Thailand on the edge ahead of mass pro-democracy protest

Tonight Thailand sits on the edge. After weeks of small-scale pro-democracy rallies throughout the country, a mass march and the surrounding of Government House by red-shirted pro-democracy protesters, and nightly video calls from deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the day of political reckoning is almost here.

Dubbed D-Day by some, organisers of the latest round of protests expect more than 300,000 people to attend a mass pro-democracy rally at Government House in Bangkok with the aim of forcing the government to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections.

While Prime Minister Abhisit Veijajiva and senior government ministers have publicly dismissed the pro-democracy protests by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) as being inconsequential, there are increasing signs the Democrat Party government of Prime Minister Abhisit is more worried than it says.

Prime Minister of Thailand Abhisit Veijajiva
Prime Minister of Thailand Abhisit Veijajiva – attempting to downplay the red-shirt protesters. Photo courtesy the Bangkok Post

The political protests in Thailand are a continuation of the unrest that culminated in hundreds of thousands of international tourists being stranded for almost two weeks last year when yellow-shirted Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD) supporters seized and shut-down Bangkok’s two airports after first invading and seizing Government House for more than three months and closing a number of regional airports earlier on.

At the same time as the PAD were engaged in violent clashes with police and anti-PAD protesters, several senior members of the Democrat Party became leaders of the PAD, which at the height of the airport sieges said the only person they would accept as Prime Minister was Abhisit.

The PAD also openly called for an end to the current democratic election process in Thailand and heralded an era of “new politics” where 70 per cent of the parliament would be appointed and only 30 per cent elected.

Attempts by the then ruling People’s Power Party (PPP) government to disperse protesters using Thai riot police in October last year resulted in a massive teargas barrage hospitalising more than 400 and killing two in what was labelled by many as “bloody Bangkok”.

The sieges ended when the Constitutional Court disbanded the PPP and two smaller political parties who formed the coalition government.

Amidst claims of behind the scenes pressure from Thailand’s powerful military headed by General Anupong Paojinda, a number of former government coalition members, including members of the PPP, switched sides enabling the Democrat Party lead by Abhisit to form government.

Thai riot police move to confront anti-government PAD protesters blockading laying siege to Thailand's Government House.
Thai riot police move to confront anti-government PAD protesters blockading laying siege to Thailand's Government House. Photo Bangkok Post

In the last four months Thaksin, who skipped the country while on bail ahead of being convicted in absentia of corruption while in office, has moved from one country to another and infuriated the Bangkok establishment and elite by continually making video calls to mass rallies of his red-shirted supporters.

In his most recent video calls he has openly attacked Thailand’s Privy Council, in particular revered former prime minister and Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda.

According to Thaksin, General Prem was one of the masterminds of events leading to the 2006 military coup d’état that forced his elected government from office – allegations General Prem has denied.

In calling for a mass pro-demoracy rally for tomorrow, Wednesday, April 8, Thaksin has said that should “shooting break out, soldiers shoot at people, or a coup takes place, I will return and lead more protesters to Bangkok”.

In earlier video calls Thaksin warned there could be a “revolution by the people” while other leaders of the protest, which is rapidly dividing Thailand along socio-economic lines, have raised the possibility of a civil war.

Initially, England born and Eton Oxford educated Abhisit, treated the pro-democracy protesters with disdain, however, in recent weeks the chestnut of Thai politics, defence of the monarchy, has been raised with the red shirts accused of everything from showing disrespect to Thailand’s revered King, to accusations they are attempting to destroy the royal institution – a charge Thaksin and protest organisers have strenuously denied.

Thaksin Shinawatra addresses red-shirt protesters at Government House
Former Thailand prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra addresses red-shirt protesters via video link at Government House. Photo Thiti Wannamontha, Bangkok Post

While Prime Minister Abhisit has continually played down the protests, various ministries and departments, as well as the military, have formed large teams of lawyers to monitor Thaksin’s video calls to see if they breach Thailand’s strict lèse majesté laws.

The Government has also moved a number of regional Governors seen to be sympathetic to the pro-Thaksin/pro-democracy supporters, as well as instructed the new Governors to block protesters trying to head to Bangkok to join the rallies.

When UDD pro-democracy protesters rallied 13 days ago before marching to and encircling Government House, shipping containers were used to block access to the roads surrounding the complex and more than 6,000 police and soldiers deployed to ensure the grounds of Government House were not encroached upon by the protesters.

For their part the pro-democracy protesters have maintained an orderly protest, obeying police directions, allowing civil servants to enter and work in the Government House complex, and even painting over graffiti scrawled on the wall of Government House by over-enthusiastic supporters.

With the planned mass pro-democracy protest scheduled for Wednesday, Prime Minister Abhisit took the unusual step of appearing on state-run NBT television on Monday night after the 8pm news programme to assure the public that authorities are “100 per cent” prepared for the rally.

“If the protest affects the political system and the country’s revered institutions, this government will not tolerate it and will take decisive actions allowed by law,” he said.

The claims of protecting the monarchy and the royal institution were a cornerstone of the PAD protests last year, with members of the PAD filmed holding photographs of the King while shooting at then pro-government supporters from the back of pick-up trucks.

Pro-democracy red-shirt supporters rally in Bangkok
Pro-democracy red-shirt supporters rally in Bangkok. Photo: John Le Fevre

Today, one day before the showdown, a group of people, calling themselves United Siam, comprising retired bureaucrats, senators, academics, business people, and General Somjet Bunthanom, one of the members of the Council for National Security formed after the September 2006 coup, offered a Bt1 million (about $US 28,200) bounty for the return of Thaksin, rumoured to have been recently sited in neighboring Cambodia.

According to the group, the offer is “aimed at preventing the country from falling into another crisis.”

The group repeated accusations that Thaksin and his red shirt supporters had insulted the monarchy, publicly and clandestinely and called on members of the public to rise up against the red shirts.

At the same time Democrat Party Senator Somchai Sawangkarn, a member of the United Siam group, hauled out the communist card claiming, “some broken-hearted communists and politicians who lost their power” were part of the movement campaigning against the monarchy.‚Äù

In Chiang Mai earlier today about 500 members of the Rak Chiang Mai 51 group left for Bangkok on 16 chartered buses and some vans after besieging the provincial transport office which had refused to allow private bus operators to transport the group.

They will join up with an estimated 2,500 pro-democracy supporters from the Northern Thailand province of Udon Thani, who also departed Tuesday morning aboard a fleet of 50 buses and tens of thousands of others being bused, trained and driven to the capital from all over Thailand.

Earlier today, Tuesday April 7, Prime Minister Abhisit who was in Pattaya for a cabinet meeting ahead of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit starting on Friday, was trapped inside a beach hotel by an estimated three hundred red-shirted protesters before his motorcade was blocked by protesters and pelted with plastic bottles and a motorcycle helmet smashed through the rear window.

The summit, which was postponed last December due to the PAD protests and airport closures, will involve the 10-members of ASEAN as well as regional dialogue partners China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, and discuss their follow-up to a G20 plan to lift the world out of recession.

The Pattaya summit is to be followed by a “Global Dialogue” in Bangkok on Sunday featuring United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the chiefs of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and World Trade Organisation (WTO).

While Government officials are publicly stating they expect only 100,000 protesters at most, UDD organisers are sticking by their earlier  prediction of 300,000.

Late Tuesday afternoon a core leader of the UDD, Nattawut Saikua, claimed police have prepared supplies of teargas and extracts from the trumpet creeper or “cow-itch” plant (Campsis radicans) to use against protesters.

Mr Nattawut also said organisers were fearful a third party might try to provoke the red-shirted pro-democracy protesters or create an incident resulting in a clash with security forces. The fears come on top of recent comments by the PAD that they might reform and rally again in opposition to the UDD.

Whether 300,000 or 100,000 people rally is largely irrelevant. Today Thailand stands on the abyss. A country divided.

On one side is the urbanized, educated and affluent elite of Bangkok and the central and southern provinces, while on the other are the hundreds of thousands of Thais who have lost their jobs in recent months due to factory closures resulting from the global financial slump and a highly depressed tourism industry, and the country’s large and ever-present provincial working-class.

Whatever the outcome the ongoing political protests are likely to further detract from Thailand as a desirable tourism, retirement or investment destination.

The wild card in the deck, as always in Thailand, is the Thai military and what action they will take.

Having disposed of Thaksin in 2006 and believed by many to have played an active role in the formation of the present government, it is unlikely they will stand idly by and watch the prime ministership of Abhisit Veijajiva fall.

Either way, in less than 24-hours both sides will know where they stand. The larger the rally, the longer Thailand’s political unrest is likely to continue.

Ends:
© John Le Fevre, 2009

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Abhisit Vejjajiva, Democrat Party, People’s Power Party, PAD, Peoples Alliance for Democracy, “Red-shirts”, Thailand, Thailand current events, Thailand Government House, Thailand military, Thailand politics, Thailand tourism, Thailand travel, Thaksin Shinawatra, United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, “Yellow shirts”, 14th Asean summit, Thailand riot police, Chiang Mai, Udon Thani, Thailand Privy Council, General Prem Tinsulanonda.
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John Le Fevre

Deputy editor, Thailand & GMS editor at The Establishment Post

John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 35 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and copy editor.

He is currently deputy editor and Thailand / GMS region editor for The Establishment Post

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

8 Responses to "Thailand on the edge ahead of mass pro-democracy protest"

  1. National seo   September 26, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    Democracy is something that cannot be defended by democracy and that’s why people lose it so easily. You can’t fight religious fanatics or fascists by giving them the same opportunity like ordinary people have. I just hope that Thailand keeps its democratic way no matter what.

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  2. John   August 17, 2010 at 10:04 am

    In retrospect, now all this somehow make sense. The 70/30 idea of parliament appts/elections is ludicrous. Thailand is taking a huge step backwards. Other ASEAN members will gladly fill the vaccum. As Thailand becomes more devoid of the democratic process, everyone will suffer the consequences in some fashion. The GINI Coefficient will soon be changed for this once bustling tiger…

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  3. Tony Cartalucci   April 12, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    Please, pro-democracy? Well educated?

    Democracy is definitely an endangered ideal in Thailand and well worth fighting for…

    But the UDD? Its funded by Thaksin, designed and created by him, run by his right hand men, represented by his relatives, literally prancing about on stage, shamelessly conflicted in interest with the fate of Thaksin’s TRT/PPP/PTP party which still defers to him publicly for marching orders. The “Reds” couldn’t exist WITHOUT Thaksin.

    So I don’t know how well educated you must be to sit there listening to Thaksin’s dribble everyday. If you truly believe in democracy, start your own movement – piggybacking on Thaksin’s power trip is like hopping on a Soviet tank to go fight for human rights.

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    • John Le Fevre   April 13, 2009 at 3:59 am

      The UDD might very well be a creation of Thaksin Shinawatra and largely funded by him and his family as you say. However, I would suggest that before your criticize the education level of any of those supporting the red-shirt movement that you go to the rally site and talk with some of the people there.

      Remember also that just a week ago it was announced that more than 40,000 students who had passed their secondary school education could not be accommodated in University courses due to there being insufficient classes for them. Also, keep in mind that many of those people, and lets not forget they are people, come from a poor working-class background and will never have the money required to pay for a higher education.

      Notwithstanding the fact that they have not had the luxury of a higher education, they are not stupid and I find it offensive for you to sit in your ivory tower somewhere in Thailand and pass such a judgment.

      As you are fully aware, to start a separate movement in opposition to the established elite requires huge sums of money. Thaksin Shinawtra was a human rights abusing, profiteering thug. However, he is highly regarded by those who do not form part of the Bangkok elite because he is the only prime minister Thailand has had who has given anything to the poor, working class who form the majority of the country.

      I’m happy to meet you at the rally site while I am there working and introduce you to university professors, a former deputy chief of the metropolitan police, schools teachers and business owners.

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      • Tony   August 23, 2010 at 8:44 am

        Hindsight’s a bitch isn’t it Le Ferve? Anyone that highly regards a “human rights abusing, profiteering thug.” Sounds pretty stupid to me. Especially since any “attention” he paid the poor was obviously done as a means to exploit them, and exploit them he has.

        Now he’s working directly with Robert Amsterdam of Amsterdam & Peroff, a Chatham House major corporate member. I’m sure ALL involved having nothing but the best interests at hearth when this rabble communist trash takes over the country will surely improve social justice and equality. I can expect nothing less from Thaksin, a man who “advises” Hun Sen – Cambodia’s PM, who is harboring many of Thaksin’s red shirt leaders, who has sold 45% of his country to foreign investors out from under his own people. Are you really this stupid Le Ferve? Or do you believe in the exploitation, communist destruction and auctioning off of Thailand, like Thaksin’s buddy Hun Sen has just completed?

        http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/apr/26/cambodia

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        • John Le Fevre   August 23, 2010 at 9:29 am

          I don’t understand your point. This is a news report and implies support for no-one. It merely reported the situation at that point in time. I don’t understand what your problem with Chatham House is. An organization whose mission is to be a world-leading source of independent analysis, informed debate and influential ideas on how to build a prosperous and secure world for all.

          What most people don’t recognize in Thaksin or Abhisit is that Thaksin is more elitist than the yellow-shirts and Abhisit is more red than most red-shirts. However, it’s clear that since this incident Abhisit is controlled by much more powerful people. CLaiming Thaksin stole 45 percent of the Thai wealth is a gross over estimation.

          Cambodia has been messed up by every nationality on the planet almost, and no-doubt will go through the same pains that Thailand is now in perhaps 15-years time. The Guardian report you so eagerly quote is dated April 26, 2008 and reports on events occurring in 2006, so hardly “just completed”.

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  4. Steve in Thailand   April 8, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    An excellent, balanced summary – better than many I’ve seen in the press.

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    • John Le Fevre   April 8, 2009 at 5:28 pm

      Thanks very much for the comment Steve. It’s a fairly complex and drawn-out topic hence the length of the article. There is a lot of misinformation floating about and I’ve tried to cover the major events leading up to the current situation and also attempted to remain impartial. Many of the red shirt protesters I have spoken have been very well educated people and many of them openly state this is not just about Thaksin Shinawatra but about the abuse of the democratic process.

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