Sunday, April 19, 2009

Thailand Keeps Emergency Rule After Anti-Thaksin Leader Attack

Thailand’s government maintained a state of emergency for an eighth day in Bangkok, citing its inability to guarantee security after an assassination attempt on a protest leader who helped oust three prime ministers.

“This attempted murder raises concerns of further violence,” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in comments broadcast on state-owned television yesterday. “We still need to maintain the state of emergency. We need to have complete peace and order before it’s lifted.”

Sondhi Limthongkul, attacked by gunmen three days ago, leads a group opposed to former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra, now living in exile. Abhisit, 44, is seeking to ease political tension before lifting emergency rule imposed April 12 to disperse a rival set of protesters who want him to resign. The order bars public gatherings of more than five people.

Sondhi’s car was sprayed with more than 50 bullets in the April 17 dawn attack in Bangkok, police said. Sondhi, 61, who operates a television station, had surgery to remove a piece of metal from his head, said Parnthep Pourpongpan, a spokesman for Sondhi’s People’s Alliance for Democracy, which supports Prime Minister Abhisit.

“This will obviously give the government a reason to maintain a state of emergency,” said Chris Baker, a Bangkok- based political analyst. “It’s important to bring different political groups together to find a resolution through debate as quickly as possible.”

Travel Warnings

Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack on Sondhi, said Suporn Panseau, a Bangkok police spokesman. The shooting was almost certainly by a rival political group, Parnthep said.

Prolonged unrest may deter foreign investment just as the Thai economy confronts its first annual contraction in 11 years. Abhisit has given no indication of when he may lift the emergency decree, which prompted countries including the U.S. and Australia to warn their citizens not to travel to Thailand.

Tourism makes up about 12 percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product and provides around 4 million jobs. Exports, which account for about 70 percent of GDP, had been sustaining the economy until demand collapsed in November, just as political unrest escalated.

“There is no question we will be hurt in the second quarter,” said William Heinecke, chairman of Thailand’s Minor International Pcl, operator of hotels under the Four Seasons, Anantara and Marriott brands. “The prime minister should lift the emergency decree as soon as he can and encourage foreign countries to lift their travel warnings.”

Rival Groups

The two sets of color-coded protesters demarcate a polarization in Thai society between the poor rural majority, who voted in Thaksin, and the Bangkok-based elite, which doesn’t want elections to fully determine who holds power.

More than two gunmen were involved in the attack on Sondhi, and they fired an M-16 automatic rifle from a pickup truck, said King Kwangvisetchaisri, the police officer in charge of the district where the shooting occurred. Sondhi’s bodyguard and driver were also injured. Police have identified some of the suspects and will arrest them soon, The Nation newspaper reported, citing people it didn’t identify.

Sondhi will probably leave hospital in 10 days, Chaiwan Charoenchoketavee, a director at Vajira, said April 17. Sondhi operates a private cable television station and previously ran Manager Media Group Pcl, a Bangkok-based publisher of newspapers and magazines.

‘No Violence’

“Nobody wants this to happen,” Pongthep Thepkanjana, Thaksin’s spokesman, said by telephone from Bangkok. “No one wants to see more violence.” Emergency rule was imposed in Bangkok after Thaksin’s supporters stormed an Asian leaders’ summit that Abhisit was hosting, forcing its cancellation. The group dons red shirts to distinguish themselves from Sondhi’s followers, who wear yellow to signify their loyalty to King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The Red Shirts said Abhisit’s administration lacks legitimacy because he came to power after the courts disbanded the former ruling party for vote buying. Sondhi’s Yellow Shirts held demonstrations against Thaksin before he was ousted in a 2006 coup and staged a 192-day campaign last year that helped remove two more governments linked to the former leader.

Sondhi and his supporters ended their blockade of airports and government offices in December after a court forced out then-Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and dissolved his party. Sondhi supported Thaksin’s rise to power in 2001 before turning against him four years later. He alleged that Thaksin was corrupt, while the ousted leader said Sondhi was upset he wasn’t awarded a television license.


Thaksin urged the Red Shirts to be part of reconciliation talks with the government, the Associated Press reported on April 16, citing an interview with him from Dubai. Police this week issued arrest warrants for Thaksin and other protest leaders on charges of inciting the demonstrations.

The former premier flew to Nicaragua from United Arab Emirates, where he had spent a month, the Bangkok Post reported yesterday, citing Arabian Business. Nicaragua gave Thaksin a passport after Bangkok revoked his Thai travel documents, AP said April 16.