Southeast Asia Bureau Chief
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Apr 8, 2010

Thai PM faces hard choice after emergency declared

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva faces a difficult choice — compromise and call an election he could easily lose or launch a crackdown on tens of thousands of protesters that could stir up even more trouble.

A state of emergency declared in Bangkok gives the army sweeping powers to detain or remove people without a court order after protesters stormed parliament on Wednesday and forced government officials to scale a wall and flee by helicopter.

Apr 5, 2010

Thai authorities struggle to end mass street protest

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Protesters targeted Thailand’s elections watchdog on Monday, at one point storming its office, while ignoring orders to leave Bangkok’s main shopping district for a third day in an increasing bold rally to force elections.

The protesters in the election office later dispersed, but tens of thousands of the red-shirted demonstrators, supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, remained encamped in a district of luxury hotels and department stores.

Apr 4, 2010

Protesters defiant in siege of key Bangkok district

BANGKOK, April 4 (Reuters) – More than 50,000 protesters
defied orders to leave the Thai capital’s main shopping district
on Sunday despite threats of mass arrests, raising the stakes in
the fourth week of street rallies against the government.

Despite repeated warnings they could face up to a year in
jail, the red-shirted protesters looked set to remain encamped
at a major intersection lined by upmarket department stores and
five-star hotels in the heart of Bangkok for a second night.

Apr 2, 2010

Thai protesters hunker down for long battle

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Leaning on a fence in a makeshift open-air office in the heart of a three-week opposition street rally in Bangkok, protest leader Nattawut Saikua pauses when asked how long he’s willing to keep the protests going.

“However long it takes. We’ll stay here until we get the job done.”

Mar 15, 2010
via Global News Journal

Thai protesters face impasse

Photo

By Ambika Ahuja

Anti-government protesters massing in Bangkok face a tricky question: continue with a non-violent strategy that emphasises peaceful protests and risk losing momentum or try a more provocative approach that could lead to a reprise of last April’s riots –Thailand’s worst street violence in 17 years – which discredited them.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who still enjoys strong support from the miltary’s top brass and the country’s establishment, rebuffed on Monday calls to dissolve parliament and hold fresh electsion. Protesters retreated to their main encampment on Bangkok’s streets.

Feb 22, 2010

Looming verdict raises security risk in Thailand

BANGKOK, Feb 22 (Reuters) – Thai media say the country has entered a "seven-day danger period" before a "final showdown" on Friday. The military is on alert. Police checkpoints are spreading. Judges have been offered safe houses.

A Supreme Court ruling on Friday over whether to confiscate $2.3 billion of assets belonging to ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s family has put Thailand on edge, raising the risk of renewed unrest that could do more damage to Thai markets.

Media call it "judgment day" in a seemingly intractable political conflict pitting the military, the urban elites and royalists, who wear the revered king’s traditional colour of yellow at protests, against the mainly rural supporters of Thaksin, who say they have been disenfranchised and wear red.

A ruling in favour of seizing Thaksin’s assets could spark a violent backlash by his supporters. But regardless of which way the court rules, Thailand’s protracted political crisis is likely to rumble on, and remain a drag on investment and confidence.

"There is no good outcome because whatever the verdict is, there will be reaction from one political group or the other. We are in for a long and grinding battle," said Warut Siwasariyanon, head of research at Finansia Syrus Securities in Bangkok.

"Neither side is showing signs it can afford to compromise."

VIOLENCE ON THE STREETS?

The verdict will be read out on Friday afternoon and markets will probably be closed before they can gauge reaction to the ruling. They reopen on Tuesday after a long weekend, and will face selling pressure if violence has erupted or seems likely.

"The scenario that most people expect is that all of his assets will be confiscated and that there will be some backlash from the red shirts," said Danny Richards, economist and senior Asia Editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

"Investors don’t want to see this escalate into any major violence on the streets that would bring the army in."

But markets have had plenty of time to factor in Thailand’s higher risk level, and foreign investor participation in the local bond, currency and stock markets is fairly low, meaning the size of any sell-off next week may be limited — just as it was during previous flashpoints in 2008 and 2009.

Because confiscation of all his assets could be politically explosive, some analysts expect a compromise, with the court giving Thaksin back as much as $1.4 billion which his lawyers say was earned before he entered office and is owed his family.

"Seizing all the assets is still possible but it appears to be a very dangerous option and I think everybody knows why it is dangerous," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"I think the judges are really considering the repercussions, so there might be some kind of compromise."

Such a decision could limit immediate fallout in markets.

"Partial seizure of the assets is what financial markets prefer because both sides can claim a victory, which will help limit the degree of violence," said Prapas Tonpibulsak, chief investment officer at Ayudhya Fund Management.

Thailand’s stock market <.SETI> has lagged regional peers this year, down 3.91 percent so far compared with a 1.21 percent drop in the Philippines, a 0.5 percent decline in Malaysia, and a 1.18 percent gain by Indonesian stocks. Dealers say political uncertainty is a key factor weighing on the Thai market.

The cost of insuring Thai sovereign debt — often used as a measure of political risk — has risen sharply this year. Five-year credit default swap spreads <THGV5YUSAC=R> hit a nine-month high of 135.18 basis points earlier this month but have since moved lower and were quoted at 114 on Monday.

TURNING POINT

"The verdict may be a critical turning point for Thai politics in the months ahead," Standard Chartered said in a research note on Monday.

It is also a critical moment for Thaksin, a 60-year-old former telecommunications tycoon who became the first leader in Thai history to win election twice, both in landslides, after building support in the vote-rich north and northeast.

His supporters say he revolutionised Thai politics with populist policies aimed at eradicating poverty, from universal healthcare to rural cash handouts. His critics accuse him of authoritarianism, corruption and of undermining the monarchy.

Friday determines the fate of assets frozen after he was ousted in a 2006 coup. Convicted of corruption and sentenced in absentia to two years in prison, he remains a political force, often rallying supporters via video link from self-exile in Dubai or taunting the government from across the border in Cambodia.

Anti-graft bodies and public prosecutors say Thaksin used government policies during five years in office to enrich his family’s telecoms business, Shin Corp. They have urged the nine-judge panel to confiscate every asset his family earned from selling shares in Shin to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings in 2006.

Thaksin’s lawyers say the case is politically motivated.

The political crisis has taken a toll on Thailand and its $264 billion economy, triggering frequent protests, riots, airport blockades, and three changes in government in 15 months.

"Red shirt" leaders say they have no plans to mobilise on Friday after holding almost daily protests nationwide this month, but they won’t stop Thaksin supporters from gathering outside the court and have called for as many as a million people to take to the streets sometime after the verdict to topple the government.

"We do not want to be seen pressuring the court to go one way or the other," said Jaran Ditsatapichai, a "red shirt" leader. "We will have to figure out a way to do it safely and in a way that can really paralyse the government."

Security agencies are taking no chances. Judges have been offered "safe houses". Military checkpoints have gone up. Soldiers and special police forces are on alert. The central bank asked commercial banks on Sunday to start tightening security.

The "red shirts" say that regardless of the verdict, they will continue a campaign to topple the government.

"I am not here fighting for Thaksin. I am fighting for democracy," said Siriwan Meesak, 60, a retired civil servant who was among about 1,000 "red shirts" who rallied outside Bangkok Bank’s headquarters on Friday, forcing it to shut its doors.

"Whatever the verdict, I will still protest." (Additional reporting by Ambika Ahuja and Viparat Jantraprap; Editing by Alan Raybould and Andrew Marshall)

Feb 22, 2010

In Thailand, world’s top finance minister stands tall

BANGKOK (Reuters) – At 1.93 meters (6 ft 3 in) in height, Thailand’s finance minister often stands above the crowd. That’s even more the case after winning “Global Finance Minister of the Year” honors from The Financial Times’ Banker magazine.

But as British-born, Oxford-educated Korn Chatikavanij accepts the award at a Bangkok ballroom on Monday, he knows he has a tough job ahead in reforming Thailand’s convalescing economy and helping it expand at a time of political tension and rising anti-government protests.

Dec 26, 2009

Asia marks tsunami’s fifth anniversary with prayers

PATONG, Thailand (Reuters) – Thousands of saffron-robed Thai monks chanted and prayed for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami on Saturday as Asia marked the fifth anniversary of one of history’s worst natural disasters.

The gathering of monks in Ban Nam Khem, a small fishing village on Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast that lost nearly half its 5,000 people, was one of hundreds of solemn events across Asia in memory of the towering waves that crashed ashore with little warning on December 26, 2004, killing 226,000 people in 13 countries.

Dec 17, 2009

Thailand still scarred five years after tsunami

BAN NAM KHEM, Thailand (Reuters) – Suvadee Sukkasem is still searching for her son who vanished when the Indian Ocean tsunami turned this tropical paradise into a mass grave for thousands of Thais and foreign vacationers nearly five years ago.

Although the sea now frightens her, she refuses to leave her beachside village in southern Thailand, holding out hope for the return of her son, who was four years old when the towering wave crashed ashore with little warning on December 26, 2004.

Nov 19, 2009

Thai economy may grow 5 pct in 2010-deputy PM

BANGKOK, Nov 18 (Reuters) – Thailand’s economy could grow as much as 5 percent next year if there is political stability, the country’s deputy prime minister in charge of the economy said on Wednesday, though he called the baht’s rise a concern.

"If politics are stable, 5 percent is not something that is unreachable," Deputy Prime Minister Korbsak Sabhavasu told Reuters in an interview.

Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, is expected by economists to grow about 3.5 percent next year, among the slowest in Asia <MKTPOLL1>.

Many private forecasters factor political instability into their outlook for Thailand, with no end in sight to a seemingly intractable political crisis, underscored by plans for prolonged anti-government protests starting on Nov. 29. [ID:nBKK4822]

That will be the first protracted demonstration by red-shirted supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra since violent protests in April that were forcibly ended by the army.

"Of course, we are concerned," said Korbsak. "But we’ve controlled it before and will do it again. Remember the bad one in April, we were able to control it."

He said, however, an expected economic rebound in the fourth quarter would probably not be as strong as the government had anticipated because the disbursement of funds for its stimulus programmes has been slower than expected.

Cabinet approved in September the first disbursement of a 1.43 trillion baht ($42 billion), three-year stimulus plan, a cornerstone of its economic recovery efforts.

"We are in the fourth quarter right now and we believe it is a plus. We are a little concerned it could not be as high as expected because the funding of our stimulus programme is lagging behind a little bit," he said.

"The cash injection is slower than we would have thought. Signing the contracts was about a month late," he said.

CONCERN OVER RISING BAHT

He also expressed concern about recent gains in the baht, which has climbed 4.9 percent against the dollar this year, but said it would not be wise for the government to attempt to influence or reverse its direction.

"We are very concerned. We should not let it fluctuate too much. The Bank of Thailand is doing that part. We want to see less fluctuation," he said. "We should not try to reverse it."

He said the government was pushing ahead with plans to resolve environmental issues at the heart of a landmark court ruling in September that suspended some operations in a major industrial zone and stirred doubts about the ability of the shaky government to satisfy both investors and angry villagers.

Thailand was allocating 2 billion baht ($60 million) to strengthen pollution controls, emergency services and public works around the sprawling 16.5 sq km (4,086 acre) Map Ta Phut industrial estate, the world’s eighth-biggest petrochemicals hub, where 76 projects worth about $9 billion have been suspended.

He said he expected approval in a week to expand clean-water pipelines into the community, and would spend 275 million baht to remove 300,000 tonnes of garbage piled up in the area while more than doubling the number of hospital beds to 200.

The projects, including some from Germany’s Bayer <BAYGn.DE>, India’s Aditya Birla Chemicals <ADYA.BO>, Australia’s BlueScope Steel Ltd <BSL.AX> and 25 companies belonging to Thai energy giant PTT <PTT.BK>, were suspended over their failure to comply with health impact assessment (HIA) rules, in force since 2007.

He said the industrial zone had grown far faster and far bigger than originally designed in 1985 when authorities had put in place a buffer zone between industrial and residential areas.

"The factories are not supposed to be there in the first place," he said. "The buffer zone is all gone. And now we cannot take the industry out. We cannot take the people out. So we have to learn to live together."

He blamed the problem on the government led by Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and now lives in exile after fleeing ahead of a two-year prison sentence for graft.

"I would say that government didn’t do much. They kept expanding into the buffer area," he said. ($1=33.18 Baht) (Reporting by Jason Szep and Vithoon Amorn; Editing by Alan Raybould)



    • About Jason

      "As Southeast Asia Bureau Chief, Jason Szep manages text, pictures and television news operations across 10 countries for Reuters. He has been a Reuters correspondent, bureau chief and editor since 1990 and won the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi award in 2007. He is a Boston native and has had postings with Reuters in Toronto, Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Boston and Bangkok. His assignments have ranged from Kabul and Islamabad to the U.S. presidential campaign trail during the 2008 election."
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