Reconciliation games

A confusing multitude of different protest groups are out on the streets again, suddenly changing the high stakes game over the future of Thai society yet again. There are several factions of Red Shirts, Yellow Shirts of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), Dr. Tul’s Multicoloreds, and those associated with the new street protest group named the “Lightening Rod” with its light blue headbands — organised by the Democrat Party and its Blue Sky TV station.

In this article I will try to describe the new situation that began developing during the Pheua Thai government’s efforts to rush a reconciliation bill through parliament. It is not just the opposition Democrat Party, and the PAD that are severely opposed to this bill, but also the Red Shirts and many Pheua Thai MPs close to the Red Shirts. This has led to severe frictions in the Pheua Thai party. Several Red Shirt leaders and Pheua Thai MPs told me that Thaksin has not consulted them over the reconciliation bill. They suggested he was not receptive to their attempts to b cautious and that the efforts were mostly engineered by Pheua Thai party list MP Wattana Muangsuk. One Pheua Thai MP even said to me that he felt being treated by Thaksin as if he were “under his feet”, and that he was extremely disappointed and upset, and that this was not what he was fighting for. Following Thaksin’s speech at Rajaprasong on 19 May 2012, many Red Shirts were very disappointed with Thaksin’s stand.

Already during Thaksin’s stay in Siem Reap during this year’s Songkran several Red Shirt leaders and members of Class 10 have tried to urge Thaksin not to rush the reconciliation bill, and especially not the included amnesty, but to no avail (Wassana Nanuam reported on the Class 10 visit first and this has been confirmed to me by one of the participants). While the first signs of disappointment among many Red Shirts with Thaksin appeared after his speech on the Siem Reap stage on 14 April 2012, this disappointment increased following his more detailed video link outlining his views on the reconciliation process at the 19 May 2012 Rajaprasong rally. After that, many Red Shirts were openly expressing feelings of betrayal.

On 29 May 2012, a breakaway Red Shirt faction decided that they will stay in front of parliament, holding their ground against the PAD protest, announced for 30 May 2012. While reasoning that they wanted to protect the parliament and the government against another possible PAD occupation, another motive mentioned by some of their organisers was that if clashes erupted, it could have been useful to prevent the reconciliation bill from passing, or at least to slow it down. While the Red Shirts would have had difficulties openly protesting the bill, they were about as opposed to it as the PAD but motivated by different reasons — while the PAD accused the government of attempting to whitewash Thaksin, the Red Shirts wanted to prevent any form of amnesty that could result in the end of investigations of the April-May 2010 violence. The UDD has disavowed the breakaway faction, stating that anyone staying at parliament was not a real Red Shirt. Over the night and in the morning there were intense negotiations between the different Red Shirt factions, as well as with the police, resulting in the Red Shirts retreating from parliament, and deciding to just watch developments from afar.

With the situation was momentarily defused, the PAD began gathering at Royal Plaza by midday of 30 May  2012. Their march to parliament was announced for 3 pm. At parliament, on Gate 3 at the Rajawithi/Pichai Road intersection, the “Multicoloreds” assembled — a few hundred protesters with light blue headbands fired up by speeches held from a small mobile stage. Several Democrat Party MPs came out of parliament to visit the protesters. I saw Klong Toey MP Anucha Burapachaisri, Nakhon Si Thammarat MP Thepthai Senpong, and Chumphon MP Chumpol Julsai – who was in 2010 photographed by Matichon carrying an M16 rifle leaving parliament with Suthep Thaugsuban during the Red Shirt invasion into parliament grounds on 7 April 2010. These protesters said that they would merge with the PAD protesters when they arrived at parliament.

At 2.20 pm everything came to a standstill when Princess Soamsawali came to parliament for a ceremony commemorating the death of King Prajadhipok at his statue in front of the parliament building. Soon after the royal motorcade left the PAD protesters arrived at parliament, while at the same time the Multicoloreds, who after a brief scuffle broke through a thin police line, met them there.

Approximately 5000 protesters were now gathered at parliament. I left, as my already ailing camera finally gave up, and went to buy a new camera.

Early morning on 31 May 2012, the first day of the reconciliation bill debate, the news reported that PAD leader Chamlong Srimuang Srimuang threatened an invasion of parliament. When I arrived very few protesters were there. Gate 3 was designated as the entry gate to parliament, and both on Pichai Road and on Rajawithi Road police had erected barricades of concrete slabs and razor wire. Two negotiators from the protesters asked Pol Major General Wichai Sangprapai if he could reconsider opening the roads. He refused the request saying that the day before the protesters failed to keep an agreement not to push through the police lines and that the leaders obviously could not control their protesters as even a bottle was thrown at police officers during the incident.

Police officers were then given orders, to remain calm, and not to use violence against protesters, and only to use their shields to stop protesters from breaking their lines.

While there were constant rumors of an impending invasion into parliament the day on the street was rather uneventful unlike inside parliament — which saw the MPs in near riot situations.

On the street Democrat MPs visited protesters of the Multicolored group at Gate 3, talking with them over the barricades, and also cheering on the PAD over the fence at the main gates.

The PAD played the usual protest games, issuing ultimatums and letters to demand 200 PAD representatives be allowed to watch the proceedings inside parliament, fully knowing that there are only 145 seats available for visitors which were fully occupied anyhow.

Two entries in my notebook were that at 2.05 pm a small fire cracker exploded among the multicolored group, and at 3 pm the multicolored group played the anti-communist right wing song ‘Nac Pandin’ over their loudspeakers. The day ended with a heavy rainstorm, drenching police officers and protesters alike.

Later at night my sources told me to go very early to parliament as the protesters would definitely plan to do something to prevent voting on the reconciliation bill. On 1 June 2012, I arrived before 6 am at parliament. The fence at the parliament main gates was reinforced with razor wire, and more barricades were erected on Pichai Road. Again, police officers were given strict orders to only use shields against protesters, and not to use any violence, and not to allow themselves to be provoked by protesters. While the PAD area at the front gates of parliament was almost empty, two dozen multicolored protesters have gathered at Kan Ruan intersection at Rajawithi Road. Over the loudspeaker they threatened to move their protest to the World Economic Forum, but one of their leaders said to me that they had no intensions to follow through on this threat. At 7.22 am, when their larger mobile stage arrived, the small group of protesters attempted to occupy the intersection, this way blocking the only open entry to parliament. Police easily encircled the small group which unsuccessfully tried to push the police officers away.

The larger mobile stage was then confiscated by police and driven away, leaving only a pickup truck mounted with loudspeakers. In English a speaker on the stage made the announcement that the foreign media should “announce to the world that the police attacked the people”, and that they were protesting against the “fucking unity bill”. Meanwhile several cars with MPs passed through the intersection and went to parliament.

A terrified female uniformed palace official on her way to work was frozen with panic, and carefully led aside by protesters. I asked police officers to take care of her when she just stood next to the protests without moving or answering any questions.

At 8.10 am several hundred PAD protesters arrived from their campsite at Royal Plaza, beefing up the small group of Multicoloreds, and immediately pushed the police away, managing to occupy the intersection and to block the entry route to parliament. The situation immediately calmed down, and no side had any injuries.

About 30 Pheua Thai MPs and 5 Democrat Party MPs were inside parliament by then, the remainder were outside, waiting to be able to get in. A high ranking Pheua Thai MP told me that the government will use a very soft approach with the protesters, and will under no circumstances have clashes between protesters and police. He also said that if the parliament cannot convene they will just postpone the session. Soon after he and several other Pheua Thai Party MPs left parliament, protected by police, through a hole in a fence.

At about 10.00 am the Kan Ruan intersection was still calm. Chen Thaugsuban, Suthep Thaugsuban’s younger brother, walked through the protesters and police let him enter parliament. Straight after, Suthep arrived, was hugged and cheered by protesters and also walked through the police line. The next MP that came was Chuvit Kamolvisit, former massage parlor tycoon, was cheered on by the protesters. Several Democrat MPs trickled in after as well.

I called Gotae, a Red Shirt leader from Pathum Thani, asking him if the Red Shirts planned anything. He said that they will have a stage at the National Memorial at Vibhavadi Rangsit Road, but would  stay away from parliament and only move to the nearby 11th Infantry Regiment in case the military would attempt a coup.

At 13.00 am police began dismantling the barricades at Pichai Road, opening another entry to parliament for MPs to attend the afternoon session, but PAD protesters arrived with a mobile stage from Pichai Road, and immediately rushed the police, pushing the officers away. The police ran and regrouped in a new line maybe 200 meters away from the Gate. PAD protesters stopped, and both sides settled down at the new line.

Soon after, this the reconciliation bill vote was postponed.

At 4.16 pm the Multicoloreds closed their stage at the Kan Ruan intersection. When their loudspeaker went silent several police officers applauded and cheered. I went then to the PAD to take a few photos of their crowd. As soon as I arrived a shocking incident occurred — the first time in the past 6 years that I have seen Asia Times Online correspondent Sean Crispin working in the field during the protests. He swiftly walked through the PAD crowd, sweating like a pig, and even greeted me, passed me, and left me in complete bewilderment and quite speechless as well.

I went home soon, and saw on ASTV how the PAD declared victory, and announced a brief holiday over Visakha Bucha and to gather again on 5 June 2012, to open a permanent stage at Makhawan Bridge from which they would operate from then on, depending on the situation. The Santi Asoke’s Dhamma Army will continue to camp at Royal Plaza.

On Saturday, 2 June 2012, the Red Shirts held a mass gathering at Thunderdome Muang Thong Thani.  The arena was packed, and the area in front as well — quite a flashback to the 11 October 2008 rally there in which the UDD for the first time appeared as “Red Shirts”. Thaksin phoned in, and again, after his phone in on 30 May 2012, to a 111 foundation event, apologised to the Red Shirts for his remarks on his 19 May 2012, speech, repairing some of the damage he did. One Red Shirt leader said to me that the PAD protests had been a blessing in disguise as the appearance of a common enemy helped the reconciliation of several breakaway Red Shirt factions as well.

The real surprise of the day, and a completely new development in the ongoing conflict scenario, took place in front of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, where the Democrat Party held a rally with about 2000 protesters with the light blue headbands that appeared first a few days before under the Mulicolored on 30 May 2012. The new protest group is named “Sai Loh Fah” – the lightening rod. The Democrat Party has now made the transition into directly commanding their own street protest group. One of the party’s senior politicians explained to me the reasons for this change in strategy is that all media is closed to them now, that inside parliament they are not allowed to finish their speeches, and that they needed a channel to reach the people. Several Democrat MPs said that they intend to continue and build up this street protest group. Supporting this of course is their allied satellite TV station “Blue Sky TV”.

Most major Democrat Party politicians were present, including former Prime Ministers Abhisit Vejjajiva and Chuan Leekpai, Satit Wongnongtoey, Party Spokesman Chavanont Intarakomalyasut, and former Bangkok Governor Apirak Kosayodhin. Also Deputy Spokeswoman Mallika Boonmeetrakool, who became recently famous for her internet campaigns against perceived offenders against the lese majeste laws, was at the rally.

After Abhisit finished his long speech, the rally ended at about 10 pm with singing of the royal anthem. Footage of the previous days protests at parliament was screened as people left the ground.

These events leave Thailand now in a dramatically changed situation. After the relative calm following the 2011 elections, and the start of the collapse of the Red Shirt movement, first fuelled by gradually increasing infighting, but then accelerated by Thaksin’s speeches at the Siem Reap stage and especially at the Rajaprasong stage on 19 May 2012, and the inability of the PAD and Siam Samakkhi to draw any meaningful crowds, now everything has been heated up and turned around again. It took only a few days. The situation is now again extremely fluid, and absolutely unpredictable. Coup rumours are making the rounds again and this time there might be, according to my own sources, a real possibility of the military stepping in, should there be severe clashes, especially when combined with the chaotic situation in parliament. While the initiator of this new instability quite clearly was the government’s rushing of a highly criticised reconciliation bill, decisions of both the PAD and Democrat Party have contributed to the rapid deterioration as well.

Reconciliation now seems further away than at any time since the 2011 elections.

About Nick Nostitz, Guest Contributor