Saturday, May 02, 2009

Politics takes a murky turn


IN POLITICALLY polarised Thailand, it is easier to find a tank on the streets of Bangkok than a Thai who is able to give a neutral take on what’s happening to his country.

So I tracked down Paul Quaglia, a Bangkok-based American security consultant, to get his views on the recent events that thrust Thailand into the international limelight. Here’s an excerpt of my interview with Quaglia, the founding partner of PSA Asia Pacific, a security consulting cum risk assessment firm, and a 20-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Is it game over for the Red Shirts (the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra movement which on April 14 ended its three-week street campaign to force the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva after he ordered a military crackdown)?

No, the game isn’t over for the Red Shirts who in many ways tried to mimic the Yellow Shirts (the anti-Thaksin movement) to show that there was double standard in their treatment.

And the Red Shirts have succeeded in a way in showing that there was a military crackdown on them and that their leaders were arrested, while the Yellow Shirts leaders remain free.

I don’t think the political crisis is over because we still got two groups that have the ability to attract people, and a political agenda that hasn’t been fulfilled.

Depending on what happens with Abhisit’s administration for the next few months, we could see more protests from either side.

Will Abhisit last his term?

Abhisit is in a difficult position. He is a terrifically qualified prime minister. He is the right man for this job but he is in it at the wrong time (unprecedented political polarisation in Thailand at a time when the global economic crisis is devastating many South-east Asian economies).

He came in with a coalition government which he has trouble keeping happy – his junior coalition partners have designs on his job, they were sworn political enemies for several years before they defected with encouragement from the army to form this government. Abhisit has to deal with the political realities of his own coalition government.

What is your take on the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok?

Frankly, it was a bit exaggerated by the media. We had taxicabs that blocked off Victory Monument (a busy intersection). It was pretty nasty but it occurred during a holiday period (Songkran, the Thai New Year) where there was not really much traffic.

And we had the Red Shirts congregated at the prime minister’s office and near Victory Monument. But they were not running amok all over town as we saw last year (with the Yellow Shirts) when there were gun fights on the expressways and mobs going to different government ministries.

When the military and red-shirted protesters clashed violently, there were almost as many reporters covering the event as soldiers. There were a lot of tight shoots focusing on burning tyres and NGV trucks which exaggerated the actual width and breadth of the Red Shirt protest.

Yes, there was violence. But it wasn’t Bangkok under siege. A state of emergency was not required to keep peace and order which existed virtually everywhere in the country except (in pockets of Bangkok).

What’s your take on the hit on Sondhi Limthongkul (the co-leader of the Yellow Shirts)?
The how is more important than the why. Historically in Thailand when someone is the subject of a politically motivated assassination, it is done relatively quiet and off the screen. The most recent example is Somchai Neelaphaijit (a Muslim human rights lawyer) who just disappeared. It took a while even to figure out that he was killed.

(Sondhi’s hit) was a dramatic open and notorious assault — three guys in a pickup truck with assault rifles spraying bullets (at Sondhi’s vehicle) at a major intersection (in Bangkok).
The how tells me that not only this was an attempt to shoot Sondhi but also to send a message that someone is willing to take dramatic violent methods to make a point.

And Sondhi, who is no shrinking violet, has been relatively reticent since the assault. He hasn’t said much – no bedside press conference, no finger pointing, no “I am going to get your guys for this”. So I think he himself is surprised and worried at the level of approval that might have been required to have this (the assassination bid) done.

(Published in The Star on May 2, 2009)