Thai Junta Moves on the Yellow Shirts

Against earlier assumptions that Thailand’s junta would ignore years of violence on the part of royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy leaders, 13 so-called Yellow Shirt protesters have been ordered to jail and to pay up to Bt600 million [US$17.7 million] in compensation for shutting down the country’s airports and other damage in 2008.

Among those to be sent to prison as a result of a ruling in late May were Chamlong Srimuang, the onetime governor of Bangkok; Sondhi Limthongkul, the head of the Manager publishing empire; and Pipob Thonchai, Somkiat Pongpaiboon, Somsak Kosai-suk and Suriyasai Katasila, all leaders of the PAD. In all, 31 Yellow Shirt defendants were charged with terrorism, illegal assembly, violation of emergency restriction and other offences.

In addition, Phuket warlord Suthep Thaugsuban, who led occasionally violent protests agiants Thaksin interests that finally impelled the army to move last year, joined a monastery and became a monk in a ploy to avoid possible imprisonment.

The "yellows," are thus learning that the courts, which backed them in their crusade against Thaksin and his surrogates during the years of protest, can be used by the military government against them with equal ease.

“I think it has been clear for years that the military leaders hate Sondhi as he often verbally attacked them whenever he wanted the military to help topple his opponents quickly,” said a Thai academic in Bangkok. “They simply saw Sondhi as a crook.” In addition, the movement that had wrought seemingly unending bedlam on Bangkok’s streets has lost most of its power.

In addition, the academic said, “I believe the junta distrusts mass movements which could become a challenging force to them. To go after the Yellow Shirt leaders is to paralyze the movement. The same thing happened to Suthep as well. That’s why he sought refuge in the monkhood. The junta doesn’t want any group to use mass protest to bargain with them.”

For eight years from 2006 until the political chaos that resulted in the coup by Prayuth Chan-ocha on May 22, 2014, the PAD or its successors led an unrelenting campaign to bring down governments allied with Thaksin, both in the streets and by other means including the courts. While the ostensible reason was to restore democracy that supposedly was from the people by Thaksin, the real reason – at least widely held in Bangkok – was to deny Thaksin the opportunity to be in charge of the country at the time of the eventual death of the long-ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thaksin, by all accounts, was close to Maha Vajiralongkorn, the crown prince and designated successor to the king, who remains alive although ailing. Thaksin is said to have built a castle for the prince, who spends most of his time in Germany. The Bangkok business and royal establishment, who hold Vajiralongkorn in low esteem, feared that Thaksin’s alliance with the crown prince would result in unacceptable changes in the power structure of the royalty. Late last year, however, Vajiralongkorn appeared to have finally abandoned Thaksin, who fled the country rather than face prison time in 2009, and to have thrown his lot in with the army.

With violence in the streets fomented by the PAD threatening the government, the military in October 2006 overthrew Thaksin, allegedly because he was anti-royalist. Although the PAD dissolved itself after the coup, it came back into existence after Thaksin surrogates dominated the 2007 election. The PAD subsequently took to the streets in 2008, seizing Government House and airports in Phuket, Krabi and Hat Yai and blocked major roads and highways, government television stations and ministries.

Escalating violence between the PAD and Thaksin’s United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – the Red Shirts – left dozens injured and at least one PAD protester dead. Eventually, as a subterfuge, the Constitutional Court found ruled that pro-Thaksin premier Samak Sunderavej, was guilty of receiving a salary outside his government job – being paid for hosting a cooking show on television -- and booted him out.

The violence continued to escalate, with PAD forces surrounding parliament to prevent a new Thaksin surrogate government from meeting, seizing control of Bangkok's two international airports.

Eventually, after the pro-royalty Democrat Party came to unelected power, Thaksin’s enraged followers staged a mass protest of their own that resulted in the bloody events of May 2010 when the army opened fire on Red Shirts with at least 91 people killed on both sides. The Red Shirts went on a rampage, with one side or the other setting fire to a major shopping center in the center of Bangkok.

Eventually yet another Thaksin government, led by the Pheu Thai Party and headed by his sister Yingluck, took power only to face unrelenting opposition that eventually brought Prayuth and the army to power, where it remains to this day.

The army’s immediate action was to crack down on the Thaksin forces, setting up military tribunals across the country and summoning journalists, academics and Red Shirt followers for “attitude adjustment” sessions. Many of the Red Shirt leaders and other dissidents fled the country.

The early betting was that the army had sided fully with the Yellow Shirts. Prayuth’s first act was to go on television under a portrait of King Bhumibol and assure the world that the government was in good hands.

But the military’s allegiance appears to be only to itself, as the academician said. A western banker agreed, saying “I would guess all three of the following: the junta doesn’t like Sondhi, doesn’t like street disorder by anyone and dislikes all politicians of whatever color.”

The PAD leaders also face major financial problems. Airports of Thailand, the plaintiff, convinced the courts to force the accused to pay compensation for closing the terminals.

While the PAD raised Bt7 million to cover court fees, the Court of Appeals issued a final verdict – without telling the defendants – that precluded an appeal. If the defendants are unable to pay, they face seizure of their assets. The defendants are likely to face bankruptcy proceedings as well.

A long string of other cases remain before the courts, involving Red Shirt protesters who staged equally violent rallies against the Democrat government including the burning of city halls in four Northeast provinces, causing several hundred million baht in damages.