ASIA HAND Back to the streets in Bangkok
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - Protesters are on the streets in significant numbers again in the Thai capital, raising the specter of a prolonged period of instability after two years of relative political calm. The popular spark: a blanket amnesty passed by the lower house of parliament that protest groups claim is narrowly aimed at absolving criminally convicted, self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. While the demonstrations have so far focused on opposition to amnesty, the risk is rising they expand into a wider movement geared to topple the government.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, was elected to power in mid-2011 partially on the promise of exonerating Thaksin, who was ousted from power in a 2006 military coup and two years later sentenced to two years in prison on abuse of power charges. From self-imposed exile, Thaksin has
persistently challenged an opposed royal establishment, advanced in politics by the opposition Democrat Party and with significant power centers in the bureaucracy, courts and military.
Thaksin is widely viewed as the real power behind Yingluck’s government and the driving force behind the present push for amnesty. An earlier version of the bill was written to cover only street protesters, but in a surprise move a parliamentary vetting committee expanded its scope to include political leaders. It was passed unanimously by Thaksin’s and Yingluck’s Peua Thai party after the opposition Democrats walked out of an extraordinary 18-hour session of parliament that heard the bill’s second and third readings on November 1.
A medley of protest groups, including one led by the Democrats, another steered by elements of the former People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) movement that paved the way for Thaksin’s military ouster, and various other unaffiliated smart mobs of business leaders, bureaucrats, students and others, have scattered in pockets across Bangkok. Groups have vowed to stay on the streets and intensify their protests until the government withdraws the amnesty bill from parliament. The Senate was set to consider the amnesty on Friday, but ultimately the upper house lacks veto power over legislation passed by the lower house.
Yingluck has responded with mixed messages, hinting at a strategy to wait out rather than outright retreat from the mounting protests. On Tuesday, she said her government would abide by the Senate’s decision on the bill. Many senators have been quoted in local media saying they would vote against the amnesty. On Thursday, she announced her party would withdraw six other amnesty-related bills pending in parliament. At the same time, Yingluck has goaded Peua Thai politicians to return to their home constituencies to promote the need for national reconciliation, indicating her government may pursue an alternate version or channel for amnesty after the current political turmoil has abated.
The anti-amnesty protests, many populated by whistle-blowing demonstrators, have so far been more sound than fury. Speakers at Democrat-led rallies, now positioned around Bangkok’s iconic Democracy Monument, have taken aim at Thaksin’s alleged personal interests in pursuing a blanket amnesty. They have maintained that their protest will not resort to the violence, including armed assaults and arson attacks, employed by certain pro-Thaksin protestors in 2010. Viewed earlier by many analysts as a spent political force, the party has effectively leveraged the anti-amnesty protests to galvanize their middle-class support base at Thaksin’s expense.
Another merged anti-Thaksin group operating separate from the Democrats seems more geared for confrontation, with at least one organizer threatening to lay siege to parliament when the Senate takes up the bill. On Thursday, the Network of Students and People for Reform of Thailand and the Anti-Thaksin Coalition moved their protest site near Government House, raising the specter of a repeat of the PAD’s months-long siege of the prime minister’s offices in 2008. Other disparate groups have raised their voices on principle against provisions in the amnesty that effectively would cease the prosecution and/or investigation of over 2,000 pending corruption cases.
Thaksin apparently miscalculated the potential for his preferred blanket version of amnesty to destabilize his sister’s government. That’s likely because previous protests against Yingluck, including the Pitak Siam rallies staged in November last year by an obscure former army general, and since August this year a sparsely populated protest site at Bangkok’s central Lumpini Park spearheaded by the equally obscure People’s Army Against the Thaksin Regime, either quickly petered out or failed to gain significant popular momentum.
He perhaps also estimated that mounting legal pressure on Democrat party leaders and past anti-Thaksin protest organizers would work to press-gang their support for amnesty. Days before the revised amnesty was put to parliament, the Attorney General’s Office indicted previous Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban on murder charges for their alleged roles in the murder of scores of pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” protesters in April-May 2010. Both have maintained their innocence on the grounds many protestors were armed and violent during their protests.
Former PAD leaders, meanwhile, face terrorism charges for the 2008 seizure of Bangkok’s airports that bar them from participating in protests while their case is pending. Peua Thai announced on Thursday it would petition for the Democrats dissolution by the Constitutional Court for violating laws that bar party members from participating in street protests. Former PAD leaders who have apparently helped to organize the other main protest group positioned near Government House have yet to face sanction. As the government tightens the screws, many analysts are monitoring for a shift in current protest rhetoric against the amnesty to a wider challenge of Yingluck’s legitimacy.
While pressing political enemies, Thaksin and Yingluck have bid to make amends with other, more powerful segments of the royal establishment. Here, too, it appears that Thaksin may have misconstrued improved relations with royalist institutions with tacit consent for amnesty.
Since her election in mid-2011, Yingluck has bowed deeply and frequently to symbols and figures of royal authority. She has appointed known royalists to prominent government posts, including in her executive office, and firmly upheld laws that prohibit criticism of the royal family, leaving several pro-Thaksin, anti-royal Red Shirt protestors to languish in prison. The pending amnesty notably excludes provision for the release of prisoners convicted of lese majeste.
Yingluck's government has also bid to curry favor with the powerful military. Army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a 2006 coup-maker and known palace loyalist, has been granted free hand at three major and two mini annual reshuffles during Yingluck’s tenure, occasions he has leveraged to promote frontline soldiers involved in the suppression of the 2010 pro-Thaksin protests and consolidate royalist control over the rank and file. Nor has Yingluck, who concurrently serves as defense minister, moved to trim military budgets or impose greater civilian control over military affairs.
More significantly, her government has signaled that soldiers should not be held liable for the 2010 crackdown. Previous Deputy Prime Minister for Security, now Labor Minister, Chalerm Yoobamrung said last year that soldiers and commanders could not be held accountable for the deaths because they were legally obliged to obey the shooting orders allegedly given under Abhisit’s and Suthep’s executive command. While court inquests have implicated troops in many of the 2010 killings, Prayuth, too, has said in recent days that he opposes amnesty and would rather fight his case in court. While Prayuth has publicly called on Yingluck to resolve the escalating situation, the potential of another coup is low.
A judicial intervention, however, is more likely. Should the blanket amnesty pass both houses of parliament, the Democrats have intimated they will challenge its legality at the Constitutional Court. Although Thaksin is believed to have gained influence over certain lower level courts during Yingluck’s tenure, higher level courts remain a preserve of royalist influence. Thaksin’s political camp has frequently challenged the judiciary’s neutrality, claiming politicized royalist judges have applied “double standards” in handing down a series of verdicts against Thaksin’s allies and interests, including dissolution orders against two of his previous political parties.
A February 2010 Supreme Court decision confiscated US$1.4 billion of his assets and provided the initial spark for that year’s fateful Red Shirt protests. In April this year, Red Shirt protestors surrounded the Constitutional Court and threatened to kidnap its judges after they filed a defamation suit against speakers who questioned the court’s integrity. With those threats and a pivotal ruling on amnesty on the horizon, Constitutional Court President Wasan Soypisudh announced his early retirement in July.
Subsequent Constitutional Court verdicts, including decisions against Democrat-filed petitions for injunctions against a Peua Thai drive to amend the constitution to overhaul the Senate from a half-appointed to fully-elected body and a two trillion baht (about US$64 billion) infrastructure spending package issued by executive decree, have tilted in Yingluck’s favor. Some legal analysts believe the decisions on issues less significant to royalist interests have aimed to demonstrate neutrality in the lead-up to a potential ruling against a Thaksin-absolving amnesty. They argue judges could justify ruling against the pending amnesty on procedural missteps alone.
Many royalists believe the only legitimate way for Thaksin to be absolved of his criminal conviction is through a royal pardon, similar to the ones granted to select prison inmates every year as part of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday celebrations. Past calls from Thaksin’s camp for a royal pardon, however, have consistently been met with steely silence from the palace. People familiar with the situation say that Thaksin hoped Bhumibol would send a signal in his favor during his national birthday address last December, but none was forthcoming.
The notion that the palace is opposed to a rule-of-law bending amnesty has emboldened certain of its opponents - as do fears that Thaksin’s rehabilitation and return would represent an existential threat to their personal interests. Many took note of Bhumibol’s recent meeting with Constitutional Court judges, similar to the ones the monarch held with judges ahead of previous pivotal political verdicts. Others have read significance in Princess Bajraktiyabha’s, a US-trained lawyer and current ambassador to Austria, scheduled participation in a rule-of-law themed seminar later this month in Bangkok.
While the anti-amnesty protests gathered steam on the capital’s streets and Yingluck made a teary-eyed plea for national unity and reconciliation, the Royal Household Bureau issued a coincident statement saying Bhumibol’s health had recently improved and that the 85-year-old monarch is often seen smiling and laughing these days while feeding fish in his seaside palace.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online’s Southeast Asia Editor.
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