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)