THAILAND’S pro-democracy ”red shirts” began gathering at Sanam Luang around midday on Saturday for their scheduled rally. I got there at around 5.30pm and found well over 10,000 people. By the time I left two hours later it had reached over 30,000. Organisers claimed it had reached 50,000.
I bumped into former National Human Rights Commissioner Jaran Ditta-apichai who supports the reds, behind the stage. In the course of our chat he said ”Even if Thaksin (Shinawatra) stops fighting, the red movement will go on. Reds are not fighting for any leader, they fight for an ideology.”
And as we parted he added cryptically : ”The ultimate ideology.”
Later professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn turned up as well, wearing a black T-shirt with a red baseball cap. He had joined the reds, he said.
I had a longish talk with him. He agreed that several issues including the lese majeste issue, were converging under the banner of the pro-democracy reds (see my report at http://www.straitstimes.com/News/World/Story/STIStory_332830.html?sunwMethod=GET)
In the course of talking about the composition of the red shirts, Giles who has always been critical of Thaksin for his human rights abuses, said ”Being pro-Thaksin doesn’t mean people are puppets of Thaksin, or are being paid by Thaksin. The movement is beyond Thaksin, it’s a movement for democracy and a better future.”
The royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) had its mass base in the middle class ”led by ultra-royalists who believe in nation, religion and king. They represent the elite, and want to reduce the democratic space.”
Jakrapob Penkair (left) meets Giles Ji Ungpakorn (right)
SOURCE: Nirmal Ghosh
I followed prof Giles up on to the stage and took a picture of him greeting Jakrapob Penkair. To me that moment was one of many symbolic ones of the last three years of political turmoil in Thailand : Jakrapob and Giles both face lese majeste charges. In that moment, the lese majeste issue converged with the issue of democracy.
I left soon thereafter to write up my report. When I was done I met a couple of friends for a quiet chat, but then the text messages started coming in, from photographer Nick Nostitz and Bloomberg’s Dan Ten Kate who were among the very few foreign journalists on the scene. The reds were on the march and nearing Makkawan bridge where the police had an elaborate barricade of barbed wire.
I left immediately, and on the way was told the reds had broken through the barricade. There had been some tense moments and a few scuffles, and someone had used pepper spray in the melee. Reuters photographer Adrees Latif got a face full of it, but he wasn’t sure who had discharged it.
Supporters were in a mood of calm defiance
SOURCE: Nick Nostitz
I arrived in the middle of a column of red shirts marching towards Government House, and joined them. A truck with red activists speaking from it through a sound system, slowly rumbled up the road surrounded by a sea of red, many of them women, and with quite a few children as well. The mood was one of calm defiance. There were no weapons in sight. Many were holding hands. It was around 1130pm.
They fetched up against a second police cordon on the bridge right next to Government House. In a few minutes the cordon opened up and the reds started filtering through. I followed them through and saw many of the police officers there smiling and laughing (the police were demoralized by their enforced impotence vis a vis the PAD, and many are sympathetic to the reds).
Soldiers in riot gear formed up to meet the protestors
SOURCE: Nick Nostitz
Red shirts broke through the barricades around Government House
SOURCE: Nick Nostitz
Then Veera disappeared, and former government spokesman Nattawit Saikuar, flanked by Jakrapob wearing a red T-shirt with the word Dictator on it crossed out in black, began haranguing the general and other police officers from the top of the lead truck.
The excitement seemed to mount then, and at the stroke of midnight Nattawut let out a roar and the truck he was on – and the crowd – surged forward and toppled the fence just a few feet in front of us. We turned and ran helter skelter to avoid being caught in the surge. For the first time since a motorcycle accident on Jan 12, 2008 that broke my leg, I found myself running!
We trotted into Government House, where the lawns have been newly restored after the PAD’s months-long occupation last year. The grass has yet to grow back though.
Pro-democracy supporters face off with soldiers
SOURCE: Nick Nostitz
There were hundreds of soldiers in the compound, with riot control gear. Soldiers relaxing on the ground stood and formed up, in a solid phalanx on the inside of the ornate fence. The red shirts filled up the road outside, and leaders began reading out their demands.
Then, with no attempt to get into Government House, they simply started dispersing. The trucks started up and rolled off, four of them in an ocean of red.
At no point was there the threat that things would go out of control, partly because none of the reds was armed in the manner that the PAD ”guards” were last year. So there was little provocation. And the reds retained the moral high ground by not invading Government House as the PAD had done – a factor crucial to their public image.
Fri Jan 30, 2009 10:20am GMT
By Ed Cropley
BANGKOK (Reuters) – The Economist’s distributors in Thailand are refusing to circulate the current affairs magazine for a second week running because of an article critical of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the army.
The article, entitled ‘A sad slide backwards’, takes Thailand to task for its “astoundingly callous” handling of 1,000 Muslim Rohingya migrants from Myanmar, 500 of whom are feared to have died after being towed out to sea by the army and cast adrift.
“Our distributor in Thailand has decided not to distribute The Economist this week due to our coverage being sensitive,” the weekly’s Hong Kong spokesman, Ian Fok, said Friday.
A spokesman for the distributor, Asia Books, was not immediately available for comment. A police spokesman said he was unaware of any official ban.
Unlike with previous editions of the magazine that have not been circulated, this week’s article makes only cursory mention of the taboo topic of royal involvement in politics and draconian lese majeste laws.
Most of its criticism is aimed at the army and the Oxford-educated Abhisit, whose rise to power last month owes much to the military’s 2006 coup against Thaksin Shinawatra and its machinations against the previous government.
The article also suggests the United States should threaten to move its annual Cobra Gold regional war games from Thailand — a hangover from its Vietnam War-era alliance that begins next week — to send a signal to Bangkok’s generals.
“The Cold War is long over,” the article said.
The Economist suffered a similar bar on distribution last week because of local objections to an article about the lese majeste conviction and three-year jail term handed down on a little-read Australian author.
During his six weeks in office, Abhisit has made much of his commitment to human rights and the rule of law, although his government has shut down more than 2,000 websites deemed critical of the monarchy.
A prominent leftist academic has also been charged with lese majeste — which carries up to 15 years in jail — for comments made in a 2007 book about the previous year’s military coup.
Critics and freedom of speech advocates say the government’s crusade to protect the crown in the twilight years of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s six decade reign is a pretext to crush political dissent and opposition.
(Editing by Darren Schuettler and David Fox)
Written by Our Correspondent
Wednesday, 28 January 2009
Not in Thailand, anyway, or it can get you arrested
Additional names of individuals in jail have surfaced in Thailand on charges of insulting the royalty, for offences as slight as not standing up for the royal anthem in a movie theater in Bangkok. According to a Thailand-based website on political prisoners named nine individuals in jail. Another two, one an Australian teacher, have already been sentenced to long prison terms.
With the Thai monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, growing more infirm at the age of 82, there appears to be a growing power struggle for succession between forces aligned with the unpopular Crown Prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, and his sister, Maha Chakri Sirindorn. Queen Sirikit in particular has become deeply enmeshed in politics, intervening publicly on the side of forces that successfully overthrew the popularly elected government supported by ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was previously driven from power by a royalist-backed military coup in October 2006. With the palace involved in the political situation, protecting the monarchy’s reputation has become a priority.
The website, Political Prisoners in Thailand (http://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com/) has been blocked in Thailand. Insulting the king or anyone connected to him can result n a prison term of three to 15 years. Recently, the Australian teacher, Harry Nicolaides, was sentenced to three years for a paragraph in a book that sold seven copies, according to the website. Also sentenced last November to 12 years in prison was Boonyuen Prasertying, who was charged after speeches she made at a pro-Thaksin rally. Her sentence was reduced to six years as a result of her confession. At least two individuals have fled rather than face charges, and two bloggers under the names “Phraya Pichai” and “Thonchan” are said to be held quietly in custody without being charged, according to the website.
Most of the names have been known. Latest among them is Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Chulalongkorn University political science professor and writer who has written several pieces charging the royalty with being behind the October coup. He was ordered to appear at a Bangkok police station on Jan. 20, to be charged for a series of passages in his book, “A Coup for the Rich.” Ungpakorn, many of whose articles have appeared in Asia Sentinel, has chosen to fight the charges publicly, sending out a blizzard of releases to foreign organizations and readers, asking them to put pressure on the Thai government to cease using the lèse majesté charge as a political weapon to quell dissent. When Amnesty International declined to take up lèse majesté cases, apparently over visa concerns, he asked readers to “consider switching to some other human rights organization.”
A second prominent figure is Jakropob Penkair, a former spokesman for Thaksin, who was accused of insulting the royalty at a speech before the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand that seemed as much aimed at Prem Tinsulanonda, the king’s privy counselor. The speech can be found here: http://thaipoliticalprisoners.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/jakrapob-at-the-fcct1.pdf
From there down, it is remarkable how fine the mills of Thai justice grind in seeking out growing dissent. Almost 3,000 websites that carry information critical of the royalty have been shut down, and more will be, authorities say.
The others imprisoned, according to the website, are these:
- Chotisak Onsoong, 26, and a female friend were charged last April after a member of the audience in a Bangkok theater complained the couple had not stood during the ritual playing of the royal anthem. The case apparently grew out of a heated argument when they were urged to stand up by the bystander. The couple later filed a complaint against the man, saying they had been verbally and physically abused. He retaliated by filing the lèse majesté complaint. Chotisak remains in jail while his case is being investigated.
- Jitra Kotchadej, a union activist and friend of Chotisak’s, she was fired in August from the clothing factory where she worked, according to the website, in August, for appearing on a TV panel discussion wearing a T-shirt saying “Not standing is not a crime,” a reference to Chotisak. It is not known if she has been charged by police.
- Sulak Sivaraksa, a 75-year-old academic and long-time critic of the use of lèse majesté charges, was taken from his Bangkok home late one night in November 2008 and driven 450 km to a police station in the northeast province of Khon Kaen, where he was charged for insulting the monarchy for a December, 2007 lecture. It was the third time Sulak has been charged, the first in 1984 although the case was later withdrawn after an international outcry. In 1991, he was arrested after a speech in which he attacked the military coup that overthrew the government. Sulak fought the case until he won, in 1995. Other allegations were made against Sulak in 2006.
- Darunee Charnchoensilpakul, known in Bangkok as “Da Torpedo,” Darunee, a pro-Thaksin and self-proclaimed pro-democracy campaigner, was arrested in July after a 30-minute speech denouncing the 2006 coup and the monarchy. She is still behind bars, although it is not known if she has been formally charged, the website said.
- Suwicha Thakor was arrested on Jan. 14 on suspicion of posting comments on the Internet that insulted the monarchy.
- The final suspect is Sondhi Limthongkul, a Thai media tycoon who played an integral role in bringing down the democratically elected People’s Power Party government that came to power in the wake of the coup against Thaksin. A leader of the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy. The PAD was responsible for the mob that closed Bangkok’s two airports and ultimately caused the collapse of the government. Sondhi is said to be particularly close to Queen Sirikit. Few observers expect Sondhi to actually be charged. He was cited for repeating some of Da Torpedo’s speech.