Friday, February 24, 2006

news updates

Philippines: Emergency rule 'to stop coup' dismays old allies

EMERGENCY rule was declared yesterday by President Arroyo of the Philippines, who said that she had to forestall a coup attempt timed for this weekend’s 20th anniversary of the people-power uprising that toppled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

She provoked furious protests in Manila after detaining an army general and claiming that there had been a conspiracy between political opponents, soldiers and communist rebels to bring her down.

Troops manned roadblocks in the capital as thousands of angry protesters fought with riot police after the announcement, which capped months of coup rumours. A dozen military coups have plagued the Philippines since the fall of Marcos in 1986.

Corazon Aquino, the first post-Marcos President and a former Arroyo ally, joined protesters who included nuns and priests. Police turned fire hoses on a crowd of 5,000, and were pelted with stones. Catholic bishops appealed for calm.

Mrs Arroyo has been tormented by street protests, waning popularity and fears of brewing trouble in the Army since allegations against her last year of vote-rigging and claims that her husband had profited from illegal gambling rings.

Introducing emergency rule, which allows arrest without warrants, is a political gamble just before an emotionally charged anniversary recalling the greatest success of Filipino democrats.

Critics accused her of overreacting and trying to take on dictatorial powers as the peso and stock index fell in value.

Mrs Arroyo was defiant. In a broadcast address, she said: “This is my warning to those conspiring against the country — the full force of the law will fall on your betrayal.” She added that she had authorised the military and police “to take the necessary measures”, and described a “systematic conspiracy” by members of the opposition, communist groups and “ military adventurists” to bring down her Government.

Brigadier-General Danilo Lim, the soldier accused of leading the plotters, had been detained before in connection with a coup attempt in 1989.

The President, in power since 2001, is an economist who pledged to improve the country’s dire economic performance, but she has failed to win much popularity.

Thailand: leader gambles on early poll to subdue rebellion

HE ROSE from humble policeman to the owner of one of Asia’s most powerful business empires, and won two landslide election victories as Thailand’s self-styled “CEO premier”.

But yesterday the once-unassailable Thaksin Shinawatra confronted growing opposition to his autocratic Government by calling an election three years ahead of schedule.

Mr Thaksin, who was returned to office for a third term just over a year ago, stunned the nation by dissolving parliament and calling elections for April 2. It was a dramatic counter-attack against his opponents, who brought thousands of demonstrators to the streets of Bangkok in successive weekends, and the biggest gamble of his colourful political career.

The gamble will probably pay off for Mr Thaksin, who in recent weeks appeared to have lost his sure touch, provoking a middle-class rebellion among city dwellers who had voted for him with enthusiasm little more than a year ago. Now he is embattled. His popularity has slumped, according to opinion polls, and former admirers speak of him with venom.

For many, the last straw was the sale of Shin Corp, his family’s giant telecoms business, to a Singapore state company for $1.7 billion (£1 billion). There was disappointment that it was bought by a foreign company. Mr Thaksin’s family paid no tax on the profits, causing outrage among middle-class salarymen, some of Mr Thaksin’s most loyal supporters.

Although the terms of the transaction were legal, condemnation of the way it was structured was universal. Simmering anger over past corruption scandals and alleged abuses of power exploded. In 2001 Mr Thaksin was accused of concealing assets by transferring company shares to family members, servants and a security guard. He has also been accused of hiring old school friends for key posts and handing out sweetheart contracts to build an international airport.

But although people in Thailand’s cities may have had enough of their leader’s self-serving stunts, bloody crackdowns on insurgents and criminals, and dubious business practices, there is one place where the people love him: the countryside, where 70 per cent of voters live.

Yesterday 3,000 farmers from villages near Bangkok cheered the man who has brought some of the new prosperity of Thailand’s urban world into the impoverished villages. “If you are sick of me, send me home,” he told them. “But if you want to continue using me, vote for me and I will work for you.”

After a meeting with the revered King of Thailand yesterday, Mr Thaksin began his re-election campaign in earnest, promising pay rises and tax breaks for public sector employees. But the election will be won or lost among farmers, the strongest supporters of his Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) Party. Business leaders also welcomed an election that should end the growing mood of uncertainty in a country nervous of street protests and their potential to turn violent. The main stock exchange rose slightly after weeks of wobbling, although protesters have vowed to hold a third demonstration in Bangkok tomorrow.

Mr Thaksin looks almost sure to win the vote on April 2, but his party is likely to be returned with a much-reduced majority. In a country used to weak governments, Mr Thaksin’s bold style and colourful approach have revolutionised politics. The billionaire captain of industry has instilled in Thais a sense of pride in their nation. Yet some of his most loyal supporters are joining the protesters in Bangkok calling for his resignation.

Among them is Chamlong Srimuang, leader of a bloody revolt that helped to oust a military-backed government in 1992. The presence of Mr Thaksin’s first political mentor at rallies has fanned fears that the campaign could descend into violence. “I can’t stand mob rule and I won’t allow them to exert any pressure on me,” Mr Thaksin said. “I respect decisions by the majority of the people, but not by some groups who claim that they have a mandate to decide on behalf of the people.”

  • Charismatic, he ranks 18th on Forbes’ list of South-East Asia’s richest
  • First democratically elected PM to serve second consecutive term
  • In 2004 tried to buy 30 per cent of Liverpool FC, funded by state lottery
  • Crusade against drugs led to deaths of 2,500
  • Hardline approach to insurgency in south. About 80 died in army custody, most suffocated in lorries

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