Could Thailand be Getting Ready to Repeat History?

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.”