ASIA HAND Smoke, mirrors and lies
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - As the smoke and debris settle on Thailand's recent street chaos, the
propaganda wars have begun in earnest as competing sides look for a tactical
edge in the political conflict's inevitable next round. So far it appears Prime
Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's embattled coalition government has won the upper
Exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra has in interviews told foreign news
outlets - including the BBC and CNN - that the Thai military killed and
secretly carted away the bodies of an undisclosed number of his red shirt
followers on April 13, when troops cracked down on anti-government protests in
a pre-dawn operation on the streets of Bangkok.
The government and military have maintained that nobody was
killed in the melee, though scores were injured and taken to hospital. Thaksin
has claimed a conspiracy of censorship among local broadcast and print media,
the former largely controlled by the state, but the latter offering a wide
array of pro- and anti-government coverage and opinion, including of the recent
Thaksin and his spin doctors have bid to co-opt the potent symbolism of the
bloody May 1992 military crackdown, when over 200 pro-democracy demonstrators
went missing and nearly 17 years later activist groups claim are still
unaccounted for by the military.
During that past crackdown, the military blacked out the local broadcast media
and pressured print publications to censor their coverage. The night of the
crackdown, many media members were rounded up at central Bangkok's Royal Hotel
and held in virtual detention while soldiers opened fire on demonstrators.
After their release, reporters saw blood and bullets, but no bodies, in the
This time, local and international media were present and filmed the exchange,
with some reporters even embedded with the troops. International wire agency
and local print reports, which included graphic images of bloodied protesters
and reports from hospitals that received the injured, have not corroborated
Thaksin's claims. The influential Bangkok Post ran a front-page story lauding
the military for professionalism and restraint.
The exiled Thaksin's apparently bogus claims underline his movement's vigorous
propaganda efforts to sway international opinion in his favor. His claims also
hint that his United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest
group was tasked with creating a situation of anomie specifically aimed at
luring soldiers into opening fire on their red-shirted supporters to galvanize
international support for his supposed pro-democracy cause.
Reports that Thaksin's family members left the country days before the unrest
reached its chaotic crescendo would also seem to belie UDD co-leader claims
that the rallies organically spun out of control, driven by stick-wielding and
Molotov cocktail-hurling mobs imbued with the spirit of democratic change. So,
too, does a national reconciliation bill tabled before the recent unrest by the
Thaksin-affiliated opposition Peua Thai party, which suspiciously and perhaps
still ominously includes an amnesty clause for political actors and acts
committed from the September 19, 2006, coup to May 5 of this year.
The exiled Thaksin and his in-country media operatives had before the recent
street chaos achieved some success in selling to international audiences their
UDD movement as a pro-democracy cause. They have consistently claimed Abhisit's
elected coalition government was installed by behind-the-scenes military
maneuvering and that a wider aristocracy has long retarded Thailand's
That message has been dutifully perpetuated by Thaksin's foreign media
advisors, including the Hong Kong-based Samuel Moon, who claims on Thaksin's
Building a Better Future Foundation's website to have worked for the Economist,
Dow Jones and, through his own company, in partnership with Businessweek.
Certain of those media groups have shown strong editorial sympathy for
Thaksin's supposed democratic cause.
One UDD organizer told this reporter that he had "virtually written" The
Economist's critical cover story about the Thai monarchy, which was banned by
authorities from entering Thailand. The same source had previously worked as a
fixer for foreign broadcasters in Thailand, including al-Jazeera, and has been
in consistent contact with Asia Times Online to provide the UDD's side of
breaking news events.
Many foreign reporters have perpetuated the simplistic notion put forward by
Thaksin's spin doctors that Thailand's is a rural poor versus urban elite
struggle, with the billionaire Thaksin the champion of the former. To be sure,
that perception became a reality in the minds of many Thais after being
bombarded relentlessly with Thaksin's pro-poor messages over state-controlled
television, where over 80% of Thais receive their news, during his six years in
His actual spending policies, including government-backed corporate bailouts,
in baht terms heavily favored indebted Sino-Thai industrialists and property
developers over the poor rural farmers he showered with village development
funds and a cheap health care scheme that was largely in place before he
assumed power and heavily marketed by his top advisors.
Longer-term observers have rightly couched Thaksin's pro-democracy claims
within the former leader's established anti-democratic history, including his
propensities for cracking down on the press, bypassing parliamentary processes
and undermining the independent checking and balancing institutions by the 1997
constitution he and his supporters now claim to promote. Thailand's conflict is
more accurately portrayed as a struggle between competing elites, both able to
mobilize disruptive masses to their political calls, jockeying for position
ahead of an uncertain royal succession.
Thaksin appeared to lose one crucial front in the propaganda war when the US
government publicly condemned the UDD's acts of violence in Bangkok. His media
operatives were known to be just as active among the Bangkok-based diplomatic
community, pressing their pro-democracy claims, in particular to US diplomats.
The United Kingdom cast its diplomatic vote on those assertions last year when
it canceled Thaksin's visa after he was convicted on criminal
Thaksin's image as a persecuted democrat will have been undermined by recent
events, including his wild calls from exile for a "people's revolution" and
"national uprising" that sparked the scenes of violence and destruction
broadcast across the world.
While some Western governments may have harbored doubts about possible
political motivations behind Thaksin's corruption conviction, Thai officials
will make a stronger future case with their extradition requests on potential
terrorism and sedition charges. The government revoked Thaksin's Thai passport
on Wednesday, though the former premier is known to have acquired travel
documents from the new independent state of Montenegro.
To be sure, the conservative establishment Thaksin now claims to be up against
has its own, if less sophisticated, political spin machine. Privy Councilor
General Pichitr Kullavanijaya claimed to local media days before the UDD ramped
up its protests that former US ambassador to Thailand Ralph "Skip" Boyce had
shared information with him indicating that Thaksin had laundered 100 billion
baht (US$2.8 billion) through Cayman Island bank accounts and was using the
funds to organize the UDD's protests.
Thaksin strongly denied the charges and filed a defamation suit against the
royal advisor in a Thai court - despite Thaksin's repeated claims from exile
that he could not receive a fair trial in the Thai judiciary. Former ambassador
Boyce has told numerous people that he has no idea why he was cited as a
knowledgeable source about where Thaksin may or may not have made deposits, and
that he has no such information.
There was also widespread skepticism that conservative forces may have cooked
up the alleged assassination plot against Privy Councilor Charnchai Likitjitta,
to counter claims made by UDD speakers the royal advisor, among others, was
behind the 2006 coup. Captain Chakkrit Sekhanant, a navy officer with alleged
links to another top royal advisor, was released after being named by another
military officer supposedly involved in the plot. It wasn't immediately clear
that any of the suspects were Thaksin supporters.
Now, even with the UDD's suppression and its top leaders held in police
custody, Abhisit has gone underground at an undisclosed location to emphasize
to reporters the still grave threat UDD supporters represent to his personal
security. The embattled premier has in recent days agreed to speak to certain
foreign broadcasters, but only by telephone and not in person because it would
compromise the sanctity of his secret location.
Abhisit earlier aimed to assure the international community that his
government's installation late last year signaled a restoration of stability
after the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) street protest
movement had for months paralyzed the workings of government and culminated in
the seizure and closure of Bangkok's main international and domestic airports.
The television images of red-shirted protesters violently assaulting Abhisit's
car twice in one week, and the UDD's extraordinary disruption of the
Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) summit meeting last weekend, has
sent strongly the opposite message. International media universally referred to
the ASEAN breakdown as "embarrassing" and "humiliating" for Abhisit's
government and an indication of his weak leadership.
The fact that his government has now maintained a state of emergency a full two
days after the protests were wound down and swept up, and while crowds rivaling
the size of the UDD's recent rallies rollick and hurl water playfully in
Bangkok's streets in celebration of the Buddhist New Year, is raising new
questions about whether Abhisit or army commander General Anupong Paochinda is
really calling the shots.
With all the propaganda, misinformation and image-management dispensed on both
sides of the political divide, competing histories of recent events will only
obfuscate further the mess and contribute more ammunition to the next round of
Thailand's dangerously escalating and wholly unresolved political conflict.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.