Could Thailand be Getting Ready to Repeat History?

In Bangkok, it's deja vu all over again as a banned satellite television station is organizing public rallies in an effort to take down the government

 

 

Against a backdrop of rising protest against Thailand’s
stumbling royalist junta,  it's deja vu in Bangkok:
a banned satellite television station is organizing public rallies in an effort
to take down the government.

 

It was only last year that publisher Sondhi
Limthongkul used his satellite station, ASTV, to lead massive rallies
throughout Bangkok calling for then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to
"Get Out!"  Now Thaksin's men are fighting back against a
stumbling royalist junta using the same method. Several ex-Thai Rak Thai party
members recently launched PTV, or People's Television, a political station
designed to counterbalance the negative coverage Thaksin receives in most of
the Thai press.

Hardly six months after Bangkok’s citizens met Army coupmakers with
flowers, the sharp drop in popularity for the ruling junta is remarkable, with
a slide in popularity from more than 70 percent to below 35 percent. The slide
began in December when the central bank imposed a 30 percent reserve measure on
foreign currency inflows, prompting the largest one-day fall in the Thai stock
exchange’s history.  Bomb attacks followed on New Year’s Eve, wounding
more than 30 and killing three.  It has been downhill since, giving Thaksin’s
supporters at least a glimmer of hope for his return.

 “We established PTV to fill a gap of
information the public is deprived of,” Jakrapob Penkair, an ex-TRT lawmaker
who helped found the station, said in an interview. “It's not Thaksin TV or TRT
TV, although as a former party member I believe Thaksin is coming back anyway
if the game is fair. You can see this as a new political form, but to be more
exact, it is to equip people with the information they need to fight the
government.”

PTV went on the air for a few hours on March 17,
its launch date, before the military-installed government banned it. In
response, the station started holding political rallies a la Sondhi.
Although numbering only a few thousand people — much fewer than the tens of
thousands who rallied with Sondhi at the peak of the People's Alliance for
Democracy — coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin gave PTV widespread attention last
week when he sought to impose an emergency decree in Bangkok to stop one of its
rallies.

The move shocked many people and prompted rumors
that a coup against interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont was imminent.
Though Surayud reportedly offered to resign, a deal was struck and he ended up
resisting a call to impose emergency powers while announcing that elections
would take place in December.

Thaksin put up with Sondhi’s rallies to oust him,
said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.
“Thaksin tried to outfox them, outmaneuver them, but he never really thought
about an emergency decree. He put up with it for more than a year. This
government is already considering an emergency decree at an early stage. I
think it will eventually backfire. We have this danger of repeating history.”

It's unclear how the rift between the Surayud
government and the Council for National Security, as the junta calls itself,
will play out. PTV is planning another rally on April 8, and Jakrapob said
station executives are considering accepting invitations to hold rallies in
provincial areas.

The PTV rally on Friday night (March 30), which
drew a few thousand middle class Bangkok
residents, was certainly a pro-Thaksin crowd. Several groups even handed out
business cards that said “The military can oust Thaksin from the country, but
not from our hearts.”

Even so, PTV is quick to claim that while it
supports Thaksin, the well-funded station receives no money from him.

“The only linkage between Thaksin and PTV is that I
went to Beijing
to inform him that we are going to do it,” Jakrapob said. “We have received no
finances from his groups or his family. We want to do this to support the same
end, and he understands this very well. In Thai, the saying is ‘walk separately
towards the same goal.’”

Jakrapob, who also served as government spokesman
when Thai Rak Thai was in power, had urged Thaksin to fight back harder against
Sondhi during his protests last year. But despite fears that Thaksin would use
the rallies as a pretense to declare emergency rule and crack down, the telecom
billionaire-cum-politician held back.

“PTV started as a direct result of the coup, but a
similar idea was conceived while I was government spokesman,” Jakrapob said. “I
was one of the few people who realized Sondhi’s rally wasn’t going to stop. The
government couldn’t function on tortured information and lies. But Thaksin at
the time didn’t want to give Sondhi importance.”

Though Sondhi’s campaign ultimately proved
successful, with the assist of the army’s tanks last September 19, the media
activist now finds himself in hot water. On March 28, the Criminal Court
sentenced him to two years in prison for defaming Thai Rak Thai executive
member Phumtham Wechayachai. In one of his televised rallies in late 2005,
Sondhi said Phumtham was a Communist who fought against Thailand’s
revered monarchy.

Sondhi was released on bail and plans to appeal. He
declined to comment for this article, saying, “I've stayed quiet lately.”

Other members of the People's Alliance for Democracy, which joined Sondhi’s
anti-Thaksin protests, have blasted the PTV rallies as pro-Thaksin. PAD
spokesman Suriyasai Katasila told The Nation newspaper on Monday that
anti-Thaksin groups would rally against PTV if the station didn’t stop its
broadcasts. Another PAD supporter, consumer rights activist Rosana Tositrakul, said
in an interview that “PTV was just a reactionary measure by a political party.”

“PTV is just political, while Khun Sondhi led a
movement of the people to scrutinize the government,” she said. “It's
complicated. Some pro-democracy people may join PTV because they want to voice
discontent with the government or the coup group. But pro-democracy people who
really understand the difference between PTV and real democracy may not join.”

Jakrapob rejects the arguments that pro-Thaksin and
pro-democracy don’t go together. He said this was a struggle between leftists
who want to empower people and right-wingers who want to control things through
appointed bodies.

“Most media here are built on the concept of
conservativism, that Thailand
would be better off depending on technocrats, people who know better than the
people, and the state of Big Brother,” he said. “PTV was conceived not just to
make a political push for the time being, but to explain to people that they
have rights. People who dismiss PTV as simply Thaksin supporters tend to be
those who are conservatives.”

Certainly, the political spectrum is very muddy.
Further confusing things are the stepped-up attacks on former prime minister
Prem Tinsulanonda, who heads King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 19-member Privy Council.
At the PTV rally last Friday (March 30), some in the crowd launched a signature
campaign to petition the king to remove Prem from the monarch’s advisory body.

The reaction from Prem supporters was swift. The
mayor of Songkhla, the privy councilor’s hometown, condemned the demonstrators
for linking Prem to the coup and claimed they might take action of some sort.
Coup leader Sonthi insisted Prem had nothing to do with the coup and said he
was studying whether the petition was offensive to the monarchy, which could
invite lese-majeste lawsuits.

But though many here are reluctant to criticize
Prem because he is so close to the king, who is generally considered to be
“above politics,” the privy councilor’s involvement in the political affairs is
increasingly becoming a mainstream topic of conversation as many wonder what
role he played in the September 19 coup.

“General Prem has been compromised,” said
Chulalongkorn’s Thitinan. “He can't have it both ways. He got so involved and
now he wants to be untouchable. But we are in a big mess and people want to
know who is responsible. Look at the choice of prime minister, of the National
Legislative Assembly… it’s not surprising people are pointing the finger at
General Prem.”

Thitinan also worried that the increasing
polarization of the Thai political scene was hurting political discourse. “Why
can't we be anti-Thaksin, anti-coup, and anti-government?” he said. “It’s
dangerous for some anti-Thaksin people and pro-Prem people to be brushing aside
criticism by saying if you criticize General Prem, you are paid by Thaksin.
It’s very dangerous. People are frustrated, and they have the right to be mad
at the master. It doesn't mean that they support Thaksin.”

Although the petition to remove Prem was circulated
at a PTV rally, station executives are distancing themselves from the movement.
PTV executives planned to file a lawsuit against The Nation and two
Thai-language dailies, Matichon and Sondhi’s Manager, for reporting that PTV
executive Jatuporn Prompan had signed the anti-Prem petition and then later
withdrew his name.

“We reserve some ideas about Prem, but now is not
the time to sign a petition to oust him,” Jakrapob said. “For me personally,
I’m not very comfortable with the idea of suggesting to His Majesty who is or
is not qualified to be his closest advisor. That’s the king’s personal area,
and that’s why PTV is not involved. But the rally is public as you saw, so
anyone can join and pass around a petition.”

As for the lawsuits against newspapers, Jakrapob
said they were an attempt to stave off efforts to shut down PTV due to
criticism of the monarchy.

“The media wants to pit us against the royal
family,” he said. “I think people understand that lese-majeste has never been a
tool of the royal family, but has been used by other people on their behalf. If
people deliberately violate the rights of the king, the queen or the royal
family, they should be prosecuted accordingly. But if people do something
threatening to the powers that be, they shouldn’t be thrown against the royal
family just so the rulers can stay in power.

“Mark my words: that wouldn't be allowed. They may
try to do that, but they will be stopped.”

 

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