Songkran in Cambodia: Red Shirts meet Thaksin

On 14 April 2012, for the first time in the conflict of the past 6 years, Thaksin addressed a mass rally of Red Shirt supporters. While on many occasions Red Shirts have travelled to see Thaksin at his home in Dubai, or during his previous stays in Cambodia, and also during his stay in Laos from 13-14 April 2012, the rally in Siem Reap was the first time Thaksin spoke on a mass rally stage in person to the Red Shirts. The event came at a time of much insecurity and confusion over the future developments of Thai politics. The Red Shirt-supported government led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra seems to follow a course of reconciliation, which may also include one or the other form of a general amnesty for politically motivated crimes related to the past 6 years of political conflict, yet the opposition Democrat Party and the two anti-government protest groups — the People’s Alliance for Democracy and Siam Samakkhi — oppose this course of the government. But some ordinary Red Shirt protesters I spoke with also express their opposition to the idea of an amnesty at this point. They want accountability and truth before talks of an amnesty.

On 13 April 2012, I went to the Mor Chit bus terminal, and with luck got a ticket on a bus to the border at Aranyaprathet. The bus was crowded with Songkran holiday travelers heading to their home villages, also some Cambodian workers were on the bus. Two men sitting in the row in front of me emptied a bottle of whisky during the 5-hour trip, and after beginning to annoy fellow passengers they were thrown off the bus not long before reaching Aranyaprathet. The bus stopped at Rong Kleu market, a short walk from the border crossing. At the check point on the Thai side, Red Shirts from Sakeo province had a table to help Red Shirts with the border crossing. By that stage, many Red Shirts were already crossing the border, both in their private vehicles, and as part of organised tours. The Sakeo Red Shirts expected the main rush the following day, the day of the mass rally. Some Red Shirts opted to park their cars at the border market, and take advantage of the free transport provided for them by the Cambodian government from Poipet to Siem Reap. After crossing the border, I got a ride with one of the free buses waiting in front of one of the casinos for Red Shirts. Most Red Shirts on the bus came from Bangkok and surrounding provinces, but a group of Red Shirts from Phuket were there as well.

At the start of the journey a Red Shirt leader from a Thonburi group took over the microphone and asked for a collection for the driver, if possible 20 baht per person. They collected 1150 Baht, and gave the money to the bus driver. A slight mishap occurred when they tried to get the karaoke in the bus running, and an explicit pornographic picture appeared on the screen of the TV, accompanied by loud laughter from the passengers. During a short break I met several Red Shirt guards on the way to Siem Reap in a car, and also Jatuporn’s driver and bodyguard who were having dinner in a roadside restaurant. They came with Jatuporn’s car, to pick him up the following day at the airport.

Approaching Siem Reap, the Red Shirts expressed their amazement at how clean Cambodia is, how good the roads are, and asked the driver to drive them around for a tour to see Siem Reap’s city lights, applauding when they saw karaoke parlors or fellow Red Shirts, commenting on how developed Siem Reap is, asking if Siam Reap has katoey as well, and when they saw some, applauding again. The man on the microphone then commented that that they will have to apologise to Cambodia for having looked down upon it before. They then chanted: “Long live Hun Sen, Long Live Thaksin!”

The bus then went to the rally area in a large field just outside Siem Reap, where they were going to spend the night. The stage area itself was already cordoned off, the entrances marked by X-Ray machines and metal scanners. I went to the stage, was stopped by Cambodian security, but let through after Red Shirt guards vouched for me. I then picked up a press pass for the following day, with a picture of Thaksin and Hun Sen, and found a small guesthouse to stay.

On 14 April, I went first to the airport, where maybe 200 Red Shirts had gathered to welcome Thaksin. As in Laos, Thaksin landed at the military airport a few hundred meters away, and was straight away rushed to his hotel. Many of the Red Shirts at the airport were part of an organised tour, and I hitched a ride with them to Thaksin’s hotel — the City Angkor — where he was to have a lunch.

At the hotel entry was a crowd of Red Shirts, blocked by Cambodian security. At first they refused me entry too, ignoring my press pass, but after some discussion it was decided I could enter, and had to pass through a metal scanner and have my camera bag checked in an X-ray machine. The hotel lobby was packed with Red Shirts, and in the adjacent restaurant the tables were already occupied with Red Shirts waiting for Thaksin who was giving a speech and attending a small Songkran ceremony in an upstairs meeting room. In front of a lift several Pheua Thai Party officials tried to bring order to the Red Shirts who waited to greet Thaksin. One man primed the crowd with choruses.

I talked with a Pheua Thai Party MP, and member of the Parliamentary Committee for National Reconciliation, who expressed personal difficulties with the reconciliation process, and who noted that she may have to separate these personal problems from political reality. The MP asked not to be named, as did almost all MPs and Red Shirt leaders I asked about the reconciliation process.

I managed to evade the security and slipped upstairs together with a group of Red Shirts. Thaksin was just coming out of the meeting room, and I captured a few images. He then proceeded to sprinkle several Red Shirts with sacred water.

I ran downstairs again to photograph Thaksin when he was greeted by the crowd. Of course the orchestrated greeting collapsed when Thaksin appeared and was rushed by the crowd.

He then went to the restaurant, to a separate room behind glass, where he, Pheua Thai phu yai and several Red Shirt leaders had lunch. Thaksin was seated next to Sanoh Tienthong, with whom he had an animated conversation, which I photographed through the glass.

After lunch, Thaksin then made a round through the restaurant. He was surrounded by Cambodian security. People rushed Thaksin, hugged him, and cheered.

At the outside area, with more lunch tables for Red Shirts, Thaksin then spoke briefly, and said that everybody will have a chance to meet him. One crying woman hugged Thaksin. Thaksin went back to the glassed room, where he, and Sanoh Tienthong, held a Songkran ceremony. Red Shirts cued up to sprinkle water over their hands.

Thaksin then retired to his third floor suite. I tried to get an interview with Thaksin, but was not successful.

I decided then to move to the stage area, and rode in the van of a Red Shirt leader and Pheua Thai MP. A former Thai Rak Thai MP was also accompanying us. During the trip I asked again about the reconciliation process, and the answers were quite revealing of the difficulties in the process. While the Red Shirt leader was quite adamant in not accepting any form of amnesty, and only to void the Asset Examination Committee cases the retired Thai Rak Thai MP said that: “Thailand needs reconciliation, needs an amnesty for all, this should be the last time that Thai society should have the need to reconcile”, that there should be no more conflicts, no more military coups. He also said that a general amnesty should be decided upon by Royal Decree (phraratchakamnot) as this would be quicker and far more difficult for any opposition to stop the process. For a Royal Decree, the government proposed law would be presented to the king to sign, and only after the parliament would debate the law.

The dusty rally ground was under heavy Cambodian security — armed soldiers in uniform, and soldiers of the Bodyguard unit in black suits. The Red Shirts had to pass through a metal detector and their bags an X-Ray machine before being allowed into the rally ground, in which 50,000 chairs were prepared for the Red Shirts in long rows. Altogether maybe 30,000 Red Shirts made the journey to Cambodia (the number was also confirmed to me by sources in Thai intelligence who based their estimate on their count of Red Shirts passing through the border crossings). On the construction site of a building opposite and overlooking the stage sniper teams were placed to take out possible assailants.

Thaksin arrived just before dusk. The many black dressed Cambodian security officers pushed everyone away, including journalists, Red Shirt guards and even several VIPs. The Cambodian security officers were paranoid over Thaksin’s security, but quite overwhelmed with the situation, not knowing anyone, disregarding the different passes, and so rude that almost all journalists were very annoyed, as were many of the Red Shirt guards who were treated no differently.

Thaksin entered the stage right away, and I managed to slip on the stage as well, as I definitely did not want to miss the image of Thaksin speaking in front of a crowd of Red Shirts. One Red Shirt photographer and a western camera woman managed this as well.

After a brief and not overly political speech the evening began with the singing of countless songs by Thaksin and the Red Shirt leaders, and the Red Shirts partying with Thaksin. Nattawut Saikua later replied when asked why there were so few political speeches on the stage that it would not be appropriate to have too much political content from a stage on Cambodian soil, and that they would do that on Thai soil. He said that the event should resemble more the Bonanza Khao Yai concerts, being mostly a festive party with light political content. That though did not hinder Jatuporn later on, when Thaksin has already left, to state, after he talked about the Red Shirt victims of 2010, that he would like Abhisit and Suthep to be dead.

Almost all Red Shirt leaders were present and joined Thaksin on the stage — most notable were Thida Tawornset, her husband Dr. Weng Tojirakarn, Jatuporn Prompan, Nattawut Saikua (who rarely let go of the microphone), Suporn “Rambo Isan” Attawong, Korgaeow Pikulthong, Nisit Sinthuprai, former head of the guards Ari Krainara, and Payap Panket. Many politicians close to the Red Shirts were there as well, such as Adisorn Piengket and Pheua Thai MP Sunai Julponsathorn, who has been a regular speaker at Daeng Siam rallies.

Behind the stage I had several conversations about the reconciliation process. Notable was Phayao Akahad, the mother of Kamolket “Nong Kate” Akahad — the nurse who was killed in Wat Patumwanaram on 19 May 2010 during the dispersal at Rajaprasong intersection. She was quite anxious and openly opposed the possible amnesty. Arisaman Pongruangrong was also there. He got court permission to travel to Siem Reap, but was by the courts forbidden to take to the stage.

Photographing Thaksin and the Red Shirt leaders on the stage and the Red Shirt attendants was extremely difficult — the Cambodian security pushed, shoved and held me back at almost every step, when I walked to find the right angles. Every photo was hard fought over. My only consolidation was that every journalist there had to endure the same treatment. Most journalists had given up after they got their necessary shots and footage. In the end, I managed to get close to the stage when Korkaeow Pikulthong called me over to the stage from the quite distant place where we were allowed to stand and take photos.

When Thaksin finally left, the atmosphere became more relaxed, just like at a normal Red Shirt mass rally. Red Shirt protesters were allowed directly in front of the stage, dancing to the music on the stage. I left soon after.

On the following day, 15 April 2012, Angkor Wat was allowing free entry to the Red Shirts, where Thaksin was to perform another Songkran ritual. Showing my press pass at the entry to Angkor Wat I was allowed free entry as well. Thousands of Red Shirts had already gathered, expecting Thaksin, who was first to give alms to 265 monks — a number corresponding to the Pheua Thai Party’s number of seats in parliament. The security was a lot friendlier and less pushy than the previous day. More journalists were present as well, still though fewer journalists compared to large rallies in Bangkok. After Thaksin arrived in his motorcade, together with members of his family — his sister Yaowapa Wongsawat and his son Panthongtae — Arisaman Pongruangrong led the long row of 265 monks out of the ancient temple compound opposite the area reserved for the celebrations. Thaksin gave alms to each of the monks.

When this was over Thaksin spoke to the crowd, and began sprinkling the crowd with water from a hose, and then walked surrounded by bodyguards through the crowd of Red Shirts.

A fire engine parked at the side of the area sprayed water over the crowd from a large hose. I stood on the side as I did not want to lose yet another camera. Thaksin emerged, dripping wet from his walk through the crowd, and I snapped a few images. He then moved to give a small press conference.

I asked his assistants if I could get an interview, and they said that today he will give interviews and that I am in the queue. The Red Shirts went through Angkor Wat, and I followed them snapping images of Red Shirts praying at the temple.

I went then to the City Angkor Hotel to get ready for my interview. Thaksin gave brief interviews to a few journalist teams before lunch. I was led then to the third floor, to wait for my allocated time. Accompanying me was a friend, a researcher working on her PhD. In front of Thaksin’s suite his son Panthongtae regulated the entry, and several Cambodian security officers guarded the floor. While waiting for my turn, we talked. One of the Cambodian security officials asked me if today was better for me as I seemed to be very annoyed the day before (I had treated him also with several rather less polite words the previous day). I laughed and said that today working was much easier, that I wasn’t getting pushed around anymore. Panthongtae laughed, and said that even he was pushed the day before when security officials did not recognise him. The Cambodian security official smiled, then gave me his card, and told me to look him up when I am in Phnom Penh. Looking at the card, he turned out to be a Brigadier General who was commander of Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Headquarters. Panthongtae was angry about a journalist’s team asking him about his wedding. He said that he will not respond to any question regarding his wedding. I said to him that as far as I am concerned this is his private matter and none of my business, and that I will only ask about political matters. He said that this is good, and then: “But you see — I have no privacy at all anymore.”

When it was our turn, Thaksin greeted us. He remembered me from when I photographed him in his home in Dubai not long before the 2011 elections for an assignment for a German newsmagazine. We restricted ourselves to 3 questions as we had only 5 to 10 minutes for the interview.

My first question was regarding the reconciliation process and the general confusion over it. Thaksin answered that there are 3 different options, and that the one which seems to be accepted by the majority would be option two — to void the cases of the Asset Examination Commission, set up by the coup, which he said were very biased and unfair, and then to start all over again with these cases with due process of the law. Thaksin said that this is the option most likely proposed by the parliamentary Committee on National Reconciliation.

My second question was about the possible amnesty, and the fact that most ordinary Red Shirts I spoke with were opposed to an amnesty at this time, and that they wanted truth and accountability before talking about an amnesty. Thaksin said that he is aware that that many worry about this, especially families who lost loved ones in 2010. He was then slightly evasive, stating that an amnesty is considered a domestic affair, talking also about the problems that even if incidents could be considered crimes against humanity that Thailand is not party to the International Criminal Court. He then said: “Anyway, if we really want to start all over, the remedy must be there, and already is there, will be done quickly. At least we should do something. After the remedy there should be forgiveness.”

He also said: “Truth will come out, but will not really be in detail. Truth will come because the process will start by prosecuting. They start to prosecute already. This should reveal some truth. The evidence is strong. After we do more investigation, the evidence is much more.”

The researcher asked then about the signature campaign to amend the lese majeste law – Article 112 of the criminal code. Thaksin said: “I try to explain to them that 112 never was a problem before 6 years ago. It has been used for political purposes too much.” He said that it is not treated according to the set regulations, that a committee at the police headquarters has to consider these cases, and that not just anyone who wants to show loyalty to the monarchy can file a case. He said that a further problem is that officials in the justice process think that if they ignore cases it could be alleged that they are not loyal. He said that if the process can be normalised, strictly controlled by the regulations, then there is no need for amendments.

Asked if the jail terms of 3 to 15 years should be reduced, Thaksin replied: “Normally in the past they talk about 1 year, 6 months. I have never really heard 10 years, 15 years, not even 7 years in the old days.”

“In the old days the judges never give that much”.

“All we need to do is just to bring back the practice of the old days, and let everybody involved understand that, not try to overdo it.”

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While many observers, and also high ranking Pheua Thai politicians, seem to be convinced that a general amnesty will come, regardless of any opposition, I am not yet entirely convinced, and believe that the final judgment has not yet been made. Thaksin was slightly evasive when I asked him about the idea of an amnesty. The evening before a Red Shirt leader told me that with the spectacle in Siem Reap Thaksin had shown his opponents that he still has a huge following and support. He also suggested that Red Shirts themselves had given clear signals to Thaksin that an amnesty would not find their support. Another source said to me that Thaksin, feeling he has given more at the negotiation table than his opponents, wanted with this event to apply more pressure at the negotiating table. According to my source, Thaksin may have spent up to US$ 500,000 for this event, for logistics and security (more than 2000 Cambodian troops were at any time around Thaksin during this visit).

I believe that we may have to wait a bit longer for clarity. Opposition not just by the Democrat Party, and their covertly supported street protest group of Siam Samakhi and the now quite isolated People’s Alliance for Democracy, but also by the overwhelming majority of the Red Shirts themselves may still unsettle the amnesty option.

And while a showing of 30,000 supporters may sound small, one still has to consider that for Red Shirts the journey to Cambodia involved considerable expense and effort. The majority of the Red Shirts I spoke with there were not his supporters from the economically disadvantaged rural areas or urban labour districts, but people that had the means to travel. The numbers of Red Shirts not able to travel to Cambodia watching the event over the Red Shirt channel Asia Update would have been considerable as well.

When my interview with him was finished Thaksin had lunch once again at the restaurant. When he finished his lunch he went around the tables of the Red Shirts seated inside and in the outside area under tents. The security was much more low-key than the previous day, and very few journalists were still there, making it much easier for me to take pictures. The Red Shirts were asked to remain seated when Thaksin come passed, and told that he would pose with every table. He walked up, people hugged him, and he hugged the people, and went then to the next table. He took almost two hours doing this.

I then went back to my guesthouse for a much needed rest. The following day I returned to Bangkok. At the Poipet border a family of Red Shirts offered me a ride, which I gladly accepted as I feared difficulties getting transport to Bangkok as it was the end of the Songkran holidays.