Thai army deployed as ‘red-shirts’ move towards Bangkok’s business district

Political upheaval in Thailand reaches new levels as opposition threaten counter-protests. Sudan elections criticised, but seen as positive step forward. Iranian leader Khameini labels US ‘nuclear criminal’. Constitutional clause hinders formation of new Iraqi government. Clinton urges renewed peace efforts in the Middle East. All this and more, in todays security update.
Laura Hilger
19 April 2010

The Thai army moved hundreds of soldiers into the business district of Bangkok early on Monday to prevent anti-government protesters entering the area. The troops were deployed to Silom Road, where offices for some of the nation's largest companies are located, including the headquarters of the Bangkok Bank. The government has said the intent is not to attack the protesters, but simply to block any attempt they might make to enter the business district. Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn stressed: "police units are assigned to maintain order in the Silom area while troops provide back-up support nearby.”

By Demotix/Stephen Ford. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.

Since the clashes between troops and demonstrators on 10 April, when 24 people were killed and more than 800 injured, an ‘uneasy calm’ has spread across the capital. The ‘red-shirts’, supporters of the ousted former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, have labelled the current government illegitimate and called for the dissolution of the incumbant Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s parliament. The protestors have occupied the commercial centre for the last five weeks, and have indicated their intent to occupy and protest in the financial centre on Tuesday.

On Friday, Abhisit put the army’s commander-in-chief, Anupong Paochinda, in charge of national security following the escape of three protestors in a botched security raid.

The openSecurity verdict: There is little doubt that the situation in Bangkok is reaching critical levels. With increased military involvement, and warnings to avoid the financial centre, there is a good chance that the protests, should they continue, could quickly spin out of control. The military has stressed that it will take action to prevent the protestors from entering Silom Road, increasing chances of civilian-military clashes.

More importantly, many Thais have become frustrated by the government’s inability to control the protestors.  The ‘no colours’ have already held demonstrations in the capital demanding government action to restore order. The group, called the Civilians Protecting the Country, supports the government and the military, but thinks the time has come to take strong action against the red shirts. “The problem facing the country now cannot be solely solved by politics,” it said in a statement. “It has become terrorism, and only military strategy and strict law enforcement can tackle such acts.”

Another pro-government group, the ‘yellow-shirts’ (formally known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, or PAD), has said it would hold "our biggest rally ever" if the government fails to end the protests within a week. In 2008, members of PAD staged an airport blockade, closing the airports and stranding hundreds of thousands of tourists for more than a week. Considering their vast numbers, demonstrated ability, and the additional support they would likely gain from ‘no colours’, protests by the yellow-shirts would cause additional and severe upheaval and likely bring further violence.

The red- and yellow-shirts stand in direct opposition to each other and embody irreconcilable differences in the country’s deep-running social and political divisions. While the red shirts are formed mainly of the country’s rural and urban poor, the yellow shirts are largely a grouping of royalists, businessmen and the urban middle class. There is no doubt that simultaneous demonstrations by both parties would lead to severe street clashes and violence on a significant scale. Thus, it is imperative on the government to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis before its supporters take matters into their own hands.

The protests have already damaged the national economy. Upmarket shops in the commercial centre have been closed for more than two weeks due to the occupation, losing the industry millions of dollars a day. The tourism industry has also been affected, particularly around the major Thai New Year celebrations last week, as many countries have raised security warnings against travel to Thailand. Furthermore, the stock market has been visibly affected by the political upheaval, potentially damaging to the economic and financial stability of the country.

With the government and security forces in disarray and street clashes between rival demonstrators imminent, speculation is growing that military hardliners may decide to stage a coup to end the political impasse. However, Thailand’s election commission, an independent government body, has recently recommended the dissolution of Abhisit’s party. This recommendation is now being considered by the country's attorney general's office; should it agree, the Constitution Court will ultimately issue a ruling on the matter, which would likely mean fresh elections. The process could take up to six months and may itself prompt further violent interventions; the prospects of a speedy and peaceful resolution to the present crisis is bleak.

Sudan elections criticised, but seen as positive step forward

Sudan’s first multiparty Sudanese elections in 24 years have fallen short of international standards, observers have said. Nonetheless, the elections have been praised for their high levels of civil participation and public engagement, and are seen to mark an important step in the implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement that brought an end to the Sudanese civil war. The European Union Election Observation Mission praised the growing strength of civil society in Sudan: "hundreds of groups, encompassing thousands of individual citizens, displayed high levels of commitment and engaged in election observation for many days. This extensive involvement by Sudanese civil society who showed great commitment, particularly in domestic observation, contributed to the transparency of the electoral process."

But as detailed previously, the elections are guilty of serious shortcomings. Sudan's election commission extended the vote for two days past the original deadline due to widely reported technical problems, including ballots being sent to the wrong polling stations and registers that were missing voters' names. Results are expected Tuesday, with the current president, Omar al-Bashir, expected to be re-elected. Following recent charges of war crimes by the International Criminal Court, Bashir is hoping for a respectable victory to demonstrate the Sudanese people’s support for him.

Iranian leader Khamenei labels US ‘nuclear criminal’

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has labelled the US an ‘atomic criminal’ in a speech made at the nuclear disarmament conference in Tehran. In his statement, Khamenei added: "only the US government has committed an atomic crime…. The world's only atomic criminal lies and presents itself as being against nuclear weapons proliferation, while it has not taken any serious measures in this regard."

He was echoed by the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who criticized western powers for what he calls “hypocritical and dangerous policies” that inspired nuclear proliferation, adding that the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were ineffective because they were dominated by a few nations. The Iranian leaders called for the creation of an independent body to oversee nuclear disarmament and have demanded that all countries that possess nuclear weapons to be suspended from the IAEA.

The US hosted an international nuclear security conference last week composed of 47 nations; Iran was not invited due to US concerns over Iranian nuclear weapons. However, Tehran says its nuclear programme is for purely peaceful purposes and that the use of nuclear weapons is prohibited by their Islamic faith. 

Constitutional clause hinders formation of new Iraqi government

One month after the Iraqi elections, little progress has been made in forming a new government. Though Iyad Allawi of the secularist Iraqiya party won the most seats, he is unlikely to head the new government. The Iraqi constitution states that the bloc with the most seats is accorded the first chance to form a government but the Supreme Court has ruled that this bloc could be formed after the election. Allawi continues to fight against this interpretation of the consitituon but with less than half a percent lead in the popular vote cannot command definitive public backing. Allawi gained 91 seats in the 325-seat Council of Representatives, just two ahead of Prime Minister al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, but would need 163 seats to form a majority and 217 votes to secure the presidency.

In these circumstances, smaller parties wield disproportionate influence in determining who forms the largest bloc. Though al-Maliki had the second largest majority in the elections, observers argue “it is Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the third largest bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, who calls the shots.” With 39 of the 70 seats in his Shia religious alliance, al-Sadr has significant veto power within the Shia groups—and a strong dislike for al-Maliki having had his brigades suppressed under the al-Maliki administration.

As new faces emerge for the position of prime minster and the parties continue to fight for the largest bloc, it is clear that the struggle to form a new government may continue for some time, leaving a potentially-hazardous power vacuum that jeopardises American intentions to withdraw troops later this year.

Clinton urges renewed peace efforts in the Middle East

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the countries of the middle east to restart peace talks, in an address to ambassadors from Israel and Arab nations. In her statement, Clinton said ‘bold leadership’ would be needed on all sides to find a viable solution to the conflict. She pressed Israel to support the Palestinian Authority and help strengthen its institutions in the West Bank as a weapon against Hamas and other extremists; she also urged Palestinians to end the incitement of violence and fight corruption within their territories.

While Clinton claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had embraced the two-state solution, she acknowledged that “easing up on access and movement in the West Bank, in response to credible Palestinian security performance, is not sufficient to prove to the Palestinians that this embrace is sincere." Clinton encouraged Israel to demonstrate respect for Palestinian aspirations by freezing all settlement activity and addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

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