Saturday, September 19, 2009

The naked truth

Thai Takes

IT IS a sight not many in Thailand will want to see. Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban has promised to strip naked if there is a coup today, the third anniversary of the military overthrow of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

“I am in charge of security affairs and I have heard of nobody planning a coup. If there is a coup, I will walk naked (as I) step down. I believe no groups (in the military) want to stage a coup now,” Suthep told journalists recently.

No coup, says the confident deputy prime minister. And yet his boss, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has invoked the Internal Security Act (ISA) to bar protesters from Bangkok’s historic Dusit district (where Dusit Palace, the Prime Minister’s office and parliament are located) from yesterday until Tuesday.

Abhisit justified the use of the ISA to give the military a key role in maintaining law and order, saying a “third hand” may turn today’s street rally by thousands of pro-Thaksin Red Shirts protesters to mark the anniversary of the 2006 coup into a blood bath.

Pitch Pongsawat, who teaches political science in Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, laughs when told about Suthep’s pledge.

“There’ll be no coup for sure this Saturday,” he says. “What has happened now is a self coup.”

“In a sense, when (the Abhisit government) invoked the ISA, the government is preventing people from exercising their right (to protest), which is backed by the constitution. And (Abhisit) has allowed the military to intervene in domestic politics.”

The military has no business getting involved in domestic politics, he added.

The naked truth about the invocation of the ISA, according to Pitch, is that it is a preemptive strike.

In announcing that it wants to prevent a recurrence of the April riots (allegedly) by the Red Shirts, the government is using psychological warfare to discourage Red Shirt supporters (mostly from outside of Bangkok) from converging onto the Thai capital to protest against the Abhisit-led government, the academic explains.

Yesterday morning, the military and police installed concrete slabs and iron barricades around Government House (the Prime Minister’s office) in Bangkok in preparation for today’s protest which the Red Shirts leaders promised would be peaceful and “without weapons”.

Yesterday was the second time the ISA was invoked against the Red Shirts. The first was on Aug 29. But the pro-Thaksin movement – in a cat and mouse game with the government – cancelled its street rally and embarassed Abhisit (for jumping the gun).

“Now it is going to be the norm for the government – as long as they have the support of the Bangkok middle class – to invoke the ISA whenever the Red Shirts plan a street protest,” notes Pitch.

The academic questions whether the government will dare invoke the ISA if the Yellow Shirts (an anti-Thaksin movement) plan a street protest.

“Probably not. If they announce they’d use this law on the Yellow Shirts, more (Bangkokians) will pour into the streets,” he says.

Asked why Thailand is still mired in political turmoil three years after the “happy coup”, Pitch says there are two theories.

“One theory says it is because Thaksin has not stopped intervening in the post-coup process,” he explains. “The second says that the coup cannot change the deep structural problem in Thailand – poverty.

“With income disparity in this country, there is a possibility that certain capitalists can capture the heart of the (poor) people and rework (the current elite) alignment.”

Does Pitch wants to see Suthep naked? After a long pause, the academic says figuratively: “I’ve seen Suthep naked and I’m sick of it.”

“He’s already naked. The military has (launched several ‘silent’ coups in the last three years). For example, the government declared a state of emergency to allow the military to crack down on the Red Shirts protest during Songkran (Thai new year in April this year).”

Will there be a coup today?

Surely, the threat of Suthep stripping naked is enough to convince army chief General Anupong Paochinda not to launch a coup.

“Being an international pariah is one thing,” comments Bangkok Pundit, in his Thai political blog on Wednesday, “but having to see Suthep in all his glory will just be too much ....”

(Published in The Star on September 19, 2009)