More turmoil in beleaguered Bangkok
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - Stability in Thailand took another hit on Monday when thousands of
anti-government street protesters, led by the People's Alliance for Democracy
(PAD), laid temporary siege to parliament, the Finance Ministry, the
metropolitan police headquarters and the government's makeshift offices at a
The PAD attack prevented a scheduled joint-parliamentary session between the
Senate and Lower House from convening and marked the second time since October
the protest group had occupied the legislature's grounds. The anti-government
group has occupied Government House since August 26, in a bid to topple
Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's coalition government.
Police forces dispersed with tear gas a similar mass protest at parliament on
October 7, resulting in one death, hundreds of injuries and an unusually overt
show of royal support for the protest movement, witnessed in Queen Sirikit's
attendance at the victim's funeral and offer to pay injured protesters' medical
bills. By law the Thai royal family is above politics, but PAD leaders have
claimed through their protests that former premier Thaksin Shinawatra
threatened the monarchy's role in Thai society.
PAD leaders claimed before Monday's march that the parliamentary session aimed
to ram through controversial constitutional amendments, including an amnesty
for senior executives of the disbanded Thai Rak Thai party that would pave the
way for the exiled and fugitive from Thai justice Thaksin to return to power.
House speaker Chai Chidchob denied the charge, but if the changes were made
they would have come just days or weeks before a highly anticipated
Constitution Court decision on whether to dissolve the ruling People's Power
Party (PPP) and two of its junior coalition partners and brought the legal
legitimacy of a guilty verdict into question.
The protest group also claimed that the proposed amendments included new
provisions to limit the powers of privy councilors, which are appointed to
their advisory posts by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Thaksin's supporters have
accused the august body's president, Prem Tinsulanonda, a former army commander
and prime minister, of masterminding the 2006 coup. He has consistently denied
Meanwhile, Somchai, Thaksin's brother-in-law, said from an international
meeting in Peru that he would neither resign nor use force to disperse the
protesters, who after occupying parliament redirected their protest to the
prime minister's makeshift offices at Don Muang airport and cut short an
emergency cabinet meeting. He also said from abroad that the military would not
stage a coup in response to the PAD's attacks.
One government insider said that the attacks represented a "disaster" for the
PAD because they failed to galvanize the 100,000 supporters they had predicted.
The Associated Press estimated there were between 25,000 and 33,000
protestors at the various government installations they laid siege to. The
government source doubted that was enough to hold simultaneously any two
locations and that the government's strategy going forward would be to
"demonize the PAD" and "make them look like a joke".
Whether the military agrees to adopt that strategy, however, is another
question. Although Somchai concurrently serves as defense minister, his
authority over the top brass is at best tenuous. Army Commander General Anupong
Paochinda suggested on national television after the October 7 violence that
his government should consider stepping down to take responsibility for the
Anupong also refused to implement a state of emergency declared by then prime
minister Samak Sundaravej in early September after PAD and pro-government
supporters clashed in the streets of Bangkok, leaving one dead. At the same
time, Anupong has more recently remained mum while the PAD's main protest site
has been assaulted by a series of grenade and low grade explosive attacks.
Two people were killed and several more injured in separate attacks on November
20 and 22. The PAD has responded by militarizing the Government House protest
site, fortifying its position against drive-by bomb attacks through the
strategic placement of decommissioned public buses with their wheels removed
and military-style netting around moat areas.
Political observers note that Anupong has failed to discipline army Major
General Kattiya Sawasdipol for a series of provocative statements he has made
against the PAD, including a threat last week to use M79 anti-tank rockets to
dislodge protesters from around Government House.
"I would like to say that anyone wanting to join the rally should reserve a
temple for his or her own funeral," Kattiya was quoted saying in The Nation
after last Thursday's grenade attack. "Being united, you will be slain in a
Kattiya has denied responsibility for the recent attacks, but is known to have
provided training to a small group of anti-PAD "warriors". He also openly
advises the pro-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship
(UDD), a pro-government group which since October has held three mass meetings
of red-shirt donning supporters, including this past weekend at a Buddhist
temple in a province adjacent to Bangkok.
The UDD's leaders told its supporters on Sunday to refrain from confronting the
PAD if it moved to take over parliament. However, one of its leaders warned at
the rally that if the PAD surrounded the palace in an attempt to prevent
Somchai as tradition dictates from paying his respects to King Bhumibol during
his upcoming birthday celebrations around December 5, they would not hesitate
to confront the PAD. The PAD has not indicated it plans such a controversial
Despite Kattiya's provocations, Anupong maintains a firm grip on the rank and
file that matter, including those in command positions overseeing Bangkok's
security. Anupong, army chief-of-staff Prayuth Chan-ocha and First Army
Division commander Kanit Sapitak are all bound from their past experience in
the Queen's Regiment.
The government insider says his camp has attempted in recent months to sway to
their "pro-democracy" cause various colonels in control of combat contingents,
including armor and artillery commands, to counteract any attempted coup by
Anupong, but so far has had little success. He estimates there are some 200
such colonel rank military officials across the country, many of which have
been peeved by their demotions or sideways movements while Anupong elevates his
Barring any major and violent clash between the PAD and UDD, the military is
expected to stay in the barracks and, at least overtly, out of politics.
Instead, a highly anticipated Constitution Court decision will decide in the
days or weeks ahead whether to disband Somchai's PPP on electoral fraud charges
and could potentially bid to bring Thailand's escalating conflict to a
The PAD's leadership believes a guilty verdict would pave the way for the
formation of a court-ordered ruling Supreme Council and appointed premier and
Cabinet with authority to pass laws and amend the constitution in line with
their protest demands, including a move backwards towards a half-appointed,
half-elected Lower House of parliament.
Such a decision would consolidate the power of the conservative forces the PAD
represents in the military, bureaucracy, opposition Democrat Party and, at
least symbolically, royal household at Thaksin's and his supporters' expense.
And should the PPP or UDD attempt to mount a protest movement against the
verdict, the military under Anupong, it seems, could likely be counted on to
enforce the decision in the name of upholding the rule of law.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.