Saturday, September 12, 2009

Payback time for Abhisit

Thai Takes

NOW that Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has shifted the national police chief to a desk job, Thais are speculating what the Defence Minister, who is the top cop’s big brother, will do next.

The talk is Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan is disgruntled with Abhisit’s decision to cold storage General Patcharawat Wongsuwan after the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) ruled on Monday that Patcharawat violated criminal law during a police crackdown on the anti-Thaksin Shinawatra People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) which besieged parliament in October 2008.

On Thursday, quoting a close aide to Prawit, the Bangkok Post reported that the Defence Minister was “shaken by the transfer order and took the matter personally”.

Big brother Prawit’s unhappiness with Abhisit “mistreatment” of his younger brother has raised question marks over the stability of the prime minister’s coalition government.

However, Prawit denied on Thursday he would quit his defence portfolio, saying the government and armed forces were still on good terms.

Like a lakorn (Thai for soap opera) plot, the saga of the Thai police chief has countless twists.

The anti-graft ruling was the latest pretext Abhisit needed to get rid of Patcharawat.

In early August, Abhisit ordered the police chief to go on holiday in China so he could appoint an acting police chief.

However, Patcharawat turned up unexpectedly on Aug 8 and reclaimed his post.

Subsequently, the prime minister re-assigned Patcharawat to Thailand’s restive southern provinces on a mission and Wichien was reappointed acting police chief.

Despite Abhisit’s efforts to banish him, on Aug 20, Patcharawat, who is 60 and due for compulsory retirement at the end of this month, still managed to be part of the 11-man police commission to decide on his replacement.

On that Thursday, the prime minister started the day confidently, assuming that Prateep Tunprasert, his choice for national police chief, would be endorsed by the commission which he chaired.

It turned out that the commission rejected his choice by a five to four vote (with two abstentions, including Abhisit’s), which the Thai media described as a “big slap in the face” for the prime minister.

“Political pundits are in agreement that Abhisit’s failure to get his nominee for the police chief position endorsed by the Royal Thai Police board was a slap in the face,” wrote Atiya Achakilwisut of the Bangkok Post.

“What the analysts have not yet decided, however, is how much should the humiliation hurt. Some said it should hurt like a House dissolution. Others believe it to be more of a personal pain, at the level of a PM’s resignation.

“And there are some others, like members of the PM’s own Democrat party, who say the jab was unexpected but it would cause no tangible damage to the PM’s handsome face.”

Then came Abhisit’s payback.

“It is believed the government was keen to push Patcharawat out of the picture so Abhisit could have his own way in nominating (his man) to the top post,” wrote Nattaya Chetchotiros in the Bangkok Post on Thursday.

“Patcharawat was among the Police Commission members who rejected the prime minister’s nomination of Prateep. His vote was interpreted as scoffing at Abhisit’s authority, whose leadership was seen weakened by the episode of the selection of the new police chief.”

On Wednesday, hours after Abhisit transferred him to an inactive post at the prime minister’s office, Patcharawat handed his resignation to the prime minister.

The police chief’s resignation and the NACC decision to implicate him in the Oct 7, 2008, crackdown come days before the third anniversary of the Sept 19 2006 coup to overthrow Thaksin.

“It has been widely interpreted that the ruling against Patcharawat will prompt the police to go further into ‘neutral gear’ especially when it comes to their response to protests and riots because they could go to jail for performing their duty,” noted Nattaya of the Bangkok Post.

The pro-Thaksin Red Shirt supporters plan a massive street protest on Sept 19 to mark the third anniversary of the coup.

On that day, it will be seen whether the police will be “committed” to keep law and order. Or, will the men in uniform shift into neutral gear?

(Published in The Star on September 12, 2009)