Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bracing for a very fiery year after Songkran


The wet fun of the Thai new year has given way to fire in the bellies of protesters.

AS THAILAND celebrated the beginning of a New Year, Bangkok turned into a battleground that pitted mothers against daughters, Thais against tourists and pedestrians against policemen.

Armed with buckets, garden hoses and water guns, the combatants drenched anyone within splashing distance in the Songkran (Thai New Year) tradition of spraying water to wash away bad luck and usher in a prosperous new year.

In a month that is ron maak maak (Thai for very, very hot), the celebration helped take the heat off the 37°C days.

And the five-day holiday of liquid fun presented a reprieve as well to the military-installed government of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, who is facing political heat in the form of bombings and bomb threats in Bangkok, rumours of a counter coup, pressure to resign and a sluggish economy.

However, Thais are not so naive as to hope that the long fun-filled Songkran weekend would douse their country’s sizzling political turmoil. When the water-based festivities ended, another element re-ignited. Fire.

Fire in the bellies of diverse protesters with contrasting interests. Despite Surayud’s promise to hold an election in mid-December, the political rallies are set to get bigger than those in the six months following the coup.

On Wednesday, The Nation newspaper reported that General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, chairman of the Council for National Security (CNS, as the military junta which overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra calls itself), warned the Surayud government about “volatile political development” over the next two months.

“There will be all kinds of mobs to increase pressure and create confusion. So, the government should be alert and find ways to handle that,” a source quoted Gen Sonthi as saying.

Gen Sonthi, who is army chief, pointed out that the Assets Examination Committee (AEC) was set to wrap up investigations into politicians from the previous administration, and the Constitution Tribunal would rule on electoral fraud cases filed against Thaksin’s political party Thai Rak Thai (TRT) and the country’s main opposition Democrat Party.

The Constitution Tribunal will decide on May 30 whether the two political parties should be dissolved for committing election fraud and their executives banned from politics for five years.

On Wednesday, in the sweltering heat, hundreds of saffron-robed monks and Buddhists marched with nine elephants to the Thai parliament to demand that Buddhism be enshrined as the national religion in the new post-coup constitution.

They ended their sit-in protest on Thursday.

But Thongchai Kuasakul, chairman of Thai Buddhism Promotion Foundation, cautioned: “If we know for sure that Buddhism is not enshrined in the Constitution, we will resume large-scale protests both in Bangkok and the provinces to campaign for the rejection of the new Constitution.”

Another group fired up to organise anti-coup demonstrations is the maverick broadcaster People’s Television (PTV), which is operated by supporters of Thaksin.

“PTV will organise its next rally right after the Songkran holiday, coordinating with other anti-coup groups to demand the return of democratic rule, and hopes to draw a bigger crowd for its May rally,” PTV rally organiser Jatuporn Prompan said.

“From May onwards, conditions will be ripe to sway the public to oppose the government and the Council for National Security.”

Adding fire to the raising political temperature is the plan by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which before the September coup organised anti-Thaksin rallies, to stage protests against the government.

“We wonder if the CNS is behind the PAD creating political turmoil so that it can cite this as the reason to stay in power,” TRT spokesman Kuthep Saikrachang asked.

And, as if protests in Thailand were not enough, a group of Thais in London plan to demonstrate at the Thai embassy on May 4 against the current leadership, to urge them to return democracy to the people.

According to, a pro-Thaksin website, Thai expatriates living in the United States, China and Japan also plan similar protests.

It's only a few days into the Thai New Year, and there’s already a raging feeling that mass street protests are making a comeback.

But this time with fiery consequences.

(Published in The Star on April 28, 2007)