ASIA HAND A battle won in Thailand's 'war' By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - While red-shirted protesters manhandled a government security
official they had handcuffed and temporarily taken hostage, former premier
Thaksin Shinawatra placed a call from exile to his trusted United Front for
Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) leader, Jakrapob Penkair, who reported
back on events from an air-conditioned bus at the back of the UDD's main rally
The two shared a laugh over the UDD's siege of the Ministry of Interior earlier
that Sunday and briefly discussed international media strategies. Jakrapob was
the reputed brains behind the brinksmanship of Thailand's escalated political
chaos, which in
recent days developed into scenes of street violence not seen since the
breakdown in law and order that eventuated in the fateful military crackdown of
The United States-educated former government spokesman Jakrapob was the
self-professed chief strategist for prosecuting the "people's revolution" the
exiled Thaksin called for during his recent video phone-ins, which on April 8
drew over 100,000 red-shirted supporters. Thaksin's rally cry for insurrection
sparked wild scenes of unrest in Bangkok and acts of disobedience targeting
symbols of central authority in several provincial capitals.
Jakrapob told Asia Times Online on Sunday that any military crackdown against
UDD protesters would be met with a "vigorous self-defense" that could result in
"civil war". That dire scenario was averted on Tuesday when troops surrounded
the group's main protest stage outside Government House and forced UDD leaders
to disperse their remaining few thousand loyal supporters and surrender to
Thailand's security situation deteriorated rapidly after the UDD abandoned its
earlier claims to non-violence and ramped up the intensity of its protests. UDD
supporters left a chaotic mark by blockading major roadways in Bangkok,
breaking up an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in
Pattaya where several world leaders were scheduled to attend and violently
confronting security forces after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a
state of emergency on Sunday.
Government and military officials claimed there were no casualties during a
pre-dawn operation on Monday to clear protesters from a main Bangkok road
intersection. An estimated over 80 protestors were injured in the clash, with
over a score severely hurt, according to local news reports. Thaksin rebuked
those accounts to international news outlets, claiming that the local press was
complicit in a government cover-up and that "some" red-shirted protestors were
killed in the melee.
In an SMS text message to international media late on Monday, Jakrapob
characterized the government's version of events as "all bullshit" and that the
UDD claimed there were "a lot of dead people". In a follow-up message on Monday
morning, just before the UDD's surrender, Jakrapob said that "the local media
is incorporated with [the government and] trying to make the whole country
blindly believe that nothing serious is happening".
The implications of recent events are serious for Thailand's battered and
bruised democracy, as the UDD effectively portrayed and pilloried Abhisit's
government as propped up by the military and other anti-democratic forces.
Despite his frantic last gasps, the 41-year-old, English-speaking Jakrapob
distinguished himself throughout the chaos from the UDD's less-polished stage
orators and some say he could emerge as the Thaksin-aligned opposition Peua
Thai party's next prime ministerial candidate.
That assumes that Thailand holds future elections and that the military under
army commander General Anupong Paochinda stays in the barracks. With the
rally's dispersal and its co-leaders' arrests, the history and interpretation
of the UDD's escalation and the state's response will be hotly debated in the
days and weeks ahead. So, too, will the reason and timing behind Thaksin's
surprise lurch towards full-blown confrontation, including his public
broadsides against members of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's advisory Privy Council.
One UDD insider says Jakrapob was instrumental in pushing the former premier in
that controversial direction and that Thaksin's willingness to publicly
criticize royal advisors was crucial to the movement's ability to mobilize the
masses that gathered in front of Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda's
private residence on April 8 to demand his and other royal advisors'
Many royalists interpreted Thaksin's and the UDD's revolutionary rally calls -
which were made within earshot of the royal family's Bangkok palace - as a
veiled threat to the monarchy and a harbinger of the challenge both Thaksin and
Jakrapob could mount to the institution's role in Thai society after the highly
revered 81-year-old Bhumibol eventually passes from the scene. Significantly,
the military positioned its largest contingent around the palace when it
deployed troops to restore order on Sunday.
Thaksin's recent bombshell allegations that Prem and his close associate
General Surayud Chulanont were among the masterminds behind the 2006 coup
mirror those first made by Jakrapob, who broke local taboos during the
military-appointed administration by publicly accusing the royal advisory body
of acting outside of its legal mandate.
Prem has consistently denied the charges and Jakrapob was briefly imprisoned
for leading what was then a less potent anti-government protest movement that
in July 2007 demonstrated raucously in front of Prem's private residence. It
wasn't readily apparent then that Thaksin supported that short-lived protest
movement, but Jakrapob successfully shifted Thailand's political debate by
directly implicating privy councilors in the coup.
Thaksin's previous reluctance to confront royally affiliated figures was
underscored when Jakrapob was knocked from his ministerial position in a
democratically elected, Thaksin-aligned government in 2008 after a senior
police official filed lese majeste charges against him. According to a
well-placed source, Thaksin moved publicly to distance himself from his trusted
aide in light of the royally-tinged allegations, but remained in close private
That was when Thaksin was still bidding through behind-the-scenes negotiation
for an elite settlement that would allow him to recover US$2.2 billion in
family-owned assets now frozen in Thai banks in exchange for a vow to
permanently stay out of politics, according to sources familiar with the
Thaksin had been engaged in a secret mediation process with the palace and
military led by a European interlocutor to find a compromise solution to the
country's political impasse, according to Jakrapob. He told Asia Times Online
that the foreign-led mediation process was a non-starter and that any
negotiations should be held directly between Thais.
Those negotiations reportedly stalled because of the military's unwillingness
to negotiate and the government's invigorated efforts to have Thaksin
extradited to serve a two-year prison sentence for criminal conflict of
interest charges handed down by a Thai court in 2008.
It's still unclear whether those stalled talks drove Thaksin to embrace
Jakrapob's more radical vision for the country's political future. Thaksin's
recent rally cries for a national uprising against aristocracy and the need for
"true democracy" have echoed Jakrapob's long-held views that certain royal
bodies should have a diminished future role in the country's democracy.
Nor is it clear that the UDD's provocative calls and tilt towards brinksmanship
will enhance or undermine Thaksin's future negotiating position vis-a-vis his
now publicly identified establishment adversaries. One UDD organizer, who
requested anonymity, suggested that Thaksin's calls for a national uprising
were no idle threat and that the protest group could in the weeks ahead stir
more trouble at the provincial level.
He claimed that Thaksin operatives had for the past two years clandestinely
funneled small arms through Cambodia to his supporters in various northeastern
provinces, where Thaksin's grassroots support runs deep. The well-placed source
also said the arms had been moved and distributed with the help of former
Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) contacts, an ideologically driven insurgent
group active in the 1960s and 1970s that frequently criticized the royal family
during its years of armed resistance.
The group was disbanded in the 1980s, but some of its former student leaders
were among Thaksin's top aides while he was in government. There are no
indications Thaksin would support an armed insurgency to push his supposedly
democratic agenda, but his vow to return to the country if the military cracked
down on his supporters has raised new security questions. Abhisit vaguely
acknowledged at the height of the recent unrest that the UDD had stockpiled
weapons, but he failed to elaborate if that was only in Bangkok or more broadly
across the country.
Those claims cast ominous new light on Prem's recent publicly stated support
for the establishment of a new army command to oversee the northeastern
region's internal security, which the 88-year-old former army commander
characterized as his "last dream", according to news reports. The 2nd Army
Region, based in Nakorn Ratchasima around two hours by road from Bangkok, is
currently responsible for the expansive and decidedly pro-Thaksin rural region,
which in the 1960s and 1970s was home to several pockets of CPT armed
One seasoned observer saw shades of the CPT's revolutionary rhetoric in
Jakrapob's on-stage broadsides against aristocracy and calls for a diminished
royal role in the country's political future. During an April 8 speech,
Jakrapob said on stage that "privy councilors see the country as their treasure
and the people as their flowers" - while asserting that none of the royal
advisors, comprised mainly of former high-ranking soldiers, had done as much
for the country as the democratically elected Thaksin.
Yet Jakrapob's preferred analogy would likely be with former Thai premier and
statesman Pridi Banomyang, the civilian revolutionary who orchestrated the
overthrow of Thailand's absolute monarchy in 1932 and a man Jakrapob frequently
upheld as a democratic role model during several of his on-stage soliloquies
and poetry readings.
Pridi later fled into exile, where he eventually died, after he was accused by
military leaders of assassinating King Ananda Mahidol, the reining King
Bhumibol's elder brother. In the chaotic aftermath of the UDD's self-proclaimed
"final showdown" with the forces of aristocracy, and with those establishment
forces so far still standing, it's a political fate some believe Jakrapob and
Thaksin are destined to share.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org