Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My Friend Is My Enemy in Thailand


BANGKOK - Once-coherent forces are fragmenting in Thailand,
promising to complicate standing political alliances while
disintegrating others. As Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva
strikes new conciliatory poses - including possible
constitutional reforms and an amnesty for more than 100 banned
politicians - the emerging realignment could ignite potent new
sources of instability and foil his government's strategy to
shore up its democratic mandate at new polls next year.
Officials and analysts are still weighing the significance of
last month's violent anti-government street protests and the
military's crackdown, which pitted forces aligned to exiled
former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra against Abhisit's
coalition government and its presumed backers in the military,
bureaucracy and royal Privy Council. Those clashes and the
subsequent assassination attempt of an anti-Thaksin protest
leader have opened new political fissures that have the
potential to spark more upheaval and violence.
The main wildcard, the red-shirted United Front for Democracy
Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group, has fractured at the
top after last month's crackdown and temporary detainment of its
main leaders, according to a second-line UDD leader. Different
co-leaders have in recent weeks forwarded divergent strategies
for future resistance, with some promoting new mass protests
while others have advocated a more radical move towards armed
Diplomats familiar with the situation say that UDD co-leader
Veera Musikapong was instrumental in steering the situation away
from a violent crescendo on April 13 when he agreed to disperse
the remaining 3,000 protestors after the military had encircled
the UDD's main protest site at Government House in Bangkok. The
same diplomats claim that certain UDD protesters on the site's
perimeter were that day armed with homemade explosive devices,
or ping pong bombs, which if launched could have easily
escalated the situation towards retaliatory violence.
While UDD co-leaders Veera, Jatuporn Prompan, Weng Tojirakarn
and Nattawut Saikuae have all called for new peaceful protests,
analysts suggest that Thaksin is now looking for a new UDD
leadership. Thaksin's close aides and former Communist Party of
Thailand members Prommin Lertsuridej and Phumtham Wechayachai
were floated in recent media reports as possible candidates. If
so, the UDD would appear to be splitting into two distinct
groups, with those favoring peaceful protests less aligned to
Thaksin and those calling for armed struggle more clearly in the
exiled former premier's inner circle.
One diplomat suggests that while the UDD lost the battle, by
mobilizing 100,000 protesters on April 8 it successfully
advanced a rallying call against entrenched inequality and
injustice in Thai society. The question, he suggests, will be
whether the protest movement can break away from Thaksin's funds
and symbolism and become a positive force for political reform,
or instead intensify its destabilizing course of disruption and
violence aimed solely at toppling Abhisit's government and
restoring Thaksin's power.
Exiled motivations
Thaksin's lurch towards brinksmanship was at least partially
motivated by the breakdown in secret negotiations that had been
mediated from behind the scenes by a European interlocutor.
Those talks, which included elements of the military and
monarchy, according to a Thaksin ally familiar with the
situation, aimed to return Thaksin's US$2.2 billion in frozen
funds in exchange for a vow he would not re-enter politics.
In an apparent bid to re-establish his diminished negotiating
leverage, he has publicly accused certain privy councilors of
orchestrating the 2006 coup and recently alleged in an interview
with the Financial Times that King Bhumibol Adulyadej had
foreknowledge of the putsch. Before that, Thaksin is also known
to have lost touch with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn,
reaffirming the notion that neither is the monarchy a static
institution with its relationships.
According to diplomats and a well-placed palace source, Thaksin
had on several occasions after returning from exile in 2008 met
with Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok via his trusted associate, Sino
Thai Engineering and Construction Company chairman Anutin
Charnvirakul. The two had also met on at least two separate
occasions when Thaksin was in exile in London after the 2006
coup and Vajiralongkorn spent nine months of calendar 2007 in
It was lost on few seasoned observers that the UDD's April 12
assault on Prime Minister's Office secretary general Nipon
Prompan's car at the Ministry of Interior had particular
symbolic value because of the senior bureaucrat's known close
ties to Vajiralongkorn, including formative years together at a
European boarding school.
Some diplomats have interpreted that assault and the UDD's
public criticisms of top privy councilors as a strong signal
that Thaksin and his allies could complicate the impending royal
succession, where Vajiralongkorn is the heir apparent to the
throne. At the same time, many believe Thaksin may have
overstepped the mark by mentioning the widely revered
81-year-old Bhumibol in recent political remarks to the foreign
Meanwhile, the April 17 assassination attempt against media
mogul and People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest group
leader Sondhi Limthongkul could result in a more dramatic break
of previously presumed aligned political forces. Sondhi has
publicly accused military officials with links to Thaksin of
masterminding the failed attack, which was launched by assault
rifle-toting assassins.
Sondhi told this correspondent while in hospital that he
believed army commander General Anupong Paochinda, army chief of
staff General Prayuth Chan-ocha and Defense Minister General
Prawit Wongsuwan were bent on seizing political power from
Abhisit. Anupong has denied any foreknowledge or involvement in
the plot on Sondhi, though he has acknowledged that bullet
shells found at the crime scene were Thai army issue.
Sondhi has criticized the same military officials in recent
press interviews and in an apparent shift suggested that the
PAD's "new politics" reform agenda is in some ways similar to
the political change advocated by the UDD. PAD street protests
paved the way for the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin's
government and the movement was notably dormant during the
military appointed administration that ruled in 2006 and 2007.
A second incarnation of the PAD last year paralyzed the workings
of two Thaksin-aligned governments, which eventually fell
through controversial court decisions, including a December 2
ruling that disbanded the then ruling People's Power Party.
Sondhi cloaked his yellow-shirted protest movement in royal
symbolism and first drew crowds in late 2005 by accusing then
prime minister Thaksin of disloyalty to the Thai crown - charges
Thaksin has denied.
Loyal royals
By taking hard aim at Anupong and Prayuth, both established
royalists who served in Queen Sirikit's Royal Guard Infantry
Regiment, diplomats and analysts wonder whether Sondhi will
continue to mobilize defense-of-the-monarchy themes at any
future protests, including ones that potentially target top
military officials or royal advisors.
Sondhi's Thai language daily newspaper openly supported the
candidacy of former 3rd army division commander General Saprang
Kalayanamitr over Anupong in the run-up to the 2007 military
reshuffle that eventually elevated Anupong to the army's top
spot. Anupong has since consolidated his power over important
command positions, but has faced criticism from certain hardline
military elements, and echoed by Sondhi, that he has failed to
effectively purge Thaksin's lingering influence.
Sondhi stirred a hornet's nest last year when, from his protest
stage, he accused Anupong of receiving money from Thaksin to pay
for his children's school fees. He did the same over the weekend
when he alleged that palace insider Viriya Chavakul, who has
publicly defended Thaksin's loyalty to the crown, played a role
in the assassination plot against Sondhi. She strongly denied
the charges and the palace quickly moved to correct press
reports that referred to Viriya as Queen Sirikit's
Questions also surround the apparent fall from favor of top
royal advisor and Sondhi ally Piya Malakul, who according to one
royal insider hasn't attended functions at the palace for over a
month. Piya is known to be close to Queen Sirikit and was often
the lone advisor to accompany Bhumibol when he previously took
outdoor walks around his seaside palace in Hua Hin.
One palace insider says that Piya was the top advisor who
suggested that Queen Sirikit attend the funeral services of a
PAD protester killed during a melee with police last October 7,
indicating to some tacit royal backing for the PAD. Piya was
also accused by Thaksin of playing host to a dinner at his
residence in May 2006 where the coup against his government was
allegedly planned. Piya has strongly denied the charges,
claiming no military officials were present at the meeting.
The PAD has already indicated it will launch new street protests
against any constitutional reforms that lead to an amnesty of
the 110 politicians - with the notable exception of the
criminally charged Thaksin - banned from politics for five years
by a military appointed Constitution Tribunal in May 2007. The
risk for Abhisit and the Democrats is that the PAD lumps
together their coalition government with the military, as UDD
leaders had from their protest stage.
Military matters
That could be an easier argument to make after Abhisit's
declaration of a state of emergency and the military's
willingness under Anupong to mop up the UDD after refusing to
implement similar decrees announced last year under two separate
Thaksin-aligned governments. The breakdown of Abhisit's personal
security detail showed clearly that his government lacks command
control over key sections of the national police force.
Thaksin was a former police official and is believed to still
hold sway over certain senior officers. Many junior-level police
officials attended UDD rallies while off duty, with some even
changing into their red shirts while still at their respective
police stations, according to a source familiar with the
situation. That's raised concerns in certain government circles
that Thaksin supporters' call to arms is no idle threat.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayakorn said that the
premier's inner circle now viewed the UDD's attack on Abhisit's
car on April 12 at the Ministry of Interior as a
well-coordinated assassination attempt. He says a review of
wide-angle security film of the incident shows that men with
masks and guns were positioned on the perimeter of the attack,
apparently waiting for frontline protesters to break through the
car's bulletproof windows.
With police neutrality in doubt, army chief of staff Prayuth has
taken charge of Abhisit's personal security and his top aides
have been appointed bodyguards. Some diplomats here believe that
Prayuth's role in the efficient suppression of the UDD riots may
have saved Abhisit's government, which was teetering after UDD
protesters stormed the venue of an Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit meeting with world leaders in
The military has over Abhisit's five-month tenure sometimes
marched to its own drummer, though by most reports it stepped in
line when he declared a state of emergency and insisted the
crackdown would result in no casualties. Military insiders say
the top brass are wholly cognizant of how unpopular another coup
would be and prefer the political status quo as long as their
budgets keep flowing and a conflict in the south involving
Muslim insurgents is left under the military and not moved to
civilian command.
Panitan says that while the military's budget has risen
substantially since the 2006 coup, overall outlays are still
only 1.8% of gross domestic product, well below the global
average for maintaining a modern fighting force of 300,000 men.
Panitan, a former professor of security affairs who has trained
several senior ranking military officers, has according to
diplomats emerged as one of Abhisit's main point men in liaising
with the military and deciphering its moves and motivations.
New trajectory
What's clear is that the UDD's unexpected show of force has put
Thai politics on a new trajectory. The ruling Democrats are now
widely expected to dissolve parliament and call for new
elections by early to mid-2010, coinciding with a forecast
up-tick in the economy, which is now set to contract by 5% this
One Democrat party deputy leader suggests the government is
already starting to plot vote-getting strategies for new polls,
including possible plans to redistribute land designated as
national parks to over 2.2 million villagers who still hold
title deeds, and another to grant Thai citizenship to over 2
million people in limbo situated in border areas.
The Democrats also clearly hope to capitalize on a newfound
populism, including a 2,000-baht (US$57) handout scheme for over
11 million low-income earners around the country. Ramped up
fiscal spending designated to cushion the blow of the global
economic crisis started disbursements last month and politicians
of coalition partner Bhum Jai Thai party are expected to be
major beneficiaries through the ministries they control.
The Bhum Jai Thai party's behind-the-scenes leader, Newin
Chidchob, is now allegedly bidding to place his political
associates onto the board of state-run and now loss-making Thai
Airways, according to people familiar with the situation. Any
number of those policies could open the coalition to damaging
corruption allegations lodged by the Thaksin-aligned opposition
Peua Thai party, similar to the land reform scandal that
eventually brought down a Democrat-led government in 1994.
One diplomat read the Ministry of Finance's recent announcement
to cut 200 billion baht from the 2010 budget because of revenue
shortfalls also as a political strategy to keep Bhum Jai Thai at
bay and on side until new polls are held, with a wink that
bigger-ticket infrastructure projects would be initiated by a
newly elected government. That avowed big spending could be
enough to lure several Peua Thai politicians to defect to Bhum
Jai Thai, as several were reportedly poised to do before the UDD
ramped up its protests.
That's exactly the sort of old-fashioned politicking both the
UDD and PAD say they stand firmly against and could provide
fodder for more destabilizing demonstrations in the months
ahead. But if Abhisit successfully oversees constitutional
reforms and a mass amnesty, which with shifting political
allegiances could benefit his coalition as much as the
Thaksin-aligned Peua Thai, those fractured street movements may
yet represent the fringe of an emerging new political order.
By Shawn W. Crispin
Asia Times
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.

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