Not so improbable – The Edge Review

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After Thailand’s anti-government leader appeals to Senate for unelected PM, protestors killed in grenade attack

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Redshirt leader Jatuphon Prompan speaks at rally on Aksa Road west of Bangkok, May 10 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Redshirt leader Jatuphon Prompan speaks at rally on Aksa Road west of Bangkok, May 10 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

BANGKOK – In most electoral democracies, it would have been an improbable scene.

Despite facing arrest warrants for insurrection and murder, an anti-government protest leader was escorted by security into the country’s parliament house, where he lobbied the senate head to replace Thailand’s elected government with an appointed administration.

The body language suggested that protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban was no mere supplicant. A row of senators led by Speaker Surachai Liangboonlertcha greeted Mr Suthep, clasping hands and smiling as if deferring to the bluff former Deputy Prime Minister. 

Outside, as night fell, several thousand backers of Suthep’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) sat on the street, listening to speeches bellowed through megaphones from the top of a truck as the meeting took place.

“They have exchanged opinion for now, that is all,” said Senator Anusart Suwanmongkol, speaking afterwards.

But six months after the start of his offensive to boot out the Pheu Thai Party-led government – which is backed by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and was headed until May 7 by his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra – Suthep is on a roll.

Last Saturday, Suthep marched into Thailand’s besieged, empty Government House and was given the use of the building to hold press conferences. The picture of Suthep getting the run of the place was telling, given that ordinarily Thailand’s prime minister works from Government House.

In contrast, Niwatthamrong Bunsongphaisarn, who succeeded Yingluck as caretaker prime minister after she was forced to step down this month by the Constitutional Court, must work out of an ad hoc office in the city suburbs. Yingluck became the third elected prime minister since 2008 to be ousted by Thailand’s interventionist judiciary, which is perceived to be anti-Thaksin.

Thida Thavornseth, one of the leading figures in the pro-government Red Shirts movement, said that succesive anti-Thaksin judgments show the courts to be biased. “They try to punish the governments that come from the election, again and again,” she said. Pro-Thaksin parties have won every national election since 2001, leaving the opposition to resort to other means to achieve power.

Yingluck was ousted after being found guilty of abuse of office when she transferred the national security secretary as part of a bureaucratic reshuffle that allowed Thaksin’s former brother-in-law to become police chief – a fast one that opponents saw as nepotism. Thaksin, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006, lives in Dubai since fleeing abuse of office charges in 2008.

The PDRC sees the replacement of Yingluck with Niwatthamrong – who, like Yingluck, is a former executive in Thaksin’s business empire – as evidence that the exiled former prime minister controls Pheu Thai. “That’s very typical, it happens in every country that has a leader like Thaksin,” said Tayawat Trakulthong. Tayawat was among a group of around 700 protestors surrounding the headquarters of Thailand’s Channel 3 as part of a drive to intimidate TV stations into broadcasting Suthep’s speeches rather than government announcements.

The PDRC says that Thailand’s economy is suffering from the continuing political crisis – a fait accompli which the PDRC helped bring about. The absence of a fully functioning government means an appointed government is urgently needed, said PDRC spokesman Akanat Promphan. “There is no government left. The new prime minister is deputy caretaker caretaker,” he said.

If the PDRC get its way, it will mean ignoring the votes of 15 million Thais who backed Pheu Thai and Yingluck in the 2011 election, as well as those who cast their ballots for the party in the Feb. 2 snap election called by Yingluck to resolve the political crisis. There will likely be backlash, and already tens of thousands of Thaksin’s Red Shirt supporters have congregated on a sunbaked plaza on Bangkok’s western outskirts. Simmering under the sun, 15 or so miles away for now from their nemesis, Suthep.

If the Red Shirts move closer to the city, there could be trouble. Since the PDRC campaign began late last year, more than 20 people have died and there have been unexplained guerilla-style attacks on PDRC rally sites, while PDRC guards have attacked police, journalists and bystanders. On Wednesday night, 2 anti-Thaksin protestors were killed and over 20 injured in an apparent grenade and gunfire attack on the PDRC rally site near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument.

Asked what will happen if the rump Pheu Thai government is replaced by a nominated administration, Thida said, “we will oppose [it] strongly.”

The army last seized power in the 2006 putsch that ousted Thaksin, but has so far remained on the fence during the latest political turmoil. Red Shirts say they see this as posturing, arguing that the military should have protected the government and that it is effectively allowing the PDRC to have its way, albeit slowly. “This is not just a judicial step by step coup, it is also a quiet military coup,” said Thida.

Suthep Thaugsuban and senators meet on May 12 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Suthep Thaugsuban and senators meet on May 12 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

PDRC leaders sit outside Thailand's parliament building, awaiting meeting with Senate head (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

PDRC leaders sit outside Thailand’s parliament building, awaiting meeting with Senate head (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Anti-Thaksin protestors outside Channel 3 TV headquarters (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Anti-Thaksin protestors outside Channel 3 TV headquarters (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Redshirts show support for Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra at rally on May 10 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Redshirts show support for Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra at rally on May 10 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Suthep Thaugsuban leads ceremony to mark PDRC's departure from former base at Bangkok's Lumpini Park, at 14,14 on May 12 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Suthep Thaugsuban leads ceremony to mark PDRC’s departure from former base at Bangkok’s Lumpini Park, at 14,14 on May 12 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

PDRC supporters listen as Suthep Thaugsuban speaks to them after his May 12 meeting with the Senate speaker (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

PDRC supporters listen as Suthep Thaugsuban speaks to them after his May 12 meeting with the Senate speaker (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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