Less than 24-hours after Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva removed the state of emergency decree for Bangkok and five other Thai provinces, red shirt pro-democracy supporters have rallied at Sanam Luang, a traditional political rallying ground in the center of Bangkok directly in front of Thailand‚Äôs Grand Palace.
With the majority of its leadership in jail and 27 others evading arrest warrants, what has been termed the ‚Äúnext generation‚Äù in red-shirt leadership addressed a gathering estimated to exceed 8,000 people on Saturday (April 25, 2009).
The new leaders admitted that the mass rally tactics of the past were a mistake and vowed to hold regular pro-democracy rallies in Bangkok and throughout provincial Thailand in the months ahead.
The leaders promised to continue the aims of the previous leadership in pursuing electoral reform, a change to the 2006 military imposed constitution, and the downfall of the Democrat lead government of Mr Abhisit.
Unlike the mass rally that was staged at Government House a little over two weeks ago, there were no convoys of buses from the provinces, with those attending coming primarily from the suburbs of Bangkok. Neither was there any phone-in or video-call from from fugitive, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The rally remained peaceful and attendees were largely festive, while remaining defiant to the government as the new red-shirt leaders spoke. When video clips collected by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) showing clashes between the red shirts and Thai military on April 13 were displayed a hush fell over the gathering as people watched the graphic footage in stunned silence.
Red shirt leaders repeated their accusation that a number of people were killed by the Thai army at Din Daeng and their bodies spirited away and secretly disposed of ‚Äì a charge the Royal Thai Army and the Government has constantly denied. (See Monk – I saw Thai army shoot monk and people shot at Din Daeng)
Towards the later part of the evening reports were received of members of the mysterious¬† ‚Äúblue shirt‚Äù movement circling the meeting ground on motorbikes. Later one blue shirt member was apprehended by red shirt ‚Äúguards‚Äù and found to be in possession of aflare pistol that had been converted to fire shotgun cartridges.
The blue shirts first appeared on the Thailand political scene on April 11, when red shirt protesters rallied outside, and later invaded, the Asean plus six conference at Pattaya, forcing the heads of state of the 10 Asean countries and those of neighboring dialogue-party countries to flee and the summit to be postponed. (See Thailand Prime Minister dead man walking as Asean leaders flee¬†Pattaya)
Unlike the People‚Äôs Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protests where undercover police were publicly humiliated, paraded onstage, abused and assaulted when detected amongst protesters occupying both of Bangkok‚Äôs airports, red shirt guards disarmed the man and protected him from rally attendees before quietly taking him to the police.
At the same time a fugitive key protest leader from the earlier protests, Jakrapob Penkair, is alleged to have told the BBC that the red-shirt movement to drive the Abhisit Vejjajiva government out of office was not dead, but rather would come back even fiercer, including adopting guerrilla tactics if necessary, to achieve its goal.
“I believe the room for unarmed and non-violent means to resolve Thailand’s problem is getting smaller every day”, he is reported to have told the BBC by phone from an undisclosed location where he claims to be setting up a base for ongoing red shirt activity.
Different tactics would be used to confront the government, including possible clandestine subversion or armed attacks, he said
Mr Jakrapob said the struggle to bring down the present administration would continue, but the red shirts would no longer rely on conventional forms of protest. These last comments are the same as what the current ‚Äúnext generation‚Äù of leaders told those present on Saturday.
The comments by Mr Jakrapob prompted Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, who took an active role in the PAD protests and who complimented protesters on seizing and closing Bangkok airport, to accuse Thaksin of plotting to “rub out” his enemies in an effort to return to power.
‚ÄúThaksin has resorted to some sort of assassination attempt … [as] a last resort… Thaksin is fighting to the death”, he said in a speech to the Asia Society in New York.
According to Mr Kasit, the targets include himself, Mr Abhisit, Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, core PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul, and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban.
Meanwhile, the son of Mr Sondhi, founder of the Manager Newspaper Group, and pro-PAD television station ASTV, who was shot and wounded by gunmen armed with M16 and AK-47 assault rifles last week, accused an underground movement comprising senior police and military of being behind the attack.
Jittanart Limthongkul claimed a ‚ÄúGestapo state‚Äù is being formed‚Äù and the ‚Äúnew power group” is putting up a military barrier on the outer ring to prevent Thaksin from returning, while blocking Abhisit with an inner ring.
Mr Jittanart said the incident at the Interior Ministry last week when rampaging red shirts attacked a vehicle containing Mr Abhisit was the work of this group, with the intention being “to kill the prime minister and put the blame on the red shirts.”
According to Mr Jittanart the group is creating conditions for the dissolution of the House… [and] ‚Äúplotting a coup‚Äù so that the police and military officers involved can take control.
The commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army, General Anupong Paojinda, confirmed last week that some shell casings found at the scene of Mr Sondhi‚Äôs shooting were engraved with the initials of the Royal Thai Army and the serial numbers showed they had been distributed to the 9th Infantry Division, a unit of the First Army region in tambon Lat Ya in Kanchanaburi’s Muang district.
The comments by Mr Jittanart echo similar comments made by Mr Jakrapob last week that army commandos or military officials disguised as red shirt protesters were behind the rioting and burning of buses on April 13 and at the Interior Ministry.
‚ÄúIt was not us getting out of control. It was the ‚Äòthird hand‚Äô interfering. It was designed to be chaos. We were painted as troublemakers in order to have legitimacy to crack down‚Äù, he is reported to have told a foreign news service.
The apprehension of an armed member of the blue shirts at the UDD rally on Saturday would tend to add credibility to the claims of both sides of a ‚Äúthird hand‚Äù at play in the Thai political scene.
The accusations might also explain why the state-of-emergency declaration imposed by Mr Abhisit remained in place well after the majority of red shirt protesters from Government House had packed up their placards and foot clappers and returned home following the April 13 military crackdown.
Either way, talks of subversion or armed attacks, along with the stranding of hundreds of thousands of international tourists last year by yellow shirt PAD protesters, is not likely to see any slowdown in the free-fall decline of international tourists to Thailand anytime soon.
Last week Kasikorn Research Centre (KRC), predicted the ongoing political turmoil in Thailand would cost the Thai tourism industry between Bt50 and Bt100 billion (about $US1.4 to $US2.8 billion) in lost revenue.
According to KRC, if the political turbulence ends quickly the losses could be limited to about Bt50 billion but if the situation remained unstable the losses could easily double this figure.
Foreign tourist arrivals in the first quarter of 2009 were 16 per cent lower than in 2008 and a drop of up to 35 per cent for this quarter is expected. KRC said it expects the downturn to recover slightly in the third quarter to a drop of only 25 per cent and forecasts about 11.7 million foreign tourist arrivals for this year ‚Äì a drop of almost 20 per cent on 2008.
The think tank forecast 2009 foreign tourism revenue to generate about Bt380 billion (about $US10.9 billion), a fall of 27 per cent on the 2008 figure of Bt540 billion (about $US15.23 billion).
The KRC forecast echoed a similar conclusion reached by the Tourism Council of Thailand who last week claimed revenue from foreign tourism arrivals could drop 35 percent this year.
Deputy government spokesman Vachara Kannikar said late last week that the Tourism Council of Thailand had urged the government to take urgent steps to prevent an estimated 275,000 industry job losses as a result of inbound tourism figures dropping from 14.1 million in 2008 to an expected 10.9 million this year.
¬© John Le Fevre, 2009
For more background on the current Thailand political unrest see Thailand on the edge ahead of mass pro-democracy¬†protest
More photos can be found at Thailand pro-democracy rally, April 8, 2009 photo special and Battle for Bangkok photo special
A video compilation of the five days is at Songkran Battle for Bangkok, April 8 – 13, 2009, red shirt pro-democracy protests in Bangkok
Abhisit Vejjajiva, ‚ÄúRed-shirts‚Äù, ‚ÄúYellow shirts‚Äù, “Blue shirts”, PAD, People‚Äôs Power Party, Peoples Alliance for Democracy, Thailand, Thailand current events, Thailand Army, Thailand politics, Thaksin Shinawatra, United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, Sanam Luang, Jakrapob Penkair, Sondhi Limthongkul, General Anupong Paojinda, Jittanart Limthongkul, Sansern Sriboomreung, Thailand travel,¬† Thailand tourism, Tourism Council of Thailand
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