Muting Thailand’s Protesters

Five days after tens of thousands of yellow-clad Thais flooded Sanam Luang, a large park adjacent to the Grand Palace downtown, to light candles in honor of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 79th birthday, a much smaller crowd gathered on Sunday to mark Constitution Day with a protest against the recent coup in the face of a concerted effort by the army to prevent the event from taking place.

For sure, the atmosphere on the day that marks the end of absolute monarchy here in 1932 was pretty low key. The 2,000 or so protestors dressed in black mourned the loss of the 1997 constitution which the generals discarded in the September 19 coup, and decried attempts by the military to draft yet another charter.

In the 74 years without an absolute monarch, Thailand has had 17 constitutions and 18 coups. The protestors say they are fed up.

“Dictatorships cannot produce constitutions that are democratic,” Weng Tojirakarn, secretary-general of the Confederation for Democracy, which participated in the protest, told the Sentinel. “This is a rule since the gods created the earth. We fear that the next constitution will destroy all the democratic rights that we have fought for throughout the years and more people will be appointed instead of elected.”

Earlier that day, it also emerged that the king approved all 1,982 people who have been appointed to help out over the six months to produce the new constitution. Although it remains unclear who will actually be writing the charter, the generals have stuck with conservative royalist military types in appointing the legislature and board members for state enterprises.

If the deposed government of Thaksin Shinawatra represented strong-arm populism, the latest turn is more of a restoration of traditional elites. If it does not go down well, there could be more instability in the country’s future.

“After the constitution drafting process begins, people will start to understand what’s going on here,” Weng said. “And if [junta-appointed Prime Minister] Surayud Chulanont lifts martial law in the whole country, more people will join the protests.”

Sunday’s protest was the first since the Cabinet voted last week to lift martial law in Bangkok. King Bhumibol has yet to approve the order, meaning that legally it has not come into force.

Sunday’s protestors shouted anti-coup slogans for a few hours and then marched to the nearby Democracy Monument, where they lit candles and sang songs calling for the return of democracy. The protest groups, mostly students, vowed to keep marching every Sunday until democracy is restored.

“In Thai society, people always defer to the old and powerful,” said Yut Sringha, a 35-year-old businessman who joined the protest. “But we are tired of that. No matter where we come from or how old we are, the old power needs to start listening to the people.”

If the protest is to build into anything threatening, it has a long way to go. Sunday’s gathering was much smaller than the protests that opposed Thaksin in the year before his fall. But protestors say that’s because the military did all it could to warn people against showing up. Earlier in the week, army leaders claimed that powerful provincial Thaksin supporters were orchestrating the protests. They also ordered local officials to “talk with” villagers and “convince” them not to rally in the capital.

As much of the country is still under martial law, roadblocks also were set up to deter provincial folks from heading to Bangkok. On Sunday, a group of 41 villagers from Buriram province near the border with Cambodia were stopped by police en route to the rally. The cops proceeded to take down their names and "encouraged" them to head back home.

In Bangkok, meanwhile, the generals engage in confusing double-speak on democracy and a compliant local press plays along. Thaksin came to be despised by much of the press in Bangkok and newspaper columnists routinely cheer on the generals’ efforts to rid the country of unspecified “undercurrents” that oppose military rule and disrupt “national unity.”

General Saprang Kalayanamitr, a junta member in the running to succeed coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin as army chief when he retires next September, claimed last week that “bad politicians” were trying to cause bloodshed at Sunday’s rally to make the generals appear evil—exactly the same excuse the military used to topple Thaksin's twice-elected government.

"I think [the protestors] are either hired guns or just free-spirited bookish-type people who want to see an ideal democracy that only exists in textbooks," the general told reporters. "In the real world we should make society the best we can … but I would like to tell the fundamentalist or ideologically-imbued academics to understand that the armed forces love democracy no less than democracy-loving politicians."

On Sunday, Army Region 1 commander Lt General Prayuth Chan-ocha told a seminar that criticism of the coup was “unfair.” He then said people must look inward to find true democracy.

“To those who are crying foul,” he said, “I would ask: What is democracy? Democracy is not only the Constitution. People must be democratic in their hearts.”

Unsurprisingly, the anti-coup crowd is not sympathetic. They refuse to accept lectures on democracy from military types who seized power with tanks.

”Thaksin's government was an elected government; the population could decide whether to keep it or to kick it out,” said Nakorin Boonlert, a 24-year-old student at King Mongkut's Institute of Technology who was at the rally. “With the military dictatorship the people have no choice. The army tried to block people from coming here because they are scared of the rural population.”

Nuthasid Rukkiatwong, a Chulalongkorn University student who helped organize the protests, added: “We received threats from government intelligence agents that people would come and try to make things violent, but we will go on. More people will join. During the last coup [in 1991] it took more than six months for people to start protesting. We started protesting two days after September 19.”