Bangkok on high alert ahead of politically charged court ruling

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Deliberations by Thailand's Constitution Tribunal have begun to decide the fate of the former ruling party, Thai Rak Thai, and the main opposition Democrat Party. With authorities expecting supporters of the two parties to cause disturbances, security forces in the capital Bangkok are on high alert, with 15,000 troops at the ready to keep order.

Nine judges began their deliberations at around 1 p.m. local time (1800 GMT), and are expected to announce their decision on Wednesday. Both Thai Rak Thai and the Democrat Party are accused of legal violations in connection with general elections on April 2, 2006, and could be dissolved.

Thai Rak Thai was formerly led by Thaksin Shinawatra, the ex-prime minister who was ousted in a coup d'état last year. The Democrat Party, the ruling party before Thaksin was elected premier in 2001, is the main opposition. Since the coup on September 19, 2006, the military-led Council for National Security has banned political activity, but has promised to hold a referendum on a new constitution ahead of planned elections by December.

Analysts have warned that the dissolution of the country's two main parties could cause chaos, and that the junta could resort to an emergency decree.

Small units of unarmed Royal Thai Army soldiers were posted at television stations and other strategic locations. In total, some 15,000 troops are on alert in their barracks, ready to deploy if the security situation warrants.

Foreign embassies warned their citizens to use caution, urging them to avoid demonstrations, political rallies and military personnel.

Last week, King Bhumibol Adulyadej made a rare televised address as he granted an audience to the judges, urging them to use care in their verdict.

Both parties deny rallying their supporters and say they are innocent.

"There is no legal basis to prosecute and punish us. We challenge the authority of the tribunal," acting Thai Rak Thai leader Chaturon Chaiseng said, pointing out that since the coup, the 1997 Constitution that was the basis for law had been abolished.

Along with the dissolution of the parties, party leaders could be banned from politics for five years, possibly sidelining up to 160 of the country's top politicians.

"To have every politician banned as a result would be seen by everybody as being too draconian," said Korn Chatikavanij, Democrat Party deputy secretary general.