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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 19, 2009
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 Thaksin Shinawatra.

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 divided nation.

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.

Debatable democrats
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 pro-democracy movement.

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 royal ears.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be reached at swcrispin@atimes.com.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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