Saturday, May 30, 2009

A new colour in Thai politics


IF YOU had ever wanted to slap Sondhi Limthongkul, the co-leader of the yellow-shirted movement that gained international notoriety when it shut down Bangkok’s two airports last year, now’s your chance.

“Slap my face with your shoes if one day I take any political position,” Sondhi was quoted by The Nation, a Thai English-language newspaper, as having said when the PAD (or People’s Alliance for Democracy as the yellow-shirted movement is officially called) was protesting against the Thaksin Shinawatra government.

On Monday night, at a sports stadium near Bangkok, tens of thousands of PAD supporters unanimously voted (by standing up, clapping their hands and cheering loudly for two minutes) to set up a political party.

PAD co-founder and former Bangkok governor Chamlong Sri­muang, said the movement initially did not have any intention to become a political party.

But, he added, it could no longer tolerate the old political system after a group of politicians wanted to amend the military-drafted 2007 constitution for their own personal gain.

The PAD is not only reversing its promise not to accept any political position, but is also changing its trademark colour.

On May 24, at its first general assembly, the PAD announced it was changing from yellow (marking its support for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose birthday colour is yellow) to yellow and green.

“Green represents a pollution-free environment and clean politics,” Sondhi, who survived an assassination attempt on April 17, told the yellow-clad crowd.

“Yellow is the colour of His Majesty the King.”

In 2006, controversial media mogul Sondhi launched the PAD to oppose his former pal Thaksin, then the prime minister. Its massive street protests paved the way for the military to oust Thaksin in a September 2006 coup.

The yellow-shirted protesters returned to the streets last year after the pro-Thaksin People Power Party won the December 2007 election.

Through a 193-day street protest (that included the seizure of the prime minister’s office and two airports in Bangkok) it was instrumental in toppling two prime ministers aligned to Thaksin.

The movement’s decision to enter the electoral fray is “undoubtedly a plus for Thailand’s overall political climate”, opined M.L. Nattakorn Devakula, a news analyst at Newsline, a Thai television programme.

“It certainly is a breath of fresh air in that it will no longer be out on the streets in such an active fashion as in the past,” he said in an e-mail.

The PAD will be a force to be reckoned with in Thai politics, noted Nattakorn.

“What the yellow-clad movement has been able to accomplish in the past is indeed proof that its leadership and organisation cannot be underestimated,” he noted.

The PAD also has two influential media outlets (both owned by Sondhi) – ASTV (a satellite television channel obsessively watched by millions) and (a highly popular news website in Thailand).

“Through these media outlets, and perhaps a supporting cast of all newspapers and websites under the Nation Multimedia Group PLC, the PAD will be able to campaign vigorously and effectively as a political party,” he noted.

“Because of this, expect them to garner quite a popular mass following.”

In the short term, according to Nattakorn, the new party (which is still yet to be named) will eat into the voter base of the ruling Democrat party led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

However, its long-term impact is still unpredictable.

“Though the PAD’s ways can grow on you, its antics in the past do not necessarily help. Do not expect the views of the PAD – ultra right-winged politically and ultra left-winged economically – to resonate on the campaign trail immediately,” said the political commentator.

“A large Democrat base in Bangkok may have at some point found themselves disapproving of Thaksin’s politically monopolistic tendencies, but Bangkokians are also not about to be so trusting of an unreasonable set of labour union activists, formerly bankrupt media manipulators, heartbroken academics, mass-mobilising movers, and ostracised failed politicians.

“To sum it up, the yellow party will definitely be a strong additional colour to the (next Thai election) but unfortunately it will not galvanise voting support so quickly as to replace the Democrats.”

It will be interesting to see how the formidable street protest movement fares at the ballot box.

(Published in The Star on May 30, 2009)


James said...

Key PAD leader Chamlong Srimuang told the crowd, estimated at "a few thousand" by police, that the terrorism charge was "not only exaggerated but it's false".

He said that although the airport protestors were armed with wooden sticks, metal rods, baseball bats and golf clubs, the implements could not be considered as weapons.

mike said...

The PAD is like the "Tea Party" in America. Fascist in their intents, they court the military to "vote" for them with coups detat. So frustrated by a democracy in which 'the majority' win the elections... that they openly discuss mass disenfranchisement of the poor! Those who decry Thaksin for corruption, yet support Sondhi, must positively spin with cognitive dissonance.