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WikiLeaks Depicts a Weak Thai King
With Thailand's government in the hands of an ally of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2008, ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej explicitly told the country's army commander not to launch another coup, an advisor to Queen Sirikit told US Ambassador Eric John, according to a Nov. 4, 2008 State Department cable made available on the WikiLeaks Web site.
A coup in September 2006 ousted Thaksin, who was later convicted of corruption and fled the country. The palace has been implicated in supporting that coup by numerous sources.
In 2008, Army Commander Anupong Paochinda said publicly that there would be no further coups. However, it is believed that the military came close to moving against the government and subsequent events showed that even the King's nominal allies paid scant attention to his wishes for calm.
"What can I say?" said a well-placed source in response to the leaked cable. "The monarchy was directly involved in Thai politics and continues to do so. As much as the king has intervened in politics himself, some of his close aides often claim to act on his behalf even when the King knows nothing about it.
"But you must look at the monarchy as a network that also comprises the Privy Council, the military, and not just an individual."
While the political situation is undoubtedly calmer now, uncertainty remains. Thaksin is still outside the country exhorting his followers to demonstrate against the Democrat-led government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Abhisit, who survived paralyzing pro-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok last year. Abhisit has promised to dissolve Parliament in May to prepare for general elections, probably in June or July.
Back in 2008, a long siege of violent protests by Yellow Shirt" royalists first resulted in the ouster by a Constitutional Court of then Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a Thaksin ally, on the pretext of his having received money besides his government salary by appearing as the host of a television cooking show.
Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, followed Samak, who has since died. According to the cable, the palace thought highly of Somchai, who "had many qualities that made him suitable to be Prime Minister, including a sense of fairness and a moderate temperament."
The palace's favorable disposition towards Somchai, however, wasn't enough to save his government. The palace source told the ambassador that on Oct. 6, 2008 he had dined with a top figure in the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) who said the yellow shirts were aiming to spark a violent clash that would lead to a second coup.
The PAD source, according to the cable, "explained that PAD would provoke violence during its Oct. 7 protest at the parliament. The unnamed PAD figure predicted [wrongly] that the Army would intervene against the government by the evening of Oct. 7. [The source] asserted to us that PAD remained intent on a conflict that would generate at least two dozen deaths and make military intervention appear necessary and justified."
The Yellow Shirt protesters had occupied Government House for months, paralyzed the middle of Bangkok and forced the closure of the city's international airports. Finally, in December 2008 the courts ruled that Somchai must dissolve parliament yet again. It is widely believed that the army influenced the decision and many have called the court ruling a coup in everything but name.
It is unknown what would have happened if Somchai had refused to go. But it demonstrates just how tenuous the aging monarch's hold was on the political situation at the time. It stood in marked contrast to his role in 1992 when the leader of a military coup, Suchinda Kraprayoon, and ousted Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan were filmed on their hands and knees before a sternly lecturing king who told them to put an end to violence.
The cable also indicates that the US Ambassador's contacts at the palace said the monarch was frail and suffering from back pain. The palace source is not named.
The source's claim that the king instructed Anupong not to conduct a coup "is the strongest account we have heard to date about the King's opposition to a coup and his communicating this to Anupong," according to the cable. "It would explain why Privy Counselors Prem [Tinsulanonda] and Siddhi [Savetsila], both seen as opponents of the current government, gave recent assurances to the Ambassador that there would not be a coup."
In another indication of his waning power, the king also was said to be "highly irritated" by PAD's occupation of Government House and other disruptions during the tumultuous demonstrations that began in May of that year. But he was said to be unsure of how to quell them. According to the cable, the source told John that the King sent emissaries to convey his wishes for the PAD to leave Government House. One of them Disathorn Natcharothai, a longtime associate of the king, on Oct. 29 said publicly that "Thais who love the King should ‘go home.'"
However, the cable indicates, Sondhi Limtongkul, the media tycoon who had become a leader of the Yellow Shirts, "had become obsessed with his own sense of mission." Sondhi was initially charged with lese majeste, but has never been prosecuted, unlike dozens of followers of Red Shirt protesters.
Subsequently, Yellow-shirt supporters also seized airports in three resort cities and blocked roads and highways. They occupied a government television station and several ministries, fomenting violence that left dozens injured and one protester dead. Their activities culminated in the seizure of Bangkok's major international airports. The situation had become untenable.
After the Constitutional Court dissolved the Thaksin-aligned People's Power Party and banned its leaders from politics, Anupong is believed to have put serious pressure on the banned party's members to defect to the Democrat Party. Abhisit was named premier and Kasit Piromya, a PAD co-leader, was made foreign minister. There has not been a general election since and it is believed the pro-Thaksin forces still have considerable electoral support in rural areas.
The cable also indicates that the palace regarded Queen Sirikit's appearance at an Oct. 13, 2008 funeral for a young PAD supporter as a "significant blunder, jeopardizing the public's perception of the palace's neutrality."
The source "claimed the Queen had been emotionally affected when she learned that one victim of the Oct. 7 violence was a young lady about to be married, and that she had told her father she was going to the protest to defend the monarchy."
The source said there had been no intention for the Queen to involve either herself or the monarchy in political matters, but, unfortunately, some members of the public could interpret the funeral appearance differently. In an effort to neutralize the effect of her appearance at the funeral, "the Queen later reached out to seriously injured police officers in an attempt to show her neutrality, but this signal went largely unnoticed."