Saturday, June 02, 2007

Not the end of the road for TRT


The dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai party, founded by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, may not signal its end as former members plan a new registration of the party maintaining its original name.

EVERYTHING that comes from the barrel of the gun is always right,” a dejected Thai Rak Thai (TRT) caretaker leader Chaturon Chaisang defiantly declared to party supporters soon after Thailand’s Constitutional Tribunal ordered TRT’s dissolution.

The decision by the nine-judge tribunal gunned down the only party in Thai history to win an absolute majority in parliament. It also barred 111 TRT executives – including party founder Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted from power in a coup – from participating in politics for five years.

The close to midnight verdict was the climax of a Wednesday where millions of Thais were glued to the television to watch the tribunal’s landmark rulings on the electoral fraud cases against the country’s largest political parties, TRT and Democrat.

It was also a day when the Council for National Security (CNS), as the coup makers who grabbed power on Sept 19, 2006, calls itself, tightened security in areas in Bangkok that were likely to be flashpoints for violence. And learning from previous protests, the CNS barred elephants (which can cause a massive traffic jam) from the city.

Thais woke up to The Nation's banner headline that breathlessly stated “Country Holds its Breath”.

And the country held its breath from 1.30pm when the tribunal judges took turns to read out the verdicts on the Democrat, Thailand’s oldest political party.

However, its script for the televised proceedings was not made-for-television.

The tribunal bored the viewers with its elaborate explanation on the background of the Democrat case, their grounds for defence and their pre-election activities.

After four hours, it finally announced that the 61-year-old party, with about four million members, was not guilty.

The immediate analysis of The Nation’s political desk was: the “road ahead looks rosy for Abhisit Vejjajiva to lead the Democrat Party into the next general election and become the next prime minister of Thailand.”

If the TRT was found guilty, the desk speculated, there would only be a few major political parties left – the Democrat, Chat Thai and Mahachon – and that could pave the way for 43-year-old Abhisit to become the youngest Thai prime minister in the post-war period.

At 6.30pm, the judges read their rulings on the TRT (which in Thai means “Thais love Thais”), a political party that was loved by Thais as evident by its 14 million members.

It was another marathon session and at 8pm, the joke was the tribunal had timed its rulings for midnight so as to bore TRT supporters so that they would not react violently to an unfavourable verdict.

Then at around 9.40pm, the first hint that TRT could be banned came when the tribunal ruled that the party’s former executives, Pongsak Raktapongpisal and Thamarak Isarangura, were guilty of bankrolling small parties to field candidates in the April 2, 2006 elections that was boycotted by the Democrat.

TRT’s fate worsened an hour later when the tribunal declared that the party was aware of Pongsak’s and Thamarak’s illegal actions. It said the party was desperate to overcome an electoral rule for a single candidate running unopposed to garner more than 20% of the votes in order to secure victory.

The subsequent rulings were like a barrage of bullets fired at the party. And at around 11.20pm, the tribunal announced the inevitable.

At the TRT headquarters in Bangkok, television footage showed party leaders and supporters crying and consoling each other.

And in London, in response to the ruling against his party, Thaksin said: “We have to respect the rule of the game. That is, the rule of the law.”

On Thursday afternoon, about 3,000 pro-TRT demonstrators gathered in Bangkok, demanding the removal of the CNS, which some of the speakers alleged had interfered with the tribunal’s rulings.

Meanwhile, Chaturon, who was among those banned from politics, told reporters that followers of the defunct party would call themselves klum Thai Rak Thai (or TRT group).

He said the TRT group had the support of 200 former MPs who were not banned from politics.

As the Thai Election Commission allowed a dissolved party to seek a new registration under its old name, Chaturon and the party die-hards announced they were aiming for the revival of TRT.

(Published in The Star on June 2, 2007)