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)