Signs of Unease in Thailand

Coup opponents plan a rally to test the limits of public support for new military rulers.


Pro-democracy groups and supporters of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra plan to defy martial law and stage a rally on Wednesday November 1 at Bangkok’s symbolic Sanam Luang protest ground near the royal palace as Thailand’s interim government and its military backers face early signs of dissent after September’s coup.

A little-known group of largely web-based activists calling itself Thai Democratic Citizen announced the protest at a sparsely attended press briefing Tuesday. For many of the budding activists in attendance, it was the first time they had met outside of Internet chat rooms.

"Thailand is not a democracy," Chanapat na Nakhon, the group's leader, said to scattered applause. "We will fight until we win."

Several protests by a few die-hard student groups and left-wing academics after the September 19 coup attracted just a few hundred people as most Thais supported the intervention by palace-endorsed generals to change the course of government.

Thai Democratic Citizen, however, said it expects thousands to show up Wednesday in what may be a test of the power of the Internet to mobilize dissent in Bangkok since the views of the protesters have been scarce in traditional media since the coup.

"I think we can get more than 10,000, but because of martial law maybe people will be scared to come out," said Chanapat, who says he "favors" Thaksin's old Thai Rak Thai ruling party but is not a member of the once powerful organization that propelled Thaksin to power in 2001.

The announcement was made with an eye on history. It was held at the Royal Hotel, which sits adjacent to Sanam Luang park and has heavy overtones for those opposed to military rule. During the 1992 pro-democracy protests in which at least 52 were killed, troops were seen shooting protestors and dragging them through the hotel's bloody lobby. Former army chief and current Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont commanded soldiers during that incident.

Sanam Luang, Thai for "Royal Ground," is also the site of state ceremonies conducted by King Bhumibol Adulyadej and during the past year supporters and opponents of Thaksin used the park to gather tens of thousands of protesters, who then marched to nearby locations like the Democracy Monument or the Parliament building.

Anti-Thaksin protesters held a week-long camp out in Sanam Luang at one point but could not match the number of people who showed up for a pro-Thaksin rally at Sanam Luang shortly after he called for an early election on February 24.

Some of those rallyists said they were paid by the billionaire politician to show up while others insist that it is a mistake to underestimate Thaksin's support among the rural poor.

Chanapat said his group receives no financial support from politicians and relies on its members, mostly small business owners, who are launching a media campaign and distributing black protest t-shirts and wristbands.

Previously Chanapat was best known for filing lawsuits against leaders of the People's Alliance for Democracy, the anti-Thaksin coalition led by publisher Sondhi Limthongkul, that led early protests. Chanapat had urged police to investigate the group's leaders for urging royal intervention as a way to oust Thaksin.

The group also filed formal charges with the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand's equivalent of the FBI, against coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin on September 26, a week after the coup. Although the interim constitution promulgated by the coup leaders absolves them of wrongdoing, the protesters claim that the charges were filed before that constitution took effect.

The group said it wants to reinstate the 1997 Constitution, which was suspended by the junta, and let the coup leaders know that what they did is unacceptable. They wish to restore the dignity of the King, whose image, they claim, was hurt after he was forced to endorse the coup under dubious circumstances.

Prior to Tuesday's press conference, the group circulated an email that contained a link to a video clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCWKM0UK7Ns) that claims Bhumibol, who is treated like a god in Thailand, did not support the coup. Others saw the king's endorsement of the junta—as well as the prominent roles in the interim government given to his close advisers—as the primary reason why the public at large has stayed relatively quiet since the putsch.

The king has not made any public statements directly about the coup (other than to tell Cabinet members to help rebuild the country's image), but met with the generals hours after they rolled tanks into Bangkok and endorsed each one of their proposals. The video clip appears to take the king's silence as a sign that he didn't support the coup, which allows the protesters to claim they are fighting for the monarch—an essential component for legitimizing any political movement in Thailand.

The video asks why the king's voice is edited out of a snippet of his meeting with General Sonthi and Prime Minister Surayud broadcast to the public on state television. It then shows documents saying Sonthi should be arrested for "destabilizing the country," and concludes with calls for a "War of the People" on November 1.

The video link has been posted on several chat forums, where dissent against the coup has been most vocal. The junta initially shut down these websites, but now they are up and running again.

While claiming the king was not involved in the coup, the protest leaders were relentless in attacking Prem Tinsulanonda, a retired general and former prime minister who heads the king's 19-member privy council and is widely seen as the main actor behind the scenes of the coup.

"There is no way we can have democracy with Prem so powerful," Chanapat said. Waranchai Chokchana, a perennial losing candidate in elections for Bangkok governor, added: "Thailand has three prime ministers now: Prem, Surayud and Sonthi."

Nopporn Narimchaingtai, another member of Thai Democratic Citizen chimed in: "It's sick that the generals and Prem used His Majesty the King to take over power. General Prem does not speak for the King."

Due to his proximity to the king, it is unusual for the 86-year-old Prem to receive sustained public criticism. Yet the respected senior statesman has been under intense media scrutiny since he met with Pojaman Shinawatra, Thaksin's wife, last week. Thaksin’s opponents, who already fear that corruption probes will yield nothing of substance, now worry that Prem has cut a secret deal that will allow the deposed premier to return to Thailand unscathed.

Coup leader Sonthi has ordered the Assets Examination Committee, which is investigating Thaksin, to tell the public what it has found. Last week, Sonthi admitted the investigations might not turn up anything.

With the chattering classes ratcheting up the volume, anti-junta activists say the silent majority might take action. Rumors persist that thousands of Thaksin supporters in rural Thailand—which formed the base for his massive electoral wins in 2001, 2005 and the voided 2006 poll—are waiting for martial law to be lifted before holding protest rallies.

Other small signs of dissent have surfaced, such as a pro-Thaksin comic book and the distribution of pamphlets attacking the coup leaders. And while few expect a huge rally this week, a larger than expected crowd could add momentum to nascent protest. It is a threat the junta leaders are taking seriously.

Chalit Pukphasuk, the air force chief who is a deputy leader of the junta, reaffirmed this week that martial law would remain in place for the foreseeable future due to existing "undercurrents."

"If we can get 10,000 people to protest in Bangkok, then it's very likely that similar protests will start to spring up around the country," said a leader of Wayupat, which means Phoenix in English, a web-based organization that claims to have between 500 and 1,000 members.

"Things are beginning to become unstable," he added. "We have a secret network that is already mobilized, and we plan to keep pressing ahead."

 

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