RPT-NEWSMAKER-Thai PM facing pressure from all directions

Tue Apr 20, 2010 8:39pm EDT

(Repeat of story issued on Tuesday, with no change to text)

By Jason Szep

BANGKOK, April 20 (Reuters) - Pressure on Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is coming from all directions.

An elections watchdog wants his party dissolved. Most analysts doubt he can win a national election. His emergency decree and security forces have failed to stop an increasingly bold, six-week "red shirt" protest that wants him out of office.

Adding to that burden is growing unrest within his own Democrat Party, signs of frustration in his fragile six-party ruling coalition and an army that has shown reluctance to follow his orders demanding tough action to reign in the red shirts.

Political analysts, however, say Abhisit does appear to have one powerful force on his side -- the royalist establishment closely aligned with Thailand's revered king. That in itself could keep him in power, though for how long remains uncertain.

"It is likely that he has strong backing from high-ranking members of the royalist establishment," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"But sooner or later he will have to go. Either he goes now or goes later. He is just buying time now."

All this is an unprecedented test for Abhisit, 45, a British-born, Oxford-educated economist lauded by investors for steering Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy out of recession with fellow Oxford alumnus Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij.

In recent weeks, he has suffered a series of humiliating setbacks, beginning in earnest on April 7 when protesters stormed parliament and forced several officials, including his deputy, to climb over a fence and flee by helicopter.

Two days later, after announcing a state of emergency, tens of thousands of protesters forced their way into the grounds of a a satellite station to force back on air a television channel he had censored. TV footage showed some soldiers later shaking hands with the protesters, who faced little resistance.

That was followed by a bloody crackdown on the protesters on April 10 that killed 25 people, mostly civilians, and wounded more than 800 without ending the protests.

Television showed arguably the most humiliating footage of all on Friday: a red shirt leader, Arisman Pongruangrong, escaping from a Bangkok hotel on the end of an electrical cable an hour after the government ordered his arrest

GETTING TOUGH

Since then, Abhisit's language has become tougher, more uncompromising and at times threatening. He has rowed fully back on an earlier strategy of avoiding violence with the supporters of his nemesis, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

He told a television interviewer on Monday he would reclaim a district of high-end department stores and luxury hotels occupied by the red shirts since April 3, warning they must be brought under control and face penalties for breaking the law.

"If we allow those who use force to threaten a political change, we will have a lawless country," he said.

But his relationship with the military has not been easy. The Bankok Post newspaper has reported on his apparent frustration with Army chief Gen. Anupong Paojinda, a moderate who retires in September and who has resisted advancing on the protesters.

Anupong made headlines last week by suggestion the standoff required a political solution, urging dissolution of parliament -- something the red shirts want immediately. He did not give a timeframe and has since been placed by Abhisit in a new role responsible for security during the demonstrations.

Abhisit last month offered to dissolve parliament in December, a year early, but that was rejected by protesters.

"Abhisit has proven himself tougher and more ruthless than many people expected, especially given that he'd not been PM that long," said Joshua Kurlantzick of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a U.S. think tank."He's proven himself willing to take tough tactics and to do what's needed to stay in power."

But it's unclear tough talk alone can solve his mounting problems, including frustration in an anti-Thaksin protest group known as the "yellow shirts", whose 2008 occupation of Bangkok airport was instrumental in bringing Abhisit's party to power.

Adding to the headache is the unexpectedly strong turnout in the six-week red shirt protests by the rural and urban poor who call for class warfare to end social injustice -- and their backing by renegade generals allied with Thaksin.

The red shirts see Abhisit as a front man for an unelected elite and military intervening in politics and operating with impunity. They say he lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote following a court ruling that dissolved a pro-Thaksin ruling party.

Most analysts doubt the military would succeed in a new crackdown on the protesters without inflicting huge casualties and sparking looting in an area studded with department stores.

That raises questions over why Abhisit doesn't simply bend and offer to dissolve parliament immediately.

"It's unlikely he'll quit," said Danny Richards, senior Asia Editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit. "He's hanging on in there and the more he continues to do so, the more he'll be seen as a puppet. He keeps saying he's legitimate but until he can be voted back to power in an election, that doesn't mean much."

(Editing by Bill Tarrant)



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