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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 9, 2010
Reds ready to rumble in Thailand
By Nelson Rand and Chandler Vandergrift

UDON THANI and BANGKOK - Thailand's United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) red-shirted protest movement is poised to launch a renewed campaign to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's wobbly coalition government. The protests promise new rounds of instability after a period of relative political calm and threaten to derail the country's still tentative economic recovery.

The new push will commence on Monday with a planned rally of 10,000 protesters around a royal privy councilor's allegedly ill-gotten land in a provincial forest reserve and eventuate in what UDD leaders contend will be a "decisive" mass rally in Bangkok later in the month. The UDD's symbolic leader, exiled former

  

premier Thaksin Shinawatra, wrote in a Twitter message to his supporters on Friday that soothsayers he had consulted foresaw violence on the horizon in 2010.

Since last April, when the UDD stormed and disrupted an Asian summit meeting with global leaders in attendance in Pattaya and later fought running street battles with Thai security forces in the capital, Bangkok, the movement has undergone what its proponents claim has been a major transformation. The overhaul aims to establish a better-organized and more unified movement, in part to avoid freelancers acting independently, as UDD leaders claim occurred during April's mayhem in Bangkok, and also to bolster its support from the general population after losing popularity in the wake of that meltdown.

The changes have entailed a more organized leadership structure, a formalized membership system, a fundraising program, weekend training sessions in the provinces on democratic participation and a growing media network that includes 30 community radio stations, 10 newspapers, numerous websites and a television station that boasts 10 million regular viewers.

According to the UDD's international spokesman, Sean Boonpracong, the new leadership and organizational structure have been designed as a "big tent" in which regional red-shirted associate groups and others sympathetic to the movement's call for social justice are all accommodated under one unified UDD banner. While various groups' ideologies and strategies may differ, they are now purportedly united in a common struggle to topple the Democrat Party-led coalition, which many of them point out was not directly elected by the people.

The new structure, Boonpracong said, aimed to widen the UDD's support base while distancing the movement from the actions of certain associate groups, including the Rak Chiang Mai 51, a red-shirted group known for its thuggish actions, including the violent disruption of a gay-rights parade and alleged murder of a rival yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) supporter's father.

Although the UDD's main support base is drawn from the northeastern and northern region's rural poor, who benefited under the populist policies of Thaksin during his six-year premiership, certain factions are bidding to disassociate the movement's professed wider democratic aims from Thaksin's personal political agenda. Boonpracong, for one, claimed that the UDD was fast becoming a more independent grassroots political and social movement.

Certain academics and analysts agree. "They have tapped the sentiments of tens of millions of Thais, in both Bangkok and the provinces, and their message captures those Thais' aspirations to see a very different Thailand emerge," said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow and Thailand specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

The UDD's expanding media network now regularly spreads messages of democratic disenfranchisement, economic inequality and judicial discrimination, ills it believes a Thaksin-aligned government could resolve if allowed to govern. Critics note such claims conveniently overlook Thaksin's less than democratic record and his own alleged judicial interventions during his six controversial years in power.

"Our main message is that there is no justice - that there are more than two standards used," said Kwanchai Poipana, a UDD leader from Udon Thani who runs the pro-Thaksin community radio station 97.5 FM. "When the red-shirts do something we are always guilty, when the yellow-shirts do something they are never guilty," he said.

UDD supporters frequently point to the PAD's seizure of Bangkok's two airports in 2008 and the fact that the group's leaders have yet to be charged, while UDD leaders were arrested and detained after the military put down their violent April revolt. "Taking over an airport is a crime anywhere in the world," Kwanchai said.

As the UDD flexes its new organizational muscles, the specter of a violent rerun of April's mayhem looms. The UDD now has about 1,000 security guards, including a group of Bangkok-based Ramkhamhaeng University students trained by the UDD to maintain order and protect their protesters from outside attack, according to Boonpracong. It is also clearly bidding to create splits in military unity.

War and peace
At previous UDD rallies, uniformed paramilitary rangers, or thahan phran, have also acted as guards. Some of these soldiers are known to hail from Pak Thong Chai in central Nakorn Ratchasima province and have ties to controversial army specialist Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol, known more commonly as Seh Daeng.

During the PAD protests of 2008, Seh Daeng accurately predicted bomb attacks against PAD security guards and trained dozens of youths in combat to counter the PAD. After a grenade was launched at the PAD's most recent rally in November, Seh Daeng said the attack was carried out by an "unidentified" armed group and that it was only intended as a deterrent, not as an attempt to cause violence.

He has consistently denied involvement in the various bomb attacks and no evidence has linked him directly to the blasts other than his timely warnings. In 2008, he was relegated to a military position promoting public fitness at marketplaces and is currently embroiled in numerous court battles for disciplinary violations, including an unauthorized trip to Cambodia in November to meet with Thaksin.

That trip was especially sensitive in light of unconfirmed reports of arms-smuggling from Cambodia to UDD supporters in bordering northeastern provinces - reports UDD leaders have denied. Nonetheless, they have fueled speculation that the UDD may be preparing for an armed struggle in the provinces if their next round of protests in Bangkok is violently suppressed by the armed forces. A high-ranking Thai military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, would neither deny nor confirm the accuracy of such reports, saying, "It's a very porous border, it's easy to get things across."

While core UDD leaders deny they are planning armed struggle, international spokesman Boonpracong admits that radical elements may be emerging which "may not agree with the UDD's peaceful measures". After April's failed uprising, UDD co-leader Jakrapob Penkair, who has since fled into exile, told news agencies that the UDD was willing to launch an "armed struggle" to achieve its goals.

While the UDD prepares to ramp up its protests, Abhisit's government is holding firm, despite perceptions that his Democrat party-led coalition would - despite signs of economic recovery - still come up short in new elections against the Thaksin-aligned Puea Thai party. His government is expected to vigorously resist the protests, as it did last year through frequent invocations of the Internal Security Act, which gives authorities the power to deploy troops, ban gatherings and impose curfews in the name of law and order.

The military effectively suppressed April's UDD protest, but questions are emerging about possible cracks in the chain of command. While Thailand's military has long been factionalized along graduating class lines, it is now also believed to be divided among competing units, according to experts. The 21st Infantry Regiment of the Royal Armament, more commonly known as the Queen's Guard, is now perceived as the dominant unit and is led by its former commander, army commander in chief General Anupong Paochinda.

"The cause of the current fracture derives from an upset in the promotion line - denying certain senior military deemed to be close to Thaksin their right to be promoted," said Paul Chambers, a senior research fellow specializing in Thai military affairs at Heidelberg University. "The new phenomenon with regard to [Thai] military factions is that unit, rather than class, dominates the military," he added.

Anupong and his Queen's Guard clique, including Defense Minister Prawit Wongsawan and the deputy army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, are expected to maintain their backing for Abhisit and steer clear of another coup, according to analysts. This is in part to ensure a smooth succession at the army's top from Anupong to Prayuth when the former faces mandatory retirement in September 2010.

At the same time, the UDD is playing up the prospect that factions inside the military could break the chain of command if the UDD's rally is forcibly dispersed. "If the army starts to suppress us, there are factions of the military that will fight back," claimed one UDD leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If there is another coup, it will be violent."

As an indication of those fissures, the UDD points to the dozens of retired military officials, including more than 50 Thaksin classmates from the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School and special forces soldiers, who recently joined the Puea Thai party. "The moves by soldiers into Puea Thai [and other parties] can only further destabilize Thailand," said Chambers. Other analysts note that Anupong has strategically placed known loyalists in top command positions, including those who were instrumental in past coups.

While UDD leaders insist their campaign will be peaceful, they also indicate that their protest movement is near a breaking point over what they perceive as a series of non-democratic power grabs and partisan judicial decisions. "We fight through peaceful means," explained pro-UDD radio broadcaster Kwanchai, while suggestively placing a pistol on a nearby table. "But if the government uses force, we will fight back."

Nelson Rand is a Bangkok-based journalist with a master's degree in Asia-Pacific policy studies. He can be reached at nelsonrand@hotmail.com. Chandler Vandergrift is a consultant specializing in conflict analysis and management in Southeast Asia and is based in Bangkok. He can be reached at chandlerv@gmail.com

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)



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