Friday, January 28, 2011

PAD trying very hard to remain a force in Thai farce

PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul knows that his leverage to power lies with street mobs and not with organised politics.
Suranand Vejjajiva
Bangkok Post

The People's Alliance for Democracy has been at centrestage of national politics since 2005 through protest rallies to overthrow the government of then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It successfully brought about the military's coup d'etat of Sept 19, 2006 and Thaksin's long exile. The PAD was also instrumental in destroying the legitimacy of the government of Thaksin-backed People Power Party - which handily won the general election of 2007 - by occupying Government House and forcing the closure of Suvarnabhumi Airport.

However, successive administrations which were in alliance with the PAD in getting rid of Thaksin and his influential network, both the post-coup interim military government of Gen Surayud Chulanont and the present Democrat-led coalition of Abhisit Vejjajiva, never shared enough political power with the PAD. Some PAD affiliated personalities were appointed to the interim Parliament, the constitution drafting committees and subsequently as senators under the new constitution. At the same time, many projects were wheeled out. However, altogether they were considered marginal compared to what the military men and politicians divided among themselves.

The PAD is never easy to deal with. It is comprised of eccentric factions with different agendas. The PAD's charismatic leader, Sondhi Limthongkul, is a media tycoon with political ambitions and capitalist beliefs. Another is Maj Gen Chamlong Srimuang, who was the popular governor of Bangkok in the 1980s and has close ties with the Santi Asoke Buddhist sect. Santi Asoke is anti-consumerism and works to build self-sufficiency communities whose members lead a down-to-earth way of life relying only on bare necessities. Mr Sondhi and Maj Gen Chamlong are indeed strange bedfellows.

Maj Gen Chamlong was also the key leader and strategist in the May 1992 protest rallies that led to the bloody military crackdown which ended with a royal intervention and removal of then prime minister Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon. Grudges against, and distrust of, Maj Gen Chamlong and his ability to rally support for his own cause has continued since.

Other PAD members are former labour leaders, academics, and politically ambitious people in need of a vehicle by which to gain political power. The rag-tag group was initially put together to fight and topple Thaksin. But all along, mainstream politicians - the Democrats and their coalition partners - the military and the elite establishment of Bangkok never felt comfortable with the PAD.

The PAD is just a tool in the grab for power, to be discarded after being used.

In Thai there is a saying Sed na kha kho tuek, sed suek kha khun pol literally meaning: "Do away with the buffalo after the harvest, execute the general after the war", which essentially means to throw off a burden after its usefulness has run out. Generals who win wars are also natural threats to those holding political power and must be gotten rid of: many viewed the attempted assassination of Mr Sondhi in 2009 as a fulfilment of this belief.

That threat led the PAD to try to transform itself from being a protest group, to a political party - the New Politics Party. The new party fizzled out in Bangkok's local elections, skipped the various by-elections and seems to be going nowhere. Mr Sondhi eventually left the party, realising that his leverage to power lies with street mobs and not with organised politics.

That is why the PAD is back on the streets. The PAD has no place to stand if politics returns to normal in the context of representative democracy, no matter how flawed. Its influence could diminish and even be rendered irrelevant if the military and the elite establishment continue in their marriage of convenience with the ruling Democrats and PM Abhisit.

The consolidation of power by a Democrat-led coalition after a general election is called would leave the PAD further out in the cold. The PAD might not even gain the Senate seats it feels entitled to.

To stir things up the PAD took on Cambodia, hoping to raise nationalistic sentiments and point out the ineffectiveness of the government in handling international relations and protecting the kingdom's sovereignty. The PAD hopes that with a controversy concerning the issue of national security, the military will be forced into taking action against the government.

This strategy is designed to exploit the military's growing discomfort with Mr Abhisit. After the military's crackdown on the red shirts last May which left 91 people dead, the unexplained deaths could be blamed on military operations - and the initial Department of Special Investigation report seems to be moving in that direction. The military top brass, of course, are ready to point the finger back at their political boss for "ordering" the operation.

Many also feel that Mr Abhisit is still not up to the job and that if an election were called, the Thaksin-backed opposition Puea Thai Party might regain track and return to power. It is widely rumoured that the military is seriously discussing political options to prevent such an occurrence.

Maybe the military will again turn to use the services of the PAD to realise its own political ambitions. There are no real friends or permanent enemies in Thai politics. To speed up change, the PAD led by Mr Sondhi started attacking Mr Abhisit directly in speeches at the rallies held next to Government House. The theme has been familiar: ineffective governance and corruption. Mr Sondhi even said there is "no difference" between Mr Abhisit and Thaksin, except for the fact that some people remain fooled by Mr Abhisit's good looks!

If more cases of corruption and abuse of power within the government are exposed through Mr Sondhi's articulate speeches, the urban middle class currently supporting the Democrats could have a change of heart. Such a scenario would be ripe to put in arguments for a "national government".

Mr Abhisit will certainly not take this without a fight. His trump card is to dissolve the House of Representatives - he is sending stronger signals that elections could come as early as April. He is also set to "negotiate" with the PAD and will try hardest to satisfy the demands and to buy as much time as possible.

Mr Abhisit realises his best chances for political survival and of remaining in power would be to get to elections before any political accident - another bloodshed or coup d'etat - can occur. Coming out of an election, Mr Abhisit will have a fresh claim on legitimacy even if Puea Thai comes in strong (but not with an absolute majority) since under such a scenario Mr Abhisit would continue to be the only viable alternative for the military and the Bangkok elite.

Will the PAD's push-and-shove against the government become an actual putsch? The PAD has only opened a window of political options. The final say will rest with the military and the elite establishment: how they evaluate the changing political landscape and how best to protect their own personal interests.


Post a Comment