years of futility” by successive Thai administrations in dealing with the crisis.
The insurgents are certainly getting bolder. Earlier this year a bomb went off just 100 metres away from where a daughter of the Thai king was scheduled to land by helicopter, while a convoy carrying a senior aide to the queen was shot at, injuring a police officer.
The problem is compounded by the seeming inability of the government of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont to deal with the situation. In a brutally frank research paper, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs joined a growing chorus which questions whether the government or the junta that backs it is really committed to the cause of peace.
“Pent-up frustration and the growing sense that the government disrespects the southern Muslim community may have contributed to the recent spate of extreme violence … their minds are elsewhere, playing politics in the capital,” the institute says.
A recent visit by Chulanont to the south was dismissed by Don Pathon, of the Nation newspaper, as window dressing. “He has rejected autonomy for the region, without coming up with any alternatives,” he said.
The chaotic state of Thai politics following the coup is another growing headache for the government. Far from being a unifying influence, the military takeover has resulted in the country being more bitterly divided now than it was under Thaksin’s flamboyant and controversial rule.
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