Could Thailand be Getting Ready to Repeat History?

Asia Sentinel


Daniel Ten Kate

  
02 April 2007

In Bangkok, it’s deja vu all over again as a
banned satellite television station is organizing public rallies in an effort
to take down the government

 

It was only last year that publisher
Sondhi Limthongkul used his satellite station, ASTV, to lead massive rallies
throughout Bangkok calling for then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to
“Get Out!”  Now Thaksin’s men
are fighting back against a stumbling royalist junta using the same method.
Several ex-Thai Rak Thai party members recently launched PTV, or People’s
Television, a political station designed to counterbalance the negative
coverage Thaksin receives in most of the Thai press.

Hardly six months after Bangkok’s citizens met Army
coupmakers with flowers, the sharp drop in popularity for the ruling junta is
remarkable, with a slide in popularity from more than 70 percent to below 35
percent. The slide began in December when the central bank imposed a 30 percent
reserve measure on foreign currency inflows, prompting the largest one-day fall
in the Thai stock exchange’s history.  Bomb
attacks followed on New Year’s Eve, wounding more than 30 and killing
three.  It has been downhill since,
giving Thaksin’s supporters at least a glimmer of hope for his return.

 “We established PTV to fill a gap of
information the public is deprived of,” Jakrapob Penkair, an ex-TRT lawmaker
who helped found the station, said in an interview. “It’s not Thaksin TV or TRT
TV, although as a former party member I believe Thaksin is coming back anyway
if the game is fair. You can see this as a new political form, but to be more
exact, it is to equip people with the information they need to fight the
government.”

PTV went on the air for a few
hours on March 17, its launch date, before the military-installed government
banned it. In response, the station started holding political rallies a la Sondhi. Although numbering only a
few thousand people — much less than the tens of thousands who rallied with
Sondhi at the peak of the People’s Alliance for
Democracy — coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin gave PTV widespread attention last
week when he sought to impose an emergency decree in Bangkok to stop one of its rallies.

The move shocked many people and
prompted rumors that a coup against interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont
was imminent. Though Surayud reportedly offered to resign, a deal was struck
and he ended up resisting a call to impose emergency powers while announcing
that elections would take place in December.


Thaksin
put up with Sondhi’s
rallies to oust him, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. “Thaksin tried to outfox
them, outmaneuver them, but he never really thought about an emergency decree.
He put up with it for more than a year. This government is already considering
an emergency decree at an early stage. I think it will eventually backfire. We
have this danger of repeating history.”

It’s unclear how the rift
between the Surayud government and the Council for National Security, as the
junta calls itself, will play out. PTV is planning another rally on April 8,
and Jakrapob said station executives are considering accepting invitations to
hold rallies in provincial areas.

The PTV rally on Friday night
(March 30), which drew a few thousand middle class Bangkok residents, was certainly a
pro-Thaksin crowd. Several groups even handed out business cards that said “The
military can oust Thaksin from the country, but not from our hearts.”

Even so, PTV is quick to claim that
while it supports Thaksin, the well-funded station receives no money from him.

“The only linkage between
Thaksin and PTV is that I went to Beijing
to inform him that we are going to do it,” Jakrapob said. “We have received no
finances from his groups or his family. We want to do this to support the same
end, and he understands this very well. In Thai, the saying is ‘walk separately
towards the same goal.’”


Jakrapob
, who also served as
government spokesman when Thai Rak Thai was in power, had urged Thaksin to
fight back harder against Sondhi during his protests last year. But despite
fears that Thaksin would use the rallies as a pretense to declare emergency
rule and crack down, the telecom billionaire-cum-politician held back.

“PTV started as a direct result
of the coup, but a similar idea was conceived while I was government
spokesman,” Jakrapob said. “I was one of the few people who realized Sondhi’s
rally wasn’t going to stop. The government couldn’t function on tortured
information and lies. But Thaksin at the time didn’t want to give Sondhi
importance.”

Though Sondhi’s campaign
ultimately proved successful, with the assist of the army’s tanks last September
19, the media activist now finds himself in hot water. On March 28, the Criminal
Court sentenced him to two years in prison for defaming Thai Rak Thai executive
member Phumtham Wechayachai. In one of his televised rallies in late 2005,
Sondhi said Phumtham was a Communist who fought against Thailand’s revered monarchy.


Sondhi
was released on bail and
plans to appeal. He declined to comment for this article, saying, “I’ve stayed
quiet lately.”

Other members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy,
which joined Sondhi’s anti-Thaksin protests, have blasted the PTV rallies as
pro-Thaksin. PAD spokesman Suriyasai Katasila told The Nation newspaper on
Monday that anti-Thaksin groups would rally against PTV if the station didn’t
stop its broadcasts. Another PAD supporter, consumer rights activist Rosana
Tositrakul
, said in an interview that “PTV was just a reactionary measure by a
political party.”

“PTV is just political, while
Khun Sondhi led a movement of the people to scrutinize the government,” she
said. “It’s complicated. Some pro-democracy people may join PTV because they
want to voice discontent with the government or the coup group. But
pro-democracy people who really understand the difference between PTV and real
democracy may not join.”


Jakrapob
rejects the arguments
that pro-Thaksin and pro-democracy don’t go together. He said this was a struggle
between leftists who want to empower people and right-wingers who want to
control things through appointed bodies.

“Most media here are built on
the concept of conservativism, that Thailand would be better off
depending on technocrats, people who know better than the people, and the state
of Big Brother,” he said. “PTV was conceived not just to make a political push
for the time being, but to explain to people that they have rights. People who
dismiss PTV as simply Thaksin supporters tend to be those who are
conservatives.”

Certainly, the political
spectrum is very muddy. Further confusing things are the stepped-up attacks on
former prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, who heads King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s
19-member Privy Council. At the PTV rally last Friday (March 30), some in the
crowd launched a signature campaign to petition the king to remove Prem from
the monarch’s advisory body.

The reaction from Prem
supporters was swift. The mayor of Songhua, the privy councilor’s hometown,
condemned the demonstrators for linking Prem
to the coup and claimed they might take action of some sort. Coup leader Sonthi
insisted Prem had nothing to do with the coup and said he was studying whether
the petition was offensive to the monarchy, which could invite lese-majesty
lawsuits.

But though many here are
reluctant to criticize Prem because he is so close to the king, who is generally
considered to be “above politics,” the privy councilor’s involvement in the
political affairs is increasingly becoming a mainstream topic of conversation
as many wonder what role he played in the September 19 coup.

“General Prem has been
compromised,” said Chulalongkorn’s Thitinan. “He can’t have it both ways. He
got so involved and now he wants to be untouchable. But we are in a big mess
and people want to know who is responsible. Look at the choice of prime
minister, of the National Legislative Assembly… it’s not surprising people are
pointing the finger at General Prem.”


Thitinan
also worried that the
increasing polarization of the Thai political scene was hurting political
discourse. “Why can’t we be anti-Thaksin, anti-coup, and anti-government?” he
said. “It’s dangerous for some anti-Thaksin people and pro-Prem people to be
brushing aside criticism by saying if you criticize General Prem, you are paid
by Thaksin. It’s very dangerous. People are frustrated, and they have the right
to be mad at the master. It doesn’t mean that they support Thaksin.”

Although the petition to remove
Prem was circulated at a PTV rally, station executives are distancing
themselves from the movement. PTV executives planned to file a lawsuit against
The Nation and two Thai-language dailies, Matichon and Sondhi’s Manager, for
reporting that PTV executive Jatuporn Prompan had signed the anti-Prem petition
and then later withdrew his name.

“We reserve some ideas about
Prem, but now is not the time to sign a petition to oust him,” Jakrapob said.
“For me personally, I’m not very comfortable with the idea of suggesting to His
Majesty who is or is not qualified to be his closest advisor. That’s the king’s
personal area, and that’s why PTV is not involved. But the rally is public as
you saw, so anyone can join and pass around a petition.”

As for the lawsuits against
newspapers, Jakrapob said they were an attempt to stave off efforts to shut
down PTV due to criticism of the monarchy.

“The media wants to pit us
against the royal family,” he said. “I think people understand that
lese-majeste has never been a tool of the royal family, but has been used by other
people on their behalf. If people deliberately violate the rights of the king,
the queen or the royal family, they should be prosecuted accordingly. But if
people do something threatening to the powers that be, they shouldn’t be thrown
against the royal family just so the rulers can stay in power.

“Mark my words: that wouldn’t be
allowed. They may try to do that, but they will be stopped.”

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