By Dan Waites
In Thailand’s modern history, April 10 is already a date to remember. On that day last year, at the height of the red shirt protests, at least 25 people were killed during clashes in Bangkok, including Reuters cameraman Hiroyuki Muramoto, 19 Thai civilians and five soldiers. This year, it seems the date has become doubly significant. On April 10, 2011, core red shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan made a fiery speech at a rally at the Democracy Monument to mark the anniversary of the violence. Almost one month on, the speech, in which he savaged the army for shooting protesters while claiming to be the defenders of the monarchy, has had important consequences in the unruly scrabble for power under way in advance of Thailand’s looming elections.
Two days after the rally, Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha had lèse majesté (insulting the monarchy) charges filed against Jatuporn and two other UDD leaders. To repeat the contents of Jatuporn’s speech would be reckless because, as has been widely noted, even relaying comments deemed to be lèse majesté can result in charges. What’s clear, however, is that whatever Jatuporn said gave the hardliner army chief – who had set up a “war room” to monitor red shirt speeches – just the excuse he was looking for to crack down on the UDD.
The Department of Special Investigation was quick to follow suit. Ever since the DSI made the unfortunate mistake of suggesting 13 people who died during the April 10 clashes may have been killed by the Royal Thai Army – igniting the wrath of Gen Prayuth – DSI chief Tharit Pengdit has been anxious to ensure the generals are kept happy. The DSI has now filed lèse majesté and sedition charges against not three but 18 red shirt leaders in connection with the speeches. As UDD leader Thida Thavornseth joked at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand last month, she herself was essentially being charged for standing on the sidelines of the stage and failing to rush forward to gag Mr Jatuporn. They have a name for this: guilt by association.
Tharit is also, once again, attempting to revoke the bail of Jatuporn and eight UDD leaders recently bailed on terrorism charges connected with last year’s protests. All 18 leaders are due to report themselves to the authorities any day now to hear the new charges against them. They deny the accusations, and it’s anyone’s guess whether they will end up behind bars again. But it can be guaranteed that jailing them would be seen by the red shirt movement as a highly provocative act. And with many of the leaders planning to contest the next elections for the Pheu Thai Party, there’s no doubt it would hobble their campaigns – as red leader Kokaew Pikulthong found out in the Constituency 6 by-election last year.
And this really is all about the elections. As I wrote in my last post for Siam Voices, the army has a hell of a lot at stake. It is desperate to ensure victory for Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat Party, desperate to prevent the opposition from taking power, and desperate to ensure the devil himself, Thaksin Shinawatra, does not return to Thailand. If it can avoid staging a coup, it will. The generals have learned that the best way to get what they want – control over national security, bloated budgets, magical bomb-detecting dowsing rods – is to hide behind a pliant civilian administration.
So Prayuth is using the April 10 speeches as a pretext to tilt the election playing field in the Democrat Party’s favour. First, we have the charges themselves, which may result in the jailing of several prospective Pheu Thai candidates. And second, we see Prayuth doing everything he can to ensure the stain of lèse majesté leaks from the UDD onto the Pheu Thai Party. Here was The Nation on April 13:
A high voter turnout is the key to safeguarding the monarchy and bringing about change under a democracy, Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha said yesterday, urging the people to voice their aspirations via the ballot box.
“I believe if all 60 million [eligible] Thai citizens come out to cast their votes, they can change the country,” he said.
Prayuth said he was optimistic that the upcoming general election could end the political turmoil that had gripped the Kingdom.
Through balloting, the people could safeguard the country’s revered institution by weeding out ill-intentioned politicians, he added, speaking on the sidelines of a merit-making ceremony to mark the Songkran holiday.
Everyone knows what Prayuth meant: a vote for Pheu Thai is avote against the monarchy. After using most of the interview to play politics, the army chief took a swipe at red shirt leaders “for trying to link the military to politics in a bid to sway the crowds”. The army is above politics, you see.
Of course, accusations of lèse majesté have long featured in the Thai political playbook. But rarely have they “stuck” as firmly as they appear to be sticking now to the UDD, which has long been suspected of disloyalty to the monarchy anyway. Perhaps the most obvious indicator of this has been former prime minister Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh’s decision to resign as chairman of the Pheu Thai Party, reportedly claiming he could not be associated with a party that was not loyal to the institution. The former army chief only joined the party in October 2009, having served as deputy PM under the premiership of Thaksin’s brother-in-law Somchai Wongsuwan. Then, Chavalit was accused by Privy Council president – and alleged mastermind of the 2006 coup – Prem Tinsulonda of betraying the country.
Here’s Matichon Weekend (April 22 – 28) on Chavalit’s resignation (page 9, my translation):
We must not forget that when General Chavalit came back to work together with the Pheu Thai Party again, he announced that he would investigate to see whether the people in the party were loyal to the monarchy. But already, Gen Chavalit, who has previously been army chief, supreme commander of the armed forces and prime minister, has had to be the first person to leave the party, because he couldn’t accept the speeches of the red shirt leaders. This means we can understand that his mission to examine the loyalty to the monarchy [of the party] has failed. Which solidifies the image of “overthrowing the monarchy” that the red shirts and the Pheu Thai Party are constantly being attacked with. The “red shirt masses” might not care or worry about this issue very much. But if they hope to win the general election, the red shirts certainly aren’t enough on their own. They have to rely on the general population too.
In a country in which the vast majority of people still have great love for their king, the image Prayuth is painting of the red shirts – and, perhaps, that they have helped to paint themselves – will do the Pheu Thai Party no favours at all in the coming election. A new ban on references to the monarchy during the election campaign could spare the party from the worst. But some damage has probably already been done.
And Prayuth’s machinations didn’t end there. Last Monday, as Human Rights Watch reported, hundreds of armed police launched raids against 13community radio stations associated with the red shirts in Bangkok and surrounding provinces. Accompanied by officials from the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, the police forced the stations off the air and seized equipment, computers and documents. “The upcoming elections can hardly be credible if the government closes down opposition radio stations and websites,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. The raids, HRW charged, were ordered by Gen Prayuth. The reason? The stations had broadcast Jatuporn’s April 10 speech. You can only wonder if the fiery red shirt leader regrets it.