ASIA HAND A desperate plea for amnesty
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - Hoisting a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, tens of thousands of
red-shirted street protesters converged on the Grand Palace in central Bangkok
on Monday, calling on Thailand's widely revered monarch to bestow forgiveness
on their movement's patron, the exiled and criminally convicted former premier
The pro-Thaksin United Front Against Dictatorship for Democracy (UDD) mobilized
the masses to submit a petition, purportedly signed by as many as 3.5 million
Thais who believe Thaksin should be granted a royal pardon for his conviction
on criminal conflict of interest charges related to a 2003 land deal brokered
between his former government and since divorced wife.
The Office of His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary handed the
document over to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government to review and
offer a legal recommendation on the petition. No timetable has been set for a
royal response - which may or may not be forthcoming - but the lead-up to the
petition's handover generated new waves of political controversy in the deeply
Critics of the UDD-led signature drive claim the motion puts undue political
pressure on the monarchy, which is broadly forbidden by Thai law to be involved
in politics. Government officials and legal scholars have said the monarch
cannot legally grant an amnesty to the fugitive from justice Thaksin because he
has neither admitted guilt nor served any part of his two-year jail sentence.
Thaksin first called on King Bhumibol to offer him amnesty during a video
phone-in to a crowd of his supporters assembled at a Bangkok sports stadium
last November. Then he said, ''Only royal kindness can get me home." After the
petition's handover to a palace official on Monday, he said from Dubai in the
United Arab Emirates in another video phone-in address: "Whenever a conflict
has arisen, there has only been His Majesty who has been able to solve it."
UDD spokesman Sean Boonpracong told Asia Times Online that his movement had to
resort to a "non-legal cultural recourse", when centuries ago royal subjects
took their complaints and grievances for redress to the absolute monarch by
ringing a bell in front of the palace, because Thaksin's supporters could not
receive fair treatment in what he claimed are "politicized" Thai courts.
"We will abide by the king's wisdom and verdict," said Boonpracong, producing a
traditional brass bell from his shoulder bag. "We acknowledge there is a holy
bond between the people and the king." He claimed the UDD had received
back-channel "signals" that the monarch would consider signing an amnesty, but
that "Abhisit and the patronage system" aimed to subvert the petition through a
strict reading of the law.
A royal pardon for Thaksin would pave the way for his return to Thailand before
new general elections, which political analysts believe will be held some time
next year, coinciding with an expected up-tick in the economy. That would be
anathema to the various political interest groups that united to push for
Thaksin's and his subsequent aligned governments' ousters, but are now divided
among themselves as they compete for power and influence in what some foreign
academics are already referring to as Thailand's "post-Thaksin" era.
The UDD's petition drive represents a shift in strategic tack, one that
envisions a repeat of King Bhumibol's move to restore order through the
establishment of a national unity government in the wake of the 1992 crisis
where the military opened fire and by some estimates killed over 200
pro-democracy street protestors.
Many analysts and diplomats believe the UDD aimed strategically to create a
similar situation of anomie and provoke a retaliatory military response in
April when it ramped up unrest in Bangkok and chaotically disrupted a regional
meeting attended by world leaders in the Thai seaside town of Pattaya.
Instead, the military put down the protests in Bangkok with what many foreign
diplomats characterized as professionalism and restraint, while the UDD's claim
to non-violent struggle was contradicted by images of violence that were
broadcast around the world. UDD spokesman Boonpracong acknowledges that the
April protests damaged the red shirt movement's image, including crucially in
the eyes of US officials.
A delegation of US officials led by US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt
Campbell met for two hours with UDD co-leaders at the US ambassador's residence
coinciding with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visit to Thailand last
month to attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting. UDD leaders
impressed on the Americans that the Pattaya chaos was instigated by a
blue-shirted pro-government group and that the Bangkok violence was a "glitch
and not a pattern", according to Boonpracong.
Boonpracong claimed that the US delegation said it supported the Thai people's
desire for "more democracy", but that popular participation should come only
through "peaceful means". In the wake of the April chaos and crackdown, when
several UDD leaders were detained and at least one fled into exile after
threatening armed revolt, certain UDD stalwarts hoped to de-emphasize the
protest group's reliance on Thaksin's symbolism and evolve into a more genuine
In that rhetorical direction, in a recent six-point declaration, the UDD
claimed that its ultimate goal was the establishment of a "true democracy that
places the king as the head of the kingdom, whereby political power belongs
entirely to the people". The statement also claims the UDD would only use
"peaceful methods" and demanded the implementation of "real rule of law ...
whereby equal justice for all Thais must have no double standard".
It's not clear if Thaksin, who undermined the press, bypassed parliamentary
processes and unleashed with impunity a spree of extra-judicial killings during
his six-year tenure, had any role in the said document's drafting. But four
months after the April unrest and some soul-searching among UDD leaders, the
popular movement is still in the main a personality cult driven by the aim of
restoring Thaksin's power.
Critics say it's telling that while the UDD calls broadly for equal treatment
before the law for all Thais, the protest movement is simultaneously calling
for preferential treatment by requesting a royal pardon for Thaksin's criminal
conviction. While the UDD cribs tactical pages from other global people's power
movements - including the famous petition drive in the Philippines that
eventually catapulted the humble and religiously devout Corazon Aquino to power
over the dictator Ferdinand Marcos - in comparison its movement and its exiled
leader lack moral authority.
To some observers, the UDD has bid to overcome that deficit through claims it
is battling to supplant an "aristocracy" that has long retarded Thailand's
democratic and socio-economic development. In that direction, in the run-up to
the April unrest, UDD leaders from their protest stages launched scathing
attacks against certain royally affiliated institutions, including members of
the Privy Council, the royal advisory body appointed by the monarch.
While the UDD leadership claims to hold the widely revered King Bhumibol in the
highest regard, many royalists believe the movement's ultimate aim is to
downgrade the monarchy's role in Thai society after the current monarch passes
and an uncertain transition unfolds.
While Bhumibol has applied his moral authority to mediate past political
conflicts, most visibly in 1992, more recently he has signaled the judiciary
should play a more prominent role. That's the role courts play in functioning
democracies and is likely why Thaksin's petition for a pardon will fall on deaf
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.