Saturday, August 29, 2009

Embattled Abhisit pulls out the plug


IF YOU are planning to visit Bangkok’s historic Dusit district (where Dusit Palace, the Prime Minister’s office and parliament are located) tomorrow, think again.

But if you want to experience a Thai-style protest then make your way there. It’s the Thai capital’s epicenter for political turmoil.

The pro-Thaksin Shinawatra Red Shirts are organising a massive street rally there with a double message: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, don’t stall the petition for a royal pardon for Thaksin, and please dissolve parliament.

Sunday’s rally comes two weeks after more than 20,000 Red Shirts marched to the royal offices in Bangkok’s Grand Palace to submit their petition (signed by at least 3.5 million Thais).

They were seeking a royal pardon for Thaksin, who was convicted last year over the sale of government-owned land in Bangkok to his then wife Potjaman (whom he divorced last year).

That much hyped street march, which Thai authorities feared could turn into a bloody mayhem, was peaceful albeit theatrical – the petition was packed in 383 boxes wrapped in red cloth.

But for tomorrow’s rally, Abhisit is not taking any chances.

On Tuesday, the Thai Cabinet invoked the Internal Security Act (ISA) that suspends civil rights and puts the military in charge of law and order. The law, effective from today to Tuesday, is limited to the Dusit district.

“Although the protesters have said the rally will not be violent (like during Songkran in April this year, which saw Thailand’s worst street violence in 17 years), we cannot remain complacent,” Abhisit said in explaining his government’s decision to invoke the ISA.

“A third party might step in to take advantage of the situation. Accidents can happen.”

On Wednesday, Veera Musikhapong, a Red Shirt leader, told a press conference that the anti-government demonstration would not be protracted despite government fears.

“The rally will be peaceful, without weapons ... and after submitting a letter calling for the dissolution of the House and a general election the Red Shirts will disperse peacefully,” he said.

Against such words, Abhisit’s measure looks like an overkill.

The Bangkok Post described it as a “security lockdown” where 3,500 soldiers and 1,950 policemen would be deployed to ensure no public gatherings at Dusit Palace, Government House (the Prime Minister’s office) and Parliament.

At Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, Tourism and Sports Minister Chumpol Silpa-archa expressed concern that enforcement of the law would affect tourism.

And the prime minister’s decision to invoke the ISA raises the question whether Abhisit is afraid of shadows.

“Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is facing fear,” Suranand Vejjajiva, who is a former minister in Thaksin’s Cabinet and also Abhisit’s cousin, wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday.

“Whether he will become a victim of his own nightmare, or controller of fear and able to utilise it as a political tool, remains to be seen.

“But suspicions arose when he decided to invoke the Internal Security Act through a Cabinet resolution earlier in the week, and the government’s actions so far during the past seven months have been one of reacting to whatever ousted ex-PM Thaksin is doing.”

Suranand, who is a political analyst, continued: “The question everybody’s asking now is: Is there a real threat to stability? Are the anti-government protesters going to resort to violence, which they are being accused of already?

“The general feeling is that the rally’s objective is to further the psychological warfare the Red Shirts and Thaksin are waging. It is designed to crank up pressure on a weakened prime minister and his coalition government.”

To ratchet up the Red Shirts’ill-feeling towards the Abhisit-led government, an allegedly doctored audio clip of Abhisit’s voice has surfaced. The voice – which sounded like Abhisit’s – ordered officials to use force against the Red Shirts during the Songkran riots in April.

“I have listened to the clip, and it is definitely an edited clip because I had never given out such order,” Abhisit said on Thursday.

Jatuporn Prompan, a Red Shirt core leader, said the prime minister and his Cabinet should resign if the clip (which he described as sounding authentic, as the speech was so smooth) was indeed genuine.

If the street rally turns ugly tomorrow, Abhisit could be forced to order the use of force.

(Published in The Star on August 29, 2009)