Friday, April 9, 2010

Thailand in Crisis

If red shirts run amok today in defiance of the state of emergency following which their leaders can't be arrested, and if the protesters regroup in the thousands at Rajprasong Intersection, that could rock Abhisit badly.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's reservoir of tolerance has been fast eating into even his supporters' patience, but the bottomline is he must have made his choice. Last night's national address thus depicted a besieged leader on a thin line between success and failure. Either he will avert a potentially disastrous national crisis and turn bricks into flowers, or he will find himself too deep in trouble and much will flounder along with him.

More or less, Abhisit is like his arch-enemy Thaksin Shinawatra. Both have been imploring their followers to be patient, to stay through animosity just a little bit longer. Thaksin, however, has nothing to lose, while the next 24 hours can make or break Abhisit.

If the red shirts run amok today in defiance of the state of emergency, warrants for the arrest of their leaders prove to be worthless pieces of papers, and if the protesters regroup at the Rajprasong intersection in the evening in tens of thousands, that could be it for Abhisit.

The state of emergency is a double-edged sword. The downside is that once it is declared and nothing improves, it would give the impression that the state is no longer in control. Abhisit, in his TV address updating the public on the situation, pointed out that those thinking the state of emergency had produced nothing might just be too obsessed with the use of force.

To him, it was a day the government was able to hit back, getting arrest warrants for certain key red leaders and blocking key communications means of the movement, including the popular PTV cable station. Thanks to the state of emergency declaration that facilitate the measures, it would be easier to alienate hardcore leaders and persuade moderate protesters to go home, he said.

The state of emergency did not necessarily mean the government had to use force to disperse the rally, he said. From his speech, it seemed the government would launch a last-ditch PR campaign at the reds-occupied intersection, telling the protesters they faced arrest and jail unless they agreed to return home.

"Now that we have managed to stop disinformation and will be able to arrest the leaders, we will be in better position to persuade the protesters to end the rally," Abhisit said. "We all are Thais. There's no reason why we have to kill each other. I will pursue this principle to the best of my ability."

Abhisit's optimism might be supported by a slightly declining number of protesters, although the movement has shown great ability to mobilise the masses. And the decreasing number did not take away aggression, as troops and red-shirt protesters yesterday confronted and tested their forces in a pull and push action at Thaicom Satellite's earth station in Pathum Thani before the red group retreated to another station in Nonthaburi.

Some 200 red shirts gathered at the Thaicom station after the government unplugged their mouthpiece People Channel satellite television, taking it go off the air for the first time. Before the screen went static, red-shirt leaders had told viewers: "If you no longer see us, if your screen goes dark, come to Bangkok and join us immediately."

During the face-off in Pathum Thani, the red-shirt group sent their representative, Chuchart Harnsawasdi, who is a Pheu Thai Party MP from the province, to talk with Thaicom company executive Theerayuth Boonchot and special task force commander Colonel Wiwat Nakchu who was assigned to control the Thaicom station. Theerayut told the red shirts' representative that the government had sent the military to jam the satellite signal, shutting down the People Channel which used to telecast the protest live round the clock.

Colonel Wiwat said he had just done what the government had ordered him to do, adding that if the red shirts wanted to reconnect the television signal, it must talk directly to the government. That angered the protesters, who began to push their way inside. Some 4,000 soldiers managed to hold them off, but there were three rounds of push and pull action before the protesters retreated to another Thaicom earth station in Nonthaburi last night.

Observers say the arrest warrants issued for seven protest leaders who led the red shirts in breaking through Paliament's gates on Wednesday may hold the key. Passionate as they have been, a large number of protesters are from the provinces and many have been known to be homesick and are ready to leave Bangkok. Without charismatic leaders, the government hopes, the masses could be easier to handle.

The key figures facing arrest are Arissaman Pongruenrong, Suporn Atthawong, Payap Pankate and Wanchana Kerddee. The three others are Yoswaris Chooklom, Siriwan Nimitssil, Sa-ngiam Samranrat. They have been charged with encroaching on government property, intimidation and restricting others' freedom. Now that the state of emergency has been declared, it is more convenient to file similar charges against the other leaders who will have to go through a minefield of legal boobytraps.

Can Abhisit pull it off? The climax is near.
The Nation, Bangkok

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