Monday, June 11, 2007
PRO-THAKSIN DEMO GETS AGGRESSIVE
etween 10,000 - 15,000 supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra rallied at the Royal Field, Sanam Luang on Friday and Saturday nights. After organisers promised not to provoke any confrontations with police, thousands of the demonstrators on Saturday night attempted to march from Sanam Luang to the Army Headquarters to demand a meeting with the Council for National Security. The protest was organised by the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship, an umbrella group consisting of 22 anti-coup organisations. Their goal is to achieve the dissolution of the CNS by June 24, when another major rally is planned.
Small rallies have been taking place in Sanam Luang almost daily in recent weeks, organised by the satellite broadcaster PTV (which has been denied a broadcast license). PTV ("People's Television") is a pro-Thaksin outfit set up to promote his return to power, and really may as well be known as Pro Thaksin Vision. The PTV rallies have been attracting various anti-military groups, anti (HM the King's confidante and former PM) Prem Tinasulanonda, and hard-left groups based on university campuses. These rallies have basically not achieved any degree of momentum, and have even resorted to promises of free give-aways of the highly sought-after religious talismans known as Jatukam Ramathep in order to attract participants.
On Friday evening though, the crowd was a little different. The wonderful 2Bangkok website has a short account of the atmosphere there that night, and a good series of photos. These protesters have been bused in from upcountry, almost certainly paid for their time, and rather subdued in comparison to the more radical urban revolutionaries.
The rally speakers spoke to the non-urban crowd in a loud, repetitive, and extreme way, which lacked the subtly and biting wit of the best of the PTV rallies. There was a lot of energy from the stage, but just a bit from the rather polite crowd. People were moving through the crowd, handing out yellow bandanas (in imitation of the "Thaksin, Get Out" bandanas from last year) and small flags.2Bangkok notes that this crowd is not going to be the type of mob necessary to unseat the government, but that the addition of the other anti-coup groups might provide the added impetus.
And that seems to be what happened the following night, leading to a much more aggressive mass. After vowing not to provoke confrontation, they did exactly that by moving out of the Royal Field and past Democracy Monument en route to Army Headquarters. On at least two occasions the police, who were massively outnumbered, attempted to block the way. The police acted with great restraint, and after negotiations at each stand-off, allowed the marchers to pass. Thankfully, the security forces did not escalate the situation as happened 15 years ago when police were withdrawn and soldiers took their place.
Mind you, 15 years ago (and I was there) the pro-democracy demonstrators did not attack bystanders either -- a fact noted by respected former senator Kraisak Choonhavan who attended the Saturday rally. Kraisak said he sympathized with many of the former Thai Rak Thai executives after the party's dissolution by the Constitutional Tribunal -- all party executives have also been banned from political activity for five years. He had gone to observe the demonstration because he wanted to see if it was related to the bans or not. Kraisak is a well known figure, and some of the organisers noticed him talking to foreign reporters, inciting the mob to attack him.
"The leaders of the demonstration did not try to stop the attackers but apparently incited the use of force. So, I would say that the organisers were irresponsible and tried to incite violence."Someone with a megaphone had begun screaming at him to go away, and when he approached the man explaining that he just wanted to hear the speakers, a group of men attacked him with kicks and punches. He was hustled to safety by some policemen, and said he would not file a complaint against the attackers.
Kraisak said the organisers of the protest were not fighting for democracy or for justice for former Thai Rak Thai executives.Another former senator says the protesters have been paid for their presence:
"I believe the demonstrations by this group have other, ulterior motives, and I believe that future rallies could lead to danger," he said.
Former Yasothon senator Somboon Thongburan said he had received calls from the northeastern province to say canvassers had hired villagers to take part in the rallies for Bt200 a day. The villagers were being provided with accommodation, food and travel, he said.Two hundred baht is above the standard daily pay for a labourer, and is equivalent to about $5.50 USD.
The interim government is well on schedule to have the new constitution ratified by the nation later this year, with a return to full democracy after elections in December. If they can achieve this, as promised by interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont last year, I certainly hope all the hand-wringers will at least give them credit. Is there any other case where a country suffers the loss of democracy by military coup d'etat, only to have full and legitimate democracy restored so quickly? I can't think of one. Usually when a military takes control, they like to keep it.
It was almost that quick after the last coup here, in February 1991 -- but the Army at that time was not so committed to democracy as they are today. Following that takeover, the junta appointed a very highly respected figure to lead the civilian interim government, Anand Panyarachun. Many people still remember that year as one of the most honest and capable governments the country has ever had. New elections were promised after one year -- they were a little late, but free and fair elections took place in early April 1992. However, after the parliament was elected, the chief of the military junta decided he wanted to slide into the Prime Minister's chair himself. Student demonstrations began very small, but the democracy movement became very large, very fast, as the citizens were captivated by the students' idealism. By early May, demonstrations in Sanam Luang were drawing hundreds of thousands demanding General Suchinda to "Get Out!" and staking out the principle that a Prime Minister must come from elections.
One Sunday evening in the middle of May saw the most massive popular rally in Sanam Luang -- the grounds as well as all avenues leading to it were crammed with people expressing themselves peacefully, listening to speeches and music from the stage. Conservative estimates had the crowd at about 300,000. Just before the program ended, people were already streaming along the broad Rajadamnern Avenue (closed to vehicles) past the Democracy Monument traffic circle. But police had barricaded the way with razor wire so that people couldn't pass (all they were doing was trying to make it home). A standoff developed, police were withdrawn in favour of armed soldiers, and it was a very long night for several tens of thousands of protesters trapped in the street.
There was unprovoked firing on the crowd that night, as people tried to sleep where they were. It kicked off three days of running battles across the city, and all of it completely unnecessary. We still don't know how many were killed during those dark days, but it's likely in the hundreds. The demonstrators did not want violence, as apparently some of the "Saturday People" currently do. In 1992's "Black May" events, the violence grew out of control very quickly as the people reacted angrily to the initial unnecessary killings by a military that wanted not to relinquish power. The situation was controlled only by the intervention of our beloved King. A couple of skillful parliamentary moves brought back the honourable Anand Panyarachun to head another interim government to steer through the horrible crisis, and organise fresh elections which were held in September and resulting in a legitimate elected coalition government led by the Democrats. Even with this serious upheaval stretching out the timeline, we had democracy back in twenty months.
If everything continues to go according to schedule this year, we'll have full democracy restored in fifteen months. The military is different now, in my opinion -- but we'll see just how different when, as expected, the CNS dissolves itself after elections (this is written into the new constitution). CNS Chairman Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin and interim PM Surayud Chulanont are both, from what I can tell at least, honourable men who believe in the democratic system. Under the mess that Thaksin got us into, and after the illegitimate elections he had pushed through last year, there appeared no way out. It was like a computer, stuck in a redundant loop such that the system hangs -- you can sit and wait all you like, nothing is going to get you out of it but a reboot. That's how I see the September coup. There was no other way out, and that's why the soldiers guarding the streets on that September morning after "ctrl-alt-delete," were welcomed with flowers and smiling faces.
I hope that the international media, especially that hysterical CNN reporter here, will give the Thais credit for achieving something remarkable after elections in December. But I won't hold my breath. They'll find something to criticize, and miss the story of the unique Thai way of correcting a serious mistake. Everybody wants democracy back as soon as possible, but some are just too impatient and unmindful of all the things that need to be accomplished first. Fifteen months will be pretty darn good to have the new operating system up and running. Consider that right next door, we have a Burmese junta who lost elections to the National League for Democracy, refused to honour the result, and are still trying to write a constitution 17 years later.
On Sunday afternoon, Prime Minister Surayud addressed the nation on The choices we face. I would quote from it here, but it's just so good that it deserves to be read in full. If you're interested in the quality of the man who is leading the country through this period, please take a moment to read it. Thailand is lucky to have people like this, who have no interest in power for themselves, and would prefer to enjoy a quiet retirement instead, but step up when their country needs them.