Thailand’s Political Tensions Continue

Although the Thai government appears to have blinked first over a confrontation with demonstrators Saturday, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which is seeking to oust Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej from office, doesn’t appear to have been mollified. On Sunday, Chamlong Srimuang, the ascetic onetime Bangkok governor who helped to lead similar protests two years ago, said protesters would stay where they are until Samak is dislodged from office.

The situation first appeared grim Saturday as hundreds of police deployed in full riot gear around the Makkhawan Rangsan Bridge near the demonstrators, who began arming themselves with helmets and plywood shields along with, according to a police statement, flagpoles, iron pipes, baseball bats and slingshots. Their ranks swelled from a few hundred in the morning to over 10,000 by evening. The PAD also announced that other leaders were ready to take up the fight if the current five were arrested. At least 200 PAD supporters are acting as security for the demonstrators.

After an announcement that that force wouldn’t be used to break up the rally, the protesters responded by giving roses to riot police. On Sunday, Samak backtracked further, denying that he had ever ordered the police to disperse the protest and accusing reporters of distorting the situation.

“Let me stress that I never gave orders to police to disperse the crowds, I only said that closing off Makkhawan Rangsan bridge was illegal,” he said, accusing the demonstrators of seeking to promote violence. During his “Talk Samak Style” television show on Sunday he said, “They want the government to make a raid while there were a lot of protestors to capture the attention of the Untied Nations, but I didn’t fall for that.”

The growing protests have been sparked by anger over the Samak-led government’s ongoing attempts to amend the constitution to arrange for the nullification of corruption charges against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Political tension has continued to ratchet up over the formal levelling of charges against Thaksin, accusations of lese majeste against Prime Minister’s Office Minister Jakrapob Penair and recurring rumors of a coup, all of which are starting to take their toll on Thailand’s business confidence.

Samak’s People’s Power Party (PPP) government has made the amendment of the 2007 constitution a priority. A motion to amend the charter has already been submitted to House Speaker Chai Chidchob and is expected to be tabled in an extraordinary session of Parliament to begin on June 9.

The pressure has begun to tell on lawmakers, however, with 20 senators and two MPs withdrawing their names from the motion on May 27 and another two senators and an MP withdrawing two days later, leaving 131 MPs and senators still in support. On Friday, enough senators withdrew their names that the amendment motion lost its legal status, although some members of the PPP vowed to renew the process.

Critics of the constitutional amendment say there are more pressing economic and political concerns the government should deal with first. The PPP-led government, opponents allege, is only interested in changing the charter to arrange to bail Thaksin out of the corruption charges and to reinstate 111 former Thai Rak Thai party executives banned from politics for five years. One amendment item is the ending of the authority of the Assets Scrutiny Commission that is currently investigating Thaksin.

A major stumbling block for the opposition PAD is the defamation case against leader Sondhi Limthongkul. The media mogul, head of Manager Group, was sentenced to two years in prison for defaming former Thai Rak Thai party secretary Phumtham Vejjayachai and is currently on bail waiting appeal. Pro-government supporters have threatened to seek the revocation of his bail if he takes the stage at the rallies and are attempting to expose his more dubious business practices.

In addition to calling for a halt to the amendment process, the PAD earlier this week began pressing for the resignation of Samak and the impeachment of lawmakers involved in the constitutional amendment. The PAD leader, Piphob Dhongchai, told the audience on 26 May, “We will call on Prime Minister and PPP leader Samak Sundaravej and his cabinet to take responsibility for the attempt to scrap the constitution to whitewash crimes committed by people in the Thaksin regime.” Piphob claimed on 26 May to already have 10,000 signatures for an impeachment letter and plans to gather 20,000 more.

In an attempt to appease critics, Samak has devised a plan for another yet nationwide referendum on the amendment process. This plan was endorsed by the cabinet on 27 May. The Electoral Commission has agreed to speed up the drafting of a new referendum law before the special parliamentary session. The Council of State had earlier concluded that the previous 1998 law on referendums could not be used since the 1997 Constitution was no longer in force.

On May 26, the Assets Scrutiny Commission set up by the military junta to investigate corruption under the Thaksin government released a preliminary conclusion that the former prime minister should be prosecuted for corruption and abuse of power and Bt76.6 billion ($2.35 billion) in frozen assets be placed in government coffers.

The findings, which long ago were made public in the press and contributed to Thaksin’s ouster by the military-led coup, claimed that the former prime minister was “unusually rich.” Sak Korsaengruang, the ASC spokesman, said panel chairman, Nam Yimyam, would submit the charges to public prosecutors and the Supreme Court’s Political Office Section last Friday.

As has been widely reported, the assets committee alleges that Thaksin and his wife, Pojaman, concealed stocks and transferred shares in Shin Corp, Ample Rich Investment Co. and Win Mark Co. during his rule to nominees including their three children and relatives. In addition, the family allegedly received undue gains from an excise tax shelter for Shin Corp and from AIS Co. over the state-owned TOT Corp’s prepaid telephone system.

Thaksin and his family are also accused of benefitting from an iPSTAR satellite project connected to a Bt4 billion loan by the Export-Import Bank to Burma for the purchase of a satellite system from Shin Satellite. Senior officials of CAT Telecom Corp and TOT Corp may also be prosecuted by the National Counter Corruption Commission on related charges.

Two days later, the ASC submitted 10 boxes of files on the investigation into a scandal involving CTX luggage scanners at Suvarnabhumi Airport in order to seek an indictment from the Attorney General for 25 suspects involved in the deal which is estimated to have cost Bt 6.93 billion (US$213 million) in damages. The accused include Thaksin, who was chair of the Suvarnabhumi airport development committee, Attorney General Chaikasem Nitsiri, former Transportation Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit, former advisor to the Transport Minister Thirawat Chatraphimuk, former board members and executives of New Bangkok International Airport Co. and Airports of Thailand Plc. and 13 construction contractors.

The defendants stand accused of amending the contract for scanners to favor one company, GE Invision of the US, whose machines cost Bt1.7 billion more than the price agreed in the contract. The attorney general is scheduled to decide on the indictments in 30 days. More charges are expected to be filed by the ASC before its term finishes next month.

Accusations of nominee politics have been leveled at the People’s Power Party since before the December elections. Critics claim the 111 banned Thai Rak Thai members have simply engineered their own people, especially wives and children, into office as elected MPs and senators and placed in key posts in the government. The results, they claim, can be seen in the government’s inability to solve political and economic problems due to unqualified cabinet members. Samak himself has run into problems with members of his cabinet who owe their allegiances more to Thaksin than to him.

The government is further strained by accusations against Jakrapob of lese majeste stemming from a speech he gave at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand on 29 August last year. Jakrapob’s speech claimed that Thailand’s monarchy had developed together with a patronage system which currently has Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda at the top. The system, Jakrapob alleged, has kept average Thais subservient to an elite. A Thai translation of the speech was circulated widely on the internet.

Jakrapob’s speech greatly upset a military that is strongly loyal to the monarchy and to former army commander Prem Tinsulanonda. It has also been latched on to by the opposition Democrat Party for its supposed slight against the monarchy for calling into question its role in a patronage system that Jakrapob alleges dispenses petty rewards and protection in return for unquestioned obedience and conformity.

Under heavy pressure from the military, Jakrapob resigned Friday in an apparent bid to lower tensions. Jakrapob had previously called a press conference to profess his loyalty to the monarchy and commissioned another translation of the speech, but he claims he has the right to criticize Prem.

He may have to prove that in court soon. On 29 May, Police Lt Gen Adisorn Nonsee, Commissioner of the Central Investigation Bureau announced that there is enough evidence to charge Jakrapob with lese majeste. “We expect to summon Jakrapob to acknowledge charges next week,” he said. Under Article 112, Jakrapob could face three to fifteen years in prison if convicted.

Meanwhile tensions continue to run high. Chamlong warned police against using violence to break up protests. “It won’t be long before this government goes,” he told demonstrators. “Who or which agencies do anything, we can check. If they use force to crack down on us, they will definitely face revenge from us.” Deputy National Police Chief Police General Vichien Pojanaphosri has said the police will not attempt to disperse protestors unless the demonstrations become violent.

So far, the military has denied any plans for a coup. Army Chief Anupong Paochinda, while calling for stepped up security for PAD rallies on 27 May, said he felt the police can control the situation the army had no backup plans. Admiral Sathirapan Kyanont, Thailand’s Navy Chief, said on 27 May that he felt concerned about clashes between protestors.

The early recall of Lt Gen Prayuth, who was on a scheduled two-week inspection tour in Europe as a part of his studies at the National Defense College, instantly put many people on edge. The Bangkok Post, one of Thailand’s two English-language dailies, cited a source saying, “Lt Gen Prayuth was aware PAD was calling for a coup and they had approached him, so he did not want to be in Bangkok.” There is some fear that the PAD may provoke a situation wherein the military would feel it necessary to stage a coup.

Supreme Commander Boonsrang Niempradit has said, “Nobody is foolish enough to undertake a coup. It would make things worse.” Statements like this, however, have not calmed fears.