Thaksin, who has lived in exile since his ouster, quickly upped the confrontational ante. On June 11, a government-appointed investigative committee announced it had ordered the freezing of $1.6 billion in domestic bank deposits belonging to the former tycoon and his family, alleging corruption in several government projects overseen by Thaksin. The exiled leader, who has denied any wrongdoing, suggested the following day that he may return to Thailand to fight the chargesand perhaps re-enter politics. The prospective homecoming of Thaksin is likely to inflame tensions between civilian protestors and the military government, further damaging the country's international image and its hopes for stability. "[Thaksin's] return will raise the likelihood of violence," says Sunai Phasuk, the Thailand representative for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "We are heading for political upheaval."
Most of last weekend's demonstrators were from Thaksin's fan base, which draws largely from the rural poor. Many expressed anger at a tribunal, handpicked by the junta, which had dissolved Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party for committing electoral fraud in last year's polls. In their defense, the ruling generals have promised to hold elections by the end of this year, and they point out that their putsch was met with almost no public outcry. That's true: Thaksin's popularity had nosedived by the end of his tenure, in part because of his autocratic style, and street protests against him last year still dwarf the current rallies against the junta.
On Sunday, the junta blamed the TRT party leadership for the protests, later hinting that cash handouts had lured many poor citizens to the demonstrations. But the anti-junta rallies span a wider spectrum than just Thaksin's supporters. Democracy advocates took to the streets to decry the September coup. Anti-poverty campaigners who claim the junta has not adequately addressed the plight of Thailand's rural poor raised their voices, as did employees of community-radio stations banned from the airwaves by the interim government. Legal activists condemned what they believe is deteriorating judicial freedom under the military leadership. And Buddhists, who are upset their faith was not designated as the national religion in the draft of the postcoup constitution, also marched en masse. "The anti-junta coalition has gathered critical mass," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "This is a pent-up situation, and it's going to get worse."
The anti-junta coalition has vowed no letup in their dissent. On Monday, 5,000 Buddhists thronged in front of the Thai parliament, some participating in a hunger strike to draw attention to their call for a state faith. It's unlikely, however, that the generals will bend to such wishesor relinquish their own power so easily. On Wednesday, General Sonthi struck a defiant note, predicting that Thaksin would not dare return to Thailand because he could be killed by one of the many groups of people who oppose him.
If Thaksin does return, the junta may have to redouble efforts to keep the peace between increasingly irate demonstrators and army troops. "To be fair to the military, they have been disciplined and patient so far, but for how long?" asks political scientist Thitinan. "They are trained to respond by force. If it turns more violent, it will be bad for Thailand economicallyand for how it is viewed by the world."