By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - Political instability is back with a vengeance in Thailand after a brief reprieve following the installation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's coalition government. Red-shirted supporters of exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra have for the past week surrounded Government House, demanding among other things the dissolution of parliament, snap elections and a restoration of the abrogated 1997 constitution.
The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group is in tactic and style a carbon copy of last year's yellow-garbed People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) street movement, though with one significant exception: the lack of overt royal symbolism. The UDD has mobilized tens of thousands under a pro-democracy banner on the popular appeal of the exiled and fugitive from justice Thaksin and a rally call for political change.
UDD leaders predict 300,000 people will converge on Government House, a royal advisor's private residence and other undisclosed targets on April 8 in what they refer to as a final "showdown". The language and symbolism of the red shirt rally marks a significant escalation of previous UDD rallies, which previously targeted military officials and their alleged Democrat party collaborators, but now aims more widely at an undefined "aristocracy" which UDD leaders claim has long retarded Thai democracy.
In recent video phone-ins, Thaksin has broken past taboos by accusing Privy Councilors Prem Tinsulanonda and Surayud Chulanont, as well as senior judges, of orchestrating the 2006 military coup that ousted him from power. Both have denied the accusations. But the exiled former premier, who earlier claimed that he had no interest in returning to politics and planned to concentrate on a non-profit foundation he established, has significantly upped the political ante by encouraging his followers to "rise up" to pave the way for his return to power.
UDD leaders have echoed Thaksin's call and demanded that both Prem and Surayud, both former army commanders, to resign their posts on King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 18-member advisory body. Both are known palace favorites and were appointed directly by King Bhumibol, who commands widespread respect in Thai society. One front-and-center red shirted protestor on Wednesday evening held up caricature portraits of both royal advisors in the nude with military officials lurking lasciviously over their shoulders.
Signs posted at the UDD protest site's first aid station provocatively state: "We're not a serf, we're a citizen," "We are in the 21st century, not medieval" and "All Thais are equal under the same law." Beyond vague signage, UDD leaders have sent mixed messages about their intentions towards monarchical institutions beyond the Privy Council. That's raising fears among some royalists who spoke with Asia Times Online that the protest movement has a wider unspoken agenda to challenge the monarchy's future role in Thai society.
UDD co-leader Jakrapob Penkair, who currently faces formal lese majeste charges which carry a possible 15-year prison term, rejects the notion that the UDD represents a threat to the monarchy. He claims that the UDD's broadsides against Prem and Surayud are in consonance with a speech King Bhumibol made in 2000, where the monarch said that privy councilors only assume the title when they advise the King and not when they act in their private capacities - as the UDD alleges Prem and Surayud did in masterminding the 2006 coup.
"The deeds and actions of Prem, Surayud, [Privy Councilor] Chanchai [Likitjitta], or any other of them, must be out of line with what the King wishes," Jakrapob told reporters at the rally site on Thursday. "So in going after these people it is definitely not about the monarchy, but it's about cleaning up the mess caused to the monarchy by these people. It is an attempt to protect the monarchy, our way." He said that the UDD had no plans to converge on the palace on April, but rather would take "sanctuary in the people" in the case of a military crackdown.
Another second-line UDD leader, who requested anonymity, told Asia Times Online that it was "no accident" that the red shirt protest movement failed to displayed portraits of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit. Red shirt donning protestors, he noted, have displayed portraits of Thaksin, similar to the ones erected in several rural areas before the 2005 elections, without verbiage and wearing what the UDD organizer referred to as "princely garbs".
Previous anti-government protests in Thailand - including the student-led movements in the 1970s, the anti-military government rallies in 1992 and both incarnations of the recent anti-Thaksin PAD street protests - all displayed prominently portraits of the royal family to demonstrate first their loyalty to the crown. Many believe that the UDD is bidding through provocative symbolism to lure security forces into a crackdown which they hope will galvanize wider popular support for overthrowing the government and bringing Thaksin back to power.
To build up the appearance of a nationwide insurrection, Jakrapob claims that UDD supporters have now staged protests in 45 different provinces, though local press coverage has shown that less than a score of red shirt-wearing protestors have turned out in certain localities. He says that provincial UDD supporters have been instructed to converge on provincial city halls, the symbol of central power, in the case of any military coup or crackdown launched in Bangkok.
It's not clear yet that security forces will move against the UDD, particularly if the protests wind down after April 8 and protestors return home for the Buddhist New Year. Army commander General Anupong Paochinda has warned UDD protestors against criticizing Privy Councilors and has positioned troops to fortify police guarding the barbed wire surrounded Government House. Behind-the-scenes coup-maker and former spy chief Squadron Leader Prasong Soonsiri advised the government to take the UDD movement seriously and recommended it block Thaksin's future video call-ins.
The UDD's new gambit indicates to some royalists that Thaksin and his top lieutenants plan to challenge the Privy Council's power and legitimacy in the post-Bhumibol era. That, some fear, could complicate the delicate royal succession. Under the Thai constitution, the Privy Council is empowered with submitting the name of the next monarch to the National Assembly if the throne is left vacant upon the 81-year-old Bhumibol's eventual passing.
Under that law both Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and Crown Princess Sirindhorn are eligible to take the throne. One palace insider who spoke with Asia Times Online said there is also the possibility the Privy Council could move to establish a Regency, initially led by Queen Sirikit and later by Princess Sirindhorn, while grooming Vajiralongkorn's three-year-old son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, for the throne.
While the UDD has mobilized potent symbolism and significant numbers, some analysts believe the ratcheting up of tensions is more a reflection of Thaksin's growing desperation than a show of political strength. Puea Thai, the third incarnation of his banned Thai Rak Thai and People's Power parties, turned in by most assessments a lackluster performance at last month's parliamentary no-confidence debate.
The nationally televised proceedings acted to strengthen Abhisit's grip over his coalition and revealed soft spots in Puea Thai party unity, which is straining under the leadership of controversial politician Chalerm Yoobamrung. There were indications before the UDD launched its protests that a number of Puea Thai politicians were considering defecting to the coalition under the newly formed Bhum Jai Thai party, which is comprised of several politicians who have already broken away from Thaksin and maintain loyalty to provincial power broker Newin Chidchob.
Meanwhile, Abhisit and his coalition partners look to consolidate significant grassroots gains with the disbursement of ramped up fiscal spending, including populist measures to hand out 2,000 baht (US$56) denominated checks to over 11 million Thais. The ministry bureaucracies which stymied the spending of previous Thaksin-aligned governments, led last year by Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat, has more fully cooperated in disbursing Democrat-earmarked funds and budgets, say financial analysts.
Moreover, while the well-spoken Abhisit has impressed international audiences, the world is fast closing in on Thaksin, who was convicted and sentenced last year by a Thai court to two years in prison on criminal conflict of interest charges. Thaksin's visa was revoked last year by the United Kingdom and Abhisit's government has ramped up diplomatic efforts to have the fugitive former premier extradited, including from Hong Kong, which Thaksin had previously used as a political base in exile. He has recently taken up residence in Dubai, according to a UDD source.
Meanwhile, legal proceedings are underway to seize on corruption charges an estimated US$2.2 billion worth of Thaksin's and his family's assets, which are frozen in Thai bank accounts. The funds, representing the proceeds from his family's 2006 sale of the Shin Corporation, are believed to be the bulk of his personal holdings. The Supreme Administrative Court this week rejected a legal challenge lodged by Thaksin's son, Pongthongtae, to win access to part of the frozen family fortune.
Attempts by Thaksin's political allies last year to have a portion of the frozen funds transferred for tax payment purposes to the Ministry of Finance from the royally affiliated Siam Commercial Bank were rebuffed by the bank's long-time director and known palace loyalist Anand Panyarachun, who on Wednesday was ridiculed alongside Prem and Surayud on the UDD's protest stage.
The UDD claims to be fighting in principle for democracy against aristocracy, but it is significant that it lacks the institutional support - including from the military, bureaucracy, courts and top businessmen - which to varying degrees sustained and protected the PAD movement that effectively toppled two Thaksin-aligned governments.
While imitation is a form of flattery, it's not clear yet that the UDD's claim to people power can match that of the institutions they are now openly up against.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be reached at email@example.com.