Saturday, June 28, 2008

Still standing but badly bruised


ON TUESDAY, the first day of a no-confidence debate against his five-month-old government, Thai prime minister Samak Sundaravej nonchalantly folded a piece of paper as opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva accused him of being unfit to run the country.

Samak, a seasoned 73-year-old politician, then placed his origami masterpiece of a paper bird on the table and smiled. It was as if the prime minister was giving the bird to his detractors.

In his two-and-a-half hour speech, Abhisit, the 43-year-old Democrat party leader, described Samak’s leadership as “four months of inefficiency which cannot be allowed to be dragged out to a full four years”.

The opposition leader accused Samak of mishandling the stuttering economy, failing to tackle the impact of soaring fuel prices and violating national interests.

In his hour-long reply, the sharp-tongued Samak retorted: “You can’t wait for your opportunity. You’re so eager to become prime minister. I was seriously insulted by the opposition leader saying that I am incompetent.

“The accusations by the opposition are too serious. I am confident that in the past four months I have done no damage to this country, I have the capacity to remain leader of this country.”

Even as Samak and seven Cabinet members faced censure from the sole opposition party, the Democrat, People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) continued its 24-hour siege of the Government House, the seat of the Thai government, demanding the prime minister’s resignation.

To cool the political heat from the street protestors who besieged his office on May 20, Samak made a U-turn and allowed the Democrat party to grill him in a censure motion (which he earlier rejected, saying his government was busy preparing the 2009 budget).

In the three-day debate that was televised “live” on state-controlled NBT Channel, Thais listened to almost the same accusations heard at the street protest broadcast “live” over the satellite-based ASTV television network owned by PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul:

> That Samak was the puppet of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a military coup on Sept 19, 2006;

> That the PPP-led coalition government did not defend the revered monarchy; and,

> That foreign minister Noppadon Pattama handed control of the Preah Vihear Temple, a 900-year-old Khmer temple which borders Thailand and Cambodia, to Phnom Penh.

The difference for the TV viewers was that instead of PAD speakers such as Chamlong Srimuang, a retired major-general who in 1992 led “people power” protest against a coup leader, and Sondhi, a media mogul, those featured were elected representatives such as Abhisit, and Chuan Leekpai, the Democrat chief party adviser and a former Thai Prime Minister.

The august House also saw opposition parliamentarians slinging mud at the prime minister’s character.

On Wednesday, Democrat MP Dr Malinee Sukwenworakij, a medical doctor, claimed that Samak showed symptoms of mental deficiency and behaviour disorder.

Holding up the book Phu Puay Pok Krong Loke (Sick People who Ruled the World), Malinee attacked the prime minister for his “aggressive behaviour and bad temper”.

The burly Samak responded: “You can ask the Cabinet whether I am fit to administer the country. Would you like to compete with me in a brain game, like a memory test?”

Dr Malinee added that there was medical evidence to confirm that his glaring at reporters and ordering cake and red cordial drinks like a child reflected low IQ and EQ (emotional quotient).

As expected, Samak survived the censure, winning 280 “Yes” votes against 162 “No” votes.

“While the government (won the vote in the Lower House), Samak and a clutch of his Cabinet ministers will be so bruised, their credibility shaken to the point that a wide-ranging Cabinet reshuffle will be needed,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday.

“After the censure debate, the PAD will continue to undermine the government’s credibility and legitimacy in the streets, stymieing Samak’s limited ability to address pressing economic difficulties.

“His position after the censure debate will thus become untenable.”

How the embattled Samak must wish that Thai politics is as straightforward as origami.

(Published in The Star on June 28, 2008. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The final countdown


ON THE eve of the Friday showdown between Bangkok street protestors and the Thai government, the catchphrase in the newsroom of The Nation was: “It’s the final countdown.”

“Tomorrow will be exciting,” buzzed a 40-something editor on Thursday afternoon.

“Hopefully, tomorrow (Friday) will be the beginning of the end of this three-year-old movie. People are bored watching this movie about a fight between two groups (pro and anti-Thaksin Shinawatra).”

He added: “By tomorrow both groups will be finished, hopefully.”

The “movie” the editor was referring to was the battle royal between the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and billionaire politician Thaksin which began in early 2005 when the PAD orchestrated street protests against the then prime minister for alleged disrespect of the monarchy and corruption.

The street protests were interrupted by a coup which ousted Thaksin on Sept 19, 2006, military rule and the general election on Dec 23, 2007 which was won by the People Power Party (PPP) which is a pro-Thaksin party led by Samak Sundaravej.

And on May 23 – four months into the Samak-led coalition government – the PAD resumed its street protest, determined to finish its unfinished business – rooting out Thaksin from the Thai political landscape.

If a movie preview were made of the June 20th showdown between the PAD and the Samak government, it would be something like this:

Thousands of yellow-clad protesters armed with flagpoles trying to storm Bangkok’s Government House – the seat of the Thai government. Standing in their way will be hundreds of policemen who will take action according to international crowd control principles (water cannon and tear gas).

On Tuesday night, during a speech at the PAD’s 24-hour protest on Ratchadamnoen Nok street which is near Government House, its co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul announced its plan to oust prime minister Samak and his Cabinet and “demand the country back” from those who corrupted and exploited it.

“On Friday June 20 at 1pm we will pack everything (to go to Government House). And we won’t give up until we win,” the media mogul said.

Samak, the prime minister, was not amused.

“Why are they doing this? Don’t they realise how much the country is damaged by the rallies?” he asked reporters on Thursday.

“I don’t understand why the PAD has announced that they will take over Government House. There is no reason. Was the election illegal? There were voters who cast their votes, the government was installed and took the royal oath. Is the government illegal? We are not street gangsters.”

The prime minister’s problem is not only on the streets but also in parliament.

On Wednesday, the Democrat Party – the sole opposition – lodged a motion of no confidence against him and seven Cabinet ministers.

Among the Democrat Party’s complaints and accusations were: the Samak administration’s mishandling of soaring global oil prices and rising inflation (sparking threats of nationwide protests) and that the prime minister was acting as a proxy for Thaksin who was banned from politics for five years by a military-appointed tribunal in 2007.

If a simple majority of MPs vote against the government, Samak would be forced to step down.

However, the prime minister will survive the censure vote as his coalition government (PPP and five other parties) have 316 of the 480 seats in the lower house. And the Democrat’s motion can be tied up in procedural delays for months.

The June 20 protest is, however, a more immediate problem, as some political analysts see this as the “bullet” the PAD needs to fire up its dwindling three-week-old protest.

“This is a decisive battle,” Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political science lecturer at Thammasat University, told Bloomberg. “The PAD wants the outcome to be decided now because the longer they wait, the weaker they will be.”

Yesterday, hours before the PAD rally, The Nation’s managing editor Thanong Khanthong wrote: “At this point, Thais are totally in the dark as to what is going to happen next.

“But this time it is a consensus that all the conflict must be brought to a decisive end once and for all.”

By now, the world probably knows whether the PAD’s protest led to an impasse, bloodshed, a coup or a finale.

Editor’s note: Thousands of PAD protesters wearing yellow in honour of the Thai king camped outside the office of Thailand's prime minister yesterday demanding his resignation, after police removed barricades blocking them. Riot police were on guard, but the protest was largely peaceful. No violence was reported.

(Published in The Star on June 21, 2008)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Rebels without a cause?


SURANAND Vejjajiva has this sense of deja vu when he turns on the television news programme and switches off the volume.

The muted scene of the Bangkok street protest organised by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) reminds him of the tremulous months before he lost his job as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office when the military ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Sept 19, 2006.

In 2006, he was one of the few Cabinet ministers who “listened to the PAD’s every word” because it was his job to do so. “I could not accept what they said but I had to bear it and listen. I felt frustrated and sometimes angry as I was right in the middle of it,” recalls the former minister in charge of the Public Relations Department.

Now when Suranand watches a PAD street demonstration on the television he feels he is watching a show that does not concern him personally.

“I’m not in the game,” explains the 47-year-old political analyst, who together with 111 Thai Rak Thai politicians including Thaksin, has been banned from serving in political posts for five years by a military-appointed tribunal in 2007.

Suranand who is now a media pundit – writing commentary pieces weekly for the Bangkok Post and daily for Siam Rath (a Thai-language newspaper) and hosting a nightly radio talk show – notes that the PAD’s protest sign “Thaksin Get Out” is weird.

“Thaksin is not in power. Samak Sundaravej is the prime minister. Whatever you say about Samak he is not anyone’s nominee,” he says.

“Samak has to juggle the factions in his People Power Party (PPP), his government’s coalition partners, Thaksin himself, and all the power – whether invisible or not - that are in Thailand.”
As a democratically elected leader, Suranand contends that Samak should be allowed to perform his duties in governing the country.

“The PAD may have legitimate accusations (such as Samak is Thaksin’s nominee) but they should go through the proper channels,” he explains.

“Even if they protest they should present all the facts and figures of their accusations instead of unsubstantiated rhetoric.”

Nevertheless, Suranand, who sees himself as politically neutral, thinks the Samak-led coalition government is prone to stepping on self-made landmines.

“This government is scandal-prone,” he notes, giving an example of Jakrapob Penkair, a minister in the Prime Minister’s office, who was forced to leave the Cabinet, after he was accused of lese majeste (insulting the monarchy).

The coalition government is scandal prone because of the prime minister’s leadership style, opined the media pundit.

“Samak does not have the leadership style of Thaksin or Anand Panyarachun (a former Thai prime minister). These leaders can coax their Cabinet ministers to work together,” he says.

“Samak – undeniably a star in his own right – is more like a one-man show. He can’t really work with his team. Once he cannot manage his ministers – maybe because he does not have any power base in the PPP or his ministers have their own boss to answer to – they will be going on their own way.”

The silent majority, according to Suranand, who have been interacting with the public through his radio talk show, is bored with the protracted conflict between the pro- and anti-Thaksin groups.

“They want it to end. They want the government to function so that it can address the real problem facing Thailand, which is the looming economic crisis,” explains the media pundit who blogs in The Nation’s Thai-language website.

“They think the country’s political problem is the politicians’ problem and not the people’s.”

When Suranand switches on the volume of the television programme showing the PAD street protest, he hears frustrated protestors. “The language they are using is much stronger and more vulgar (compared with 2006),” he notes.

And the media pundit is clueless on what the PAD wants to accomplish this time. “The last time what they accomplished was a coup.”

Another coup, he warns, will destroy Thailand.

“But what is the solution?” Suranand asks.

“How can we bring the PAD – which may have legitimate concerns and a large, loyal following – back into the rules of the game (which is democracy and not street rule)?”

(Published in The Star on June 14, 2008)

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A case of protest or be PAD-dywhacked for anti-Thaksin lot


ON THE backdrop of a makeshift stage at the Bangkok protest, which has so far claimed the resignation of a Cabinet minister, is a billboard-sized banner with the slogan “Purge Thaksin regime and the nominee government”.

Also on the yellow-coloured banner is a cartoon of Thaksin Shinawatra (his left hand clutching a bag of money and his right hand holding a cocktail glass) sitting on the head of Thai prime minister Samak Sundaravej who is gobbling a map of Thailand.

On the stage, sitting behind a conference table, are four speakers from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which spearheaded the protests that preceded the coup against Thaksin in September 2006.

The speakers are spitting vitriol against all things Thaksin to the delight of the 1,000 plus protestors (mostly wearing the royal colour yellow) sitting on the road near the prime minister’s office.

Flanking them on the right are tents sheltering hardcore PAD supporters during their 24-hour street demonstration. On the left is an impromptu night market where vendors hawk headbands featuring cartoons of Thaksin and the words “Thaksin get out”, pork noodle soup and grilled squid.

It is 9.40pm on Wednesday. And it is the 11th day of the protest (drawing 10,000 people at its height) which started with the PAD demanding the resignation of Cabinet minister Jakrapob Penkair for alleged lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) and the withdrawal of the Samak government’s plan to amend the military-backed 2007 constitution.

“When the military crafted the constitution there was a particular clause which absolved the coupmakers of all wrongdoing – a bad clause which needs to be scrapped – and they cunningly tied into it mechanisms for prosecuting Thaksin (for alleged corruption),” explained Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a political lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“This was deliberate so that any attempt to get rid of that clause is seen as protecting Thaksin.”

Giles opined that PAD launched the street protest to avoid extinction.

“They had these large protests in 2006 where they called for a coup and got a coup. They worked with the military junta that was shown to be completely inept. Election was held under junta rule and still the People Power Party (or PPP, which is pro-Thaksin) won,” said the author of A Coup For The Rich: Thailand’s Political Crisis.

“Now it is very, very hard for them to argue that the PPP did not win the election fair and square, although they are trying to do that. They have to mount something or they will become history.”

The two demands have been met. Jakrapob (who does not represent any of the power brokers within the Samak coalition government) has been sacrificed, and the government has temporarily withdrawn its bid to amend the Constitution.

But the noisy protestors have not cleared the barricaded street, which is causing traffic jams and inconvenience to the people in the vicinity. Instead the PAD is now seeking the ouster of the four-month-old Samak government.

On May 30, its leader media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul told cheering protesters: “The country’s problems still persist, with Thaksin and his cronies being behind everything. So our tasks are not yet complete.

“I ask for your approval to heighten our efforts with a goal to finally oust the government.”

On why the size of the rally was smaller than the protests in 2006 that attracted 100,000 people at its peak, Giles said: “Thaksin is not the prime minister and he is still facing corruption charges. And other politicians are equally corrupt.”

“There are other matters weighing on the people’s mind such as the oil and food crises. PAD has only made token gestures to address these issues.”

Although the number of protesters has dwindled, Giles says the protest is dangerous because the alliance is “hoping for a coup d'etat, as it does not have enough support (to gain power through an election)”.

At 9.54pm on Wednesday it started to drizzle and the PAD protesters unfolded their yellow-coloured umbrellas. Rain or shine, it looks like they are prepared for the long haul.

(Published in The Star on June 7, 2008)