Page 2 of 2 ASIA HAND My friend is my enemy in Thailand
By Shawn W Crispin
Sondhi stirred a hornet's nest last year when, from his protest stage, he
accused Anupong of receiving money from Thaksin to pay for his children's
school fees. He did the same over the weekend when he alleged that palace
insider Viriya Chavakul, who has publicly defended Thaksin's loyalty to the
crown, played a role in the assassination plot against Sondhi. She strongly
denied the charges and the palace quickly moved to correct press reports that
referred to Viriya as Queen Sirikit's lady-in-waiting.
Questions also surround the apparent fall from favor of top royal advisor and
Sondhi ally Piya Malakul, who according to one royal insider hasn't attended
functions at the palace for over a month. Piya is known to be close to Queen
Sirikit and was often the lone
advisor to accompany Bhumibol when he previously took outdoor walks around his
seaside palace in Hua Hin.
One palace insider says that Piya was the top advisor who suggested that Queen
Sirikit attend the funeral services of a PAD protester killed during a melee
with police last October 7, indicating to some tacit royal backing for the PAD.
Piya was also accused by Thaksin of playing host to a dinner at his residence
in May 2006 where the coup against his government was allegedly planned. Piya
has strongly denied the charges, claiming no military officials were present at
The PAD has already indicated it will launch new street protests against any
constitutional reforms that lead to an amnesty of the 110 politicians - with
the notable exception of the criminally charged Thaksin - banned from politics
for five years by a military appointed Constitution Tribunal in May 2007. The
risk for Abhisit and the Democrats is that the PAD lumps together their
coalition government with the military, as UDD leaders had from their protest
That could be an easier argument to make after Abhisit's declaration of a state
of emergency and the military's willingness under Anupong to mop up the UDD
after refusing to implement similar decrees announced last year under two
separate Thaksin-aligned governments. The breakdown of Abhisit's personal
security detail showed clearly that his government lacks command control over
key sections of the national police force.
Thaksin was a former police official and is believed to still hold sway over
certain senior officers. Many junior-level police officials attended UDD
rallies while off duty, with some even changing into their red shirts while
still at their respective police stations, according to a source familiar with
the situation. That's raised concerns in certain government circles that
Thaksin supporters' call to arms is no idle threat.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayakorn said that the premier's inner circle
now viewed the UDD's attack on Abhisit's car on April 12 at the Ministry of
Interior as a well-coordinated assassination attempt. He says a review of
wide-angle security film of the incident shows that men with masks and guns
were positioned on the perimeter of the attack, apparently waiting for
frontline protesters to break through the car's bulletproof windows.
With police neutrality in doubt, army chief of staff Prayuth has taken charge
of Abhisit's personal security and his top aides have been appointed
bodyguards. Some diplomats here believe that Prayuth's role in the efficient
suppression of the UDD riots may have saved Abhisit's government, which was
teetering after UDD protesters stormed the venue of an Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit meeting with world leaders in attendance.
The military has over Abhisit's five-month tenure sometimes marched to its own
drummer, though by most reports it stepped in line when he declared a state of
emergency and insisted the crackdown would result in no casualties. Military
insiders say the top brass are wholly cognizant of how unpopular another coup
would be and prefer the political status quo as long as their budgets keep
flowing and a conflict in the south involving Muslim insurgents is left under
the military and not moved to civilian command.
Panitan says that while the military's budget has risen substantially since the
2006 coup, overall outlays are still only 1.8% of gross domestic product, well
below the global average for maintaining a modern fighting force of 300,000
men. Panitan, a former professor of security affairs who has trained several
senior ranking military officers, has according to diplomats emerged as one of
Abhisit's main point men in liaising with the military and deciphering its
moves and motivations.
What's clear is that the UDD's unexpected show of force has put Thai politics
on a new trajectory. The ruling Democrats are now widely expected to dissolve
parliament and call for new elections by early to mid-2010, coinciding with a
forecast up-tick in the economy, which is now set to contract by 5% this year.
One Democrat party deputy leader suggests the government is already starting to
plot vote-getting strategies for new polls, including possible plans to
redistribute land designated as national parks to over 2.2 million villagers
who still hold title deeds, and another to grant Thai citizenship to over 2
million people in limbo situated in border areas.
The Democrats also clearly hope to capitalize on a newfound populism, including
a 2,000-baht (US$57) handout scheme for over 11 million low-income earners
around the country. Ramped up fiscal spending designated to cushion the blow of
the global economic crisis started disbursements last month and politicians of
coalition partner Bhum Jai Thai party are expected to be major beneficiaries
through the ministries they control.
The Bhum Jai Thai party's behind-the-scenes leader, Newin Chidchob, is now
allegedly bidding to place his political associates onto the board of state-run
and now loss-making Thai Airways, according to people familiar with the
situation. Any number of those policies could open the coalition to damaging
corruption allegations lodged by the Thaksin-aligned opposition Peua Thai
party, similar to the land reform scandal that eventually brought down a
Democrat-led government in 1994.
One diplomat read the Ministry of Finance's recent announcement to cut 200
billion baht from the 2010 budget because of revenue shortfalls also as a
political strategy to keep Bhum Jai Thai at bay and on side until new polls are
held, with a wink that bigger-ticket infrastructure projects would be initiated
by a newly elected government. That avowed big spending could be enough to lure
several Peua Thai politicians to defect to Bhum Jai Thai, as several were
reportedly poised to do before the UDD ramped up its protests.
That's exactly the sort of old-fashioned politicking both the UDD and PAD say
they stand firmly against and could provide fodder for more destabilizing
demonstrations in the months ahead. But if Abhisit successfully oversees
constitutional reforms and a mass amnesty, which with shifting political
allegiances could benefit his coalition as much as the Thaksin-aligned Peua
Thai, those fractured street movements may yet represent the fringe of an
emerging new political order.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at email@example.com.