Junta Faces Discontent After Largest Party Banned

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Junta Faces Discontent After Largest Party Banned

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK,
May 31 (IPS) – For women like Thitirut Hochi and men like Wasuwat
Datanabodee, Thailand is heading for dark and troubling times. They
said so with tears and anger on Thursday morning at the headquarters of
the country’s largest political party.

”Thai people are unhappy with the country. We are going
into a very dark period,” Thitirut, a 52-year-old homemaker, said as
tears poured down her cheeks. ”There is no more future for us here.”

”There can be no more development here,” added a visibly
angry Wasuwat, 47, who runs a small business dealing in old machines.
”The people hate this (military) government.”

They were among a small crowd of Bangkok’s citizens who had
gathered at the entrance to the headquarters of the Thai Rak Thai (TRT
– Thais Love Thai) party to vent their feelings. The mood was
understandable, since it followed a sweeping judgement delivered close
to midnight on Wednesday that banned for five years the country’s most
popular party and all its leaders, including ousted prime minister
Thaksin Shinawatra.

The nine-member Constitutional Tribunal, which was set up by
the military junta that seized power in a coup last September, was
scathing in its criticism of the “political crimes” the TRT had
committed. ”The Thai Rak Thai’s crimes are very dangerous to
democracy,” said one of the judges, Krairerk Kasemsant, who took part
in reading the verdict, which lasted over five hours.

A fellow judge, Vichai Chuenchompoonu, said the TRT and the
111 members of its executive committee were guilty of attempting to use
a controversial parliamentary poll in early April last year as ”a
means to achieve totalitarian power.”

The main charges that had been brought against the TRT
included payments by two senior party officials, former ministers
Thammarak Isarangura and Pongsak Raktapongpaisal, to small,
little-known political parties to contest the Apr. 2 general elections
in order to secure a minimum vote requirement to ensure the ballots
counted.

The party that was founded by Thaksin, a billionaire telecom tycoon,
was also faulted for paying an official attached to the Election
Commission to change party registration information.

Earlier in the day, the Democrat Party, the country’s oldest
political organisation, was absolved of all charges that had been
brought against it for its role in the April 2006 poll.

The Democrats and other opposition parties boycotted that election,
which was called by the TRT government of the day in the wake of
growing anti-Thaksin protests in Bangkok. The demonstrators had taken
to the streets to vent their anger at alleged charges of nepotism,
corruption and the abuse of power linked to the Thaksin regime.

But if Thailand was hoping that Wednesday’s verdict would
bring an end to the country’s deepening troubles since the 2006 coup,
then the acting leader of the TRT, Chaturon Chaisang, had another, more
combative message for the pro-junta supporters. ”We have not received
justice. The major verdict is biased,” he told reporters shortly after
arriving at TRT headquarters in a western Bangkok neighbourhood. ”This
is not a democracy.”

That is a view shared by analysts, who fear the verdict was
driven more by a political mission to ”destroy the TRT,” as one said,
than to arrive at a judgement based on the facts of the case.

”The ruling by the tribunal proves that the court is not independent
of the military junta,” Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at
Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told IPS. ”It is doing the
unfinished job that was started by the junta with the Sept. 19 coup.”

”I don’t see the verdict as an end of Thai Rak Thai’s and
Thaksin’s struggle to challenge the junta,” added Sunai Phasuk, Thai
researcher for the global rights watchdog Human Rights Watch.
”Thailand has to brace itself for a longer period of uncertainty.”

And that, despite all the top politicians of the party being
deprived of their civic rights due to the verdict. The 111 members of
the TRT executive committee, including Thaksin, who is living in exile
in London, will have no right to vote, form a new political party or
function as politicians for the next five years, Sunai confirmed in an
interview. ”This is nothing new here; it has been set in the context
of the election laws.”

The gloomy political forecast stems from the unprecedented
support base the TRT has developed since it was founded nine years ago.
The party’s 14-16 million supporters enabled Thaksin to lead the TRT to
consecutive parliamentary victories in 2001 and 2005 with thumping
mandates never witnessed since Thailand became a constitutional
monarchy in 1932.

The bulk of the TRT’s support is rooted in the provinces, such
as the poorer sections of the north-east, the north and parts of the
central regions. Loyalty for the TRT was secured through a range of
pro-poor measures the party promised before elections and delivered
after its victory. They included a universal healthcare scheme, a debt
moratorium and soft loans to boost the grassroots economy.

The extent of this bond was on display Wednesday, when TRT
supporters like Suwit Saengmaneetham, a businessman in the
north-eastern province of Sakon Nakhon, were among others in his
community who stayed up late Wednesday to await the verdict.

”The tribunal should have only punished the few people who
committed the crime, not all the leaders and the whole party,” Suwit
told IPS over the telephone. ”It was unfair. We are unhappy and
disappointed.”

The April 2006 poll that led to the banning of the TRT was,
itself, nullified in May last year. That court verdict precipitated
political tensions leading to the country’s 18th coup. And the junta
that came to power has, since September, been at pains to dismantle the
TRT and crush its support network, beginning with a universal ban on
all political activity in the country.

”It (the junta) does not seem to understand democracy.
Dissolving parties is not the answer,” says Giles. ”It has succeeded
in disenfranchising 16 million people who wanted the TRT. They will be
angry and bitter.”

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