Thailand Continues to Cool

The naming early this week of Aree Krainara, the chief of Thailand’s radical Red Shirt faction and others to sub-cabinet jobs in the new government of Yingluck Shinawatra is a sign that the attempts at rapprochement between the country’s warring factions and the royalty are continuing.

The premier appears to be playing a delicate game, rewarding here, stalling there, to move the government and the country forward. The Red Shirts, also known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, were frozen out of cabinet ministry positions despite the fact that they had played a crucial role in providing the foot soldiers in the campaign that resulted in victory for Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party in July 3 national elections.

The Red Shirts were considered too controversial to head ministries because of their role in violent riots that shook Bangkok in April and May 2010 which ended when the Army chased the protesters out of the city, resulting in more than 90 deaths, most of them protesters. The protesters torched 40 buildings in the center of the city on their way out and in fact some of those named to political positions were charged with terrorism following alleged involvement in violent protests last year against the former Democrat-led government. There was also the question whether any of the Red Shirt leaders had enough political and governmental experience to head ministries.

In addition to Aree, a former member of parliament who was named secretary to Interior Minister Yongyudh Wichaidit, others according to local media, included Chinnawat Haboonpad, the advisor to Transport Minister Sukampol Suwannathat; Rak Chiang Mai 51 group leader Phetchawat Wattanapongsirikul, adviser to Social Development and Human Security Minister Santi Prompat; Yoswaris Chuklom, assistant to the interior minister's secretary); and Gen Chongsak Phanitchakul, adviser to Defence Minister Gen Yutthasak Sasiprapa).

Wan Yubamrung, the son of Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, was also appointed as assistant to Deputy Transport Minister Kittisak Hatthasonkroh's secretary.That brings to about 18 the number of red-shirts who have already been appointed to political positions.

In the face of public criticism over his and other appointments, Aree told reporters he welcomes differing opinions but intends to work with the government to fight poverty and narcotics. He asked the public to give the appointees the opportunity to work to prove themselves.

The latest appointments point to a continuing series of compromises designed to lower the political temperature after five years of tumult that began with the 2006 ouster of Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister via military coup.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat and frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel, reported in the Indonesian journal Strategic Review that Yingluck is trying hard to avoid upsetting the royalty, headed by the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. She reportedly is seeking to appoint a number of royalists who bitterly opposed the Red Shirts to serve in her government as well, Pavin wrote.

A deal reportedly has been worked out with the military, which has held the de facto reins of power for decades, that lese-majeste and computer crime laws will remain in place despite the fact that removing them was one of the essential demands of the Red Shirt movement. As an indication that the report is probably true, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the executive director of Prachatai, a nonprofit news website which published political articles, was due to go back on trial Thursday in a Bangkok criminal court on charges of violating the computer crime act by allowing 10 comments made by members of the public that criticized the monarchy to remain on the site. Although Chiranuch removed the comments after she was told to do so by authorities, she still faces up to 20 years in prison or a Bt1 million fine.

Now the opposing sides are seeking to work out punishments stemming from the May 19 2010 violence, possibly working out pardons for those officers who might be found guilty. It will be a difficult and delicate process. Red shirts remain in jail while the officials who ordered the shooting remain unpunished. Punishments, Pavin writes, “should be negotiable.” The Red Shirts, however, lost 91 of their followers in the May 2010 bloodbath to military bullets. It remains to be seen what they might agree to. An outright amnesty to the military leaders who ordered the shooting might bring them back to the streets. However, the announcement that Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general in charge of the military at the time of the shooting, would stay on hasn’t brought them to the streets yet.

There is the projected pardon of Thaksin himself. He remains a fugitive from Thai justice on charges of corruption connected with the sale of his Shinawatra telecommunications empire to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings. Thai courts being Thai courts, two appellate decisions since the election have absolved Thaksin’s former wife, Pojamon, and his two children of attempting to dodge capital gains taxes on the sale of the Shin Corp shares. It remains to be seen if Thaksin’s popularity in the country is strong enough to overcome anger over his own possible amnesty.

“Many Thais spoke about the election as some sort of a referendum on Thaksin, and to a certain extent on the monarchy,” Paving writes. “How Thailand will move forward, therefore, depends intricately on how the monarchy will adapt itself in a challenging new political environment. Could Yingluck assist in expediting that process? Or may she find herself in the impossible position of trying to please the Palace while at the same time preventing it from exerting influence on politics?”

Yingluck presumably cheered on from Thaksin’s base outside the country, is expected to continue to seek compromises that ultimately would allow her brother to regain his reputation and popularity and to move towards mutual lowering of the tensions. The Red Shirt appointments are clearly a part of that process. Earlier it was said that the Red Shirts would remain relatively quiescent, possibly acceding to an agreement to provide government compensation to the family of those who were shot. The process continues.