Saturday, April 25, 2009

One week on, Bangkok still has no answers


THE 4 Ws – Who, When, Where and What – of last week’s dramatic assassination attempt in Bangkok are known. The mystery is who’s behind the shooting ... and why.

Who: Media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul, the 61-year-old co-founder of People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a yellow-shirted movement opposing Thaksin Shinawatra, the force behind the red-shirted protesters.

The PAD had seized airports in Phuket, Krabi, Haadyai and Bangkok, in addition to the Thai prime minister’s office and numerous government buildings.

When: About 5am on April 17.

Where: On Samsen Road, at a petrol station near Sondhi’s media office in Banglamphu, Bangkok.

What: Men in military-style uniform, armed with AK47 and M16 assault rifles and an M79 grenade launcher, shot at the tyres of a black Toyota Alphard ferrying Sondhi to the ASTV station where he was to host his morning talk show.

The gunmen sprayed at least 100 bullets for around five minutes at the luxurious SUV. Miraculously, Sondhi, who claims he did not duck to escape the bullets, only suffered an injury to the head.

Jittanart Limthongkul (Sondhi’s son, in a telephone speech to a PAD concert in Phuket, as reported in Suthichai Yoon’s blog Thai Talk –

“A ‘Gestapo state’ is being formed as the base for a new political force that’s ‘as bad as the red shirts’. A new form of war is emerging – it’s being launched by the collusion of certain police and military officers.

“They are plotting a new coup. It is said that a minister, who is said to be involved in the attempted assassination of a privy councillor, is actively behind this new exercise.

“They are creating conditions for the dissolution of the House – so that the police and military officers involved would dominate the political scene.”

General Thanee Somboonsab (police investigator in charge of solving the case):

“The police have no first-hand evidence of the murder attempt and are relying mainly on intelligence reports linking people likely to benefit from Sondhi’s death.

“We don’t know whether the masterminds are connected to men in uniform.”

Kasit Piromya (Thai Foreign Minister and a PAD supporter speaking at the Asia Society in New York):

“Sondhi was supposed to have lunch with me at noon, but he was shot before we could meet. I think he is recovering quite well.

“So how did this turn into a situation where politicians cannot move about quite freely?

“It’s been survival for a few of us ... Thaksin failed on the populist movement and now I think he has resorted to some sort of assassination attempt.”

Thaksin Shinawatra (former Thai prime minister in an interview with Der Spiegel):

“It’s a government (Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s) that has been given the licence to kill.

“And I have the impression that the phase of ‘cut-off killings’ has begun – in other words, they are eliminating anyone who knows too much about the conspiracy of those in power against me.”
Thitinan Pongsudhirak (a political analyst at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review):

“The assassination/murder attempt on Sondhi is murky. Naturally, theories and conspiracies abound. The use of war weapons (M16, AK-47 and M79) suggests military, but which faction/side remains a conjecture.”

Wassana Nanuam (a military beat journalist at Bangkok Post):

“The brazen shooting has made a joke of the emergency law currently in effect in Bangkok, and the incident reinforced the belief of the people, particularly PAD supporters, that only uniformed men with the protection of higher-ups had the capacity to pull off such a high-profile murder attempt.

“Ordinary gunmen would have turned down the contract to silence a figure of such political significance as Sondhi.

“The assumption may be that Sondhi knows too much and his existence no longer holds any purpose, with Thaksin’s danger to the country now somewhat weakened.

“Sondhi is also perceived by certain powerful elements to be a thorn in the side, and a fighter to be eliminated when the war is over.”

Suporn Pansuea (a police major general):

“A police investigation found that the spent AK-47, M16 and HK shells found at the scene differ from those used by police officers.”

Gen Anupong Paojinda (the Army chief):

“The M16 shells found at the scene where Sondhi was shot were bullets from the army.”

The Nation (in an editorial):

“Who tried to kill Sondhi Limthongkul? There are many theories but no clear answers one week after the failed ‘hit’.”

(Published in The Star on April 25, 2009)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The day the streets ran red


A SKINNY man in a red T-shirt scurried up the stairs to the BTS (Bangkok Mass Transit System) Siam station, menacingly waving his hands and yelling in Thai while security guards hurriedly pulled down the shutters to prevent passengers from entering the Skytrain terminal.

The man, who was five metres from Vera Mopilin, a 36-year-old Malaysian expatriate, shouted at other red-shirted men to pursue an unknown target at around 3.30pm last Sunday.

Behind Vera, who was carrying her six-month-old born-in-Bangkok baby, security guards of Siam Paragon were shutting the entrance to the city’s biggest luxury mall.

Below, on the street, red-shirted demonstrators were dancing on top of two armoured personnel carriers that they had commandeered.

The red-shirted protesters had taken to the streets soon after Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in Bangkok to quell a red-shirted uprising against his four-month-old coalition government.

Hugging her baby tightly, Vera told herself she was witnessing history unfolding.

“But my main concern was for the safety of Apsara (her baby). I was worried if I got trapped in Siam Paragon, I would run out of baby formula,” she said.

Since residing in Thailand in August 2006, Vera has lived through a coup, five Thai prime ministers, a general election, three states of emergency, New Year 2007 bombings and countless colour-coded protests.

Escape for her and the terrified shoppers, including foreign tourists, was walking 500m to the other entrance to Siam station to board the Skytrain.

Twenty minutes later, as she arrived at the On Nut station, her sister called, saying she had heard that all hell had broken loose in Thailand.

The bulk of Vera’s Songkran (Thai New Year) week was spent answering phone calls, SMSes and Facebook queries from worried family members and friends who pleaded with her to return to Malaysia immediately.

“After accessing the situation (with her clever journalist husband), I told everybody that everything was ok,” said Vera, my wife.

She told them she lived in Bangna which was far away from the hot spots. And if trouble escalated her family was prepared to fly home.

How was it living in Bangkok Dangerous during Abhisit’s emergency rule?

Bangna, a Bangkok suburb, is relatively safe as it’s about 25km from the Thai prime minister’s office, the usual epicentre of protests.

The suburb, however, is not impervious to the country’s political turmoil. In 2005 pro-Thaksin Shinawatra protesters besieged The Nation office and a bomb exploded at nearby Seacon Square shopping mall on New Year 2007.

During this week’s emergency rule, the only running “street battle” I witnessed in Bangna was the water fights Songkran revellers were engaging in.

The situation was different for the residents of Din Daeng, about 2km from the office of the prime minister. On Monday, an urban battle raged in the neighbourhood between the anti-government protesters armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails and soldiers carrying automatic weapons.

The protesters hijacked an LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) tanker and threatened to blow it up, prompting the evacuation of the residents.

On that Monday, at around 2pm, near Bangkok’s iconic Democracy Monument, two buses were set on fire by men wearing red shirts.

A handful of policemen stood by watching as the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority buses burnt. Their inaction prompted the perception that Abhisit had lost control of his country.

“Antharaai (‘dangerous’ in Thai), LPG (liquefied petroleum gas),” a red-shirted man shouted, pointing at the buses. Fearing an explosion, the crowd retreated as shopowners pulled down their shutters.

A Thai television crew arrived. While they were shooting the blaze, a Thai man, wearing neutral colour, egged a dozen red-shirted men to attack them. The crowd started to verbally abuse the journalists for being biased against the anti-government movement.

Just when it looked as if Bangkok would explode into the next Islamabad, the red-shirted protesters – whose numbers at the Prime Minister’s office grounds had by then dwindled to about 2,500, from 100,000 – packed their bags and returned home.

But yesterday’s assassination attempt on Sondhi Limthongkul, the co-leader of the yellow-shirted protesters, indicate that Vera still has to assure loved ones in Malaysia that the City of Angels is safe.

(Published in The Star on April 18, 2009)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Red holiday for Abhisit

Thai Takes

IT is 10pm on a Wednesday night in Bangkok. And there’s a picnic in front of the residence of General Prem Tinsulanonda, the 88 year-old chief adviser to the Thai king.

A “picnic” if you disregard the phalanx of riot policemen standing guard along the concrete fence of Prem’s home, the red-shirted protesters shouting “ok pai Prem (Prem get out in Thai)” and a poster depicting Thaksin Shinawatra as Super­man.

Free food - fried noodles and bottled mineral water - is flowing. Most of the protesters are sitting picnic-style on the road listening to stinging speeches condemning Prem.

At 10.10pm, the protest turns into a Thai-style Lollapalooza (American music festival). A musician on top of a six-wheeler truck, parked right in front of the retired general’s house, blows a khene (a mouth organ), playing a popular Isaan (Thailand’s northeast) folk song. The protesters follow the beat with their red-coloured foot clapper.

Less than two kilometres away, at a makeshift stage facing the Prime Minister’s office, Jakrapob Penkair, a Thaksin loyalist spews venom at Prem who is President of the Privy Council, the royal-appointed group of advisors of the King.

Thousands of red-shirted protesters shake their foot clappers when the handsome Jakrapob unhurriedly and sarcastically bawls: Prem Tinsula­non­­da.

Wednesday was the day when about 100,000 red-shirted Thais took to the street.

They demanded that Prem, two privy councilors General Surayud (installed as prime minister following the 2006 coup which toppled Thaksin) and Charn­chai Likhitjittha (Justice Minister in the military-installed government) and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva resign from their posts unconditionally.

It was a day filled with tension with Thais fearing bloodshed or a coup.

Tension was also fueled by three troubling events the day be­­fore.

Abhisit’s vehicle was attacked with its rear window smashed by a handful of red-shirted protesters when it was stuck in a traffic light in Pattaya, about 150km from Bang­kok.

Three men were arrested in connection of an alleged plot to assassinate Charnchai, the privy councilor.

The would-be assassins pointed to an Army major as the mastermind.

And the alleged mastermind impli­ca­­ted a Navy captain.

Newin Chidchob, a former Thaksin trusted right hand man, cried on national television when he pleaded to his ex-boss to stop “hurting” the monarchy.

Back at Prem’s residence, as I surveyed the boisterous hate-fest, I wondered if Thailand would become the next Nepal, the Philippines or Myanmar.

The Wednesday Bangkok Post column by Chulalongkorn University po­­li­­­ti­­cal scientist Thitinan Phong­sudirak echoed in my view.

“We do not want Nepal as the institution of the monarchy is integral to Thai history and identity,” Thitinan wrote.

“We do not want the Philippines, whose periodic people’s power move­ments begot neither political stability nor economic vibrancy. And we do not want to turn the clock so far back as to end up in comparison to Myan­mar’s military dictatorship.”

But Bangkok is beginning to feel like Manila with its street protests since 2006 when Thaksin was still the Prime Minister. Before the red-shirted protest, it was the yellow-shirted demonstrations of the PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy) which wanted to oust all things Thaksin.

However, it would be simplistic to assume that the red-shirted protest is all about Thaksin.

“But the reds have been loud and clear that they are more than about Thaksin, who is becoming a sideshow to the United Front for Demo­cracy against Dictatorship’s crusade for the will of the majority to shine in a genuine democracy,” Thitinan wrote in Bangkok Post.

“The stage leaders of the red shirts are going after privy councilors that they deem to have violated the constitution by masterminding the Sept 19, 2006 military coup and blatantly taking sides in post-coup Thai politics.”

The columnist continued: “Despite repeated denials, the evidence and revelations are overwhelming. Meet­ings and public comments at key junctures happen to fit the sequence of events that transpired from May 2006 through to the rise of the Abhisit government.”

So how does Abhisit stem the “red tide”? Among other measures, he declared yesterday a national holiday, extending the long Songkran (Thai New Year) break to six days.

The Prime Minister is hoping the red-shirted protesters will go for an indefinite holiday.

(Published in The Star on April 11, 2009)

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Invidible hand unmasked


THAILAND’S invisible hand now has a face. Since the Sept 19, 2006 coup, Thaksin Shinawatra has hinted that his ouster as prime minister was the handiwork of a “charismatic extra-constitutional figure.”

But he remained coy about the identity of the figure he called the “invisible hand.”

That was until March 27 when self-exiled Thaksin, through a video-link broadcast, told his red-shirted supporters besieging the prime minister’s office in Bangkok that General Prem Tinsulanonda, the 88-year-old chief adviser to the Thai king, was allegedly the mastermind of the coup.

The 60-year-old billionaire politician also alleged that 66-year-old General Surayud Chulanont, whom the military appointed as prime minister to replace Thaksin, was one of the coup plotters.

Prem and Surayud, both former Royal Thai Army commanders-in-chief, have denied Thaksin’s allegations.

Thaksin’s revelation, according to political commentator ML Nattakorn Devakula, is nothing new as it is an open secret.

“But what Thaksin did (name names) was something you normally wouldn’t do in Thai culture,” said Nattakorn, a 32-year-old television and radio talk show host who recently ran unsuccessfully for Bangkok governor.

“In Thailand, you don’t openly bash your political enemy. You do it slowly, behind the scenes.”

Thaksin’s allegations could backfire as he had criticised someone who was older than him, said the political commentator.

In Thai society, Prem (a former prime minister from 1980 to 1988 who faced two coup attempts) is a respected elder statesman.

“Generally, the public (the neutral silent majority) thinks Thaksin’s allegations are true but they also know that his behaviour is unacceptable by Thai standards,” he noted. “Unless you are a hardcore Thaksin supporter.”

Thaksin had to finger Prem and Surayud, however.

“Previously, (former prime ministers) Samak (Sundaravej) and Somchai (Wongsawat) were aligned to Thaksin,” explained Nattakorn, whose father, MR Pridiyathorn Devakula, served as finance minister under Surayud’s interim government.

“Now the Democrat Party is in power. Unless Thaksin does something, it is likely the party will remain in power for the next few years.”

He opined that Thaksin could use his allegations against Prem and Surayud to negotiate a deal to return to Thailand without having to go to jail. (Last year Thaksin was convicted of abuse of power related to a land purchase in Bangkok).

Asked why Thaksin’s allegations were damaging to Prem and Surayud, Nattakorn, whose great great grandfather is King Mongkut (Rama IV), said: “As members of the Privy Council, their sole role is to advice the king, and not mastermind a coup.”

Despite Prem’s and Surayud’s denials, he said, Thais generally believe “the coup could not have happened if the generals did not get the green light from Prem; and later Surayud became prime minister.”

The unmasking of the invisible hand has raised Thailand’s political temperature, which had visibly cooled in the days after Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was sworn in as prime minister in December.

On March 26, about 30,000 red-shirted protesters surrounded Bangkok’s Government House, preventing Prime Minister Abhisit from entering his office and causing the weekly Cabinet meeting to be called off.

Ceaselessly, they’ve lashed out at the king’s advisers for their alleged involvement in Thaksin’s ouster.

Some of the attacks are downright personal. For example, at the rally, a protester held up a photo of Prem (who is a confirmed bachelor) dressed as a girl in a school play dating back to 1935.

Among the protesters’ demands are that Abhisit resign and that the Privy Council be placed above politics.

On what will happen next, Nattakorn predicts:

1) The red-shirted protesters surrounding Abhisit’s office will get tired and go home for Songkran (the Thai New Year which falls on April 13).

2) Prem or Surayud will resign as the king’s adviser – Surayud the more likely – and the “red army” will happily return home.

3) Prem and Surayud do not resign, but pressure Abhisit to understand the need to pass the National Reconciliation Bill (which will reinstate the political rights of Thaksin’s allies who were banned from politics), and the protesters go home.

4) Abhisit dissolves parliament and the protesters return home.

Although probable, the four scenarios were unlikely to happen, Nattakorn conceded.

“This is the excitement of Thai politics. Political problems in most countries have a predictable end, but not in Thailand,” he said.

Anxiously, Thais wait for the visible hand’s next move.

(Published in The Star on April 4, 2009)