Thai court dismisses murder charges against Abhisit and Suthep

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 29, 2014 Thailand's Criminal Court has dismissed murder charges against former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his then-Deputy pPM Suthep Thuagsuban for their roles in the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in 2010. Over 90 people were killed and thousands injured (both protesters and security officers) when the military dispersed the red shirt protesters after weeks of rallies in central Bangkok. The protesters were calling for the resignation of Abhisit's government and a new election.

The Criminal Court's decision on Thursday seems to stem from a technicality:

The court said it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case because the two men held public office at the time of the protest.

"The court has no jurisdiction to consider the case because the two were a prime minister and deputy prime minister," a judge said on Thursday. "The charges relate to political office holders. The criminal court therefore dismisses the charges."

"Thai court dismisses murder charges against former PM, deputy", Reuters, August 28, 2014

The charge against Abhisit and Suthep was filed in late 2012 by police, prosecutors and the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) on the latter's recommendation and followed a growing number of court rulings saying that protesters were killed by bullets fired by soldiers.

Suthep, who was in charge of national security and thus tasked with overseeing the security situation during the protests as director of the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES), authorized security forces to disperse the protests back in 2010 (including the use of deadly force) and has since then repeatedly rejected any responsibility or blame for the deaths of the protesters. At one point he even suggetsed that they "ran into the bullets". In late 2013, he quit Abhisit's Democrat Party and became an unlikely protest leader against the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (who the red shirts support).

The nearly half year of prolonged rallies and sabotaging created the political impasse the military used a pretext to carry out a coup on May 22 - Suthep claims this to be planned since 2010. Ever since the coup and a very brief detainment by the junta, Suthep has entered Buddhist monkhood and is essentially under political asylum.

Thursday's dismissal means that any accountability on the army's part is very unlikely, especially under the military junta. Its leader, army chief and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha was deputy commander-in-chief during the 2010 crackdown and since becoming army chief a year later he has actively interfered in the DSI's investigation:

On August 16, 2012, Prayuth told the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation to stop accusing soldiers of killing demonstrators during the government’s crackdown on the “Red Shirt” protest in 2010 and not to report publicly on the progress of its investigations. Prayuth has denied any army abuses during the violence in which at least 98 people died and more than 2,000 were injured, despite numerous accounts by witnesses and other evidence.

Prayuth is also using Thailand’s archaic criminal defamation law to deter public criticism, Human Rights Watch said. On August 17, Prayuth ordered an army legal officer to file a criminal defamation complaint against Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer representing the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Amsterdam’s translator. At a UDD rally on May 19, Amsterdam gave a speech in which he alleged that the army committed brutality against demonstrators for which it should be held accountable.

"Thailand: Army Chief Interfering in Investigations", Human Rights Watch, August 23, 2012

The DSI chief Tharit Pengdit, who reportedly apologized to Prayuth for the accusations back then, was removed from his post shortly following the military coup.

While the main charge of premeditated murder has been dropped by the Criminal Court for now, it doesn't mean the end of legal challenges for Abhisit and Suthep, as other avenues have already been explored:

Since a petition has also been filed against Mr Abhisit and Mr Suthep with the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is responsible for handling criminal cases against politicians, the court also ruled that if the NACC finds the petition against them has sufficient grounds, the graft agency is duty-bound to forward the case to the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Posts for further consideration.

"Abhisit, Suthep murder case rejected", Bangkok Post, August 28, 2014

Given Thursday's dismissal by the Criminal Court, the generally slow pace of the investigations and the current ruling military junta, it will be now even less than likely that anybody from the past Abhisit administration - let alone the army - be held accountable for the deaths during the 2010 protests, as prolonged impunity adds to the growing pile of reasons for the political conflict, no matter who is calling the shots right now.

Suthep claims 'in talks with Prayuth' since 2010 to plot Thai coup

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 23, 2014 [getty src="492828667?et=FrpMuFHUQ09cqt_O4Rlmeg&sig=vKCwuRag-CRA2g0ZxyxU8AOHUkSFY0HXIOrT4Txe2Bw=" width="600" height="445"]

Former opposition politician and anti-government protest leader Suthep Thuagsuban claims to have been in talks with Thailand's army chief and coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha to topple the governments associated to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra "since 2010", according to local media.

The Bangkok Post reported on Monday...

[Suthep] admitted for the first time he had discussed with the coup-maker Prayuth Chan-ocha strategies to root out the influence of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies since the 2010 political violence.

Mr Suthep broke his silence at a fund-raising dinner on Saturday night at the Pacific Club in Bangkok.

His remarks suggest Gen Prayuth has been actively plotting to bring down former prime minister Yingluck Shinwatra, including the period leading up to the coup when she was defense minister. (...)

He said he chats regularly to Gen Prayuth and his team via the Line chat app.

“Before martial law was declared, Gen Prayuth told me ‘Khun Suthep and your masses of PDRC supporters are too exhausted. It’s now the duty of the army to take over the task’, ” Mr Suthep said.

He had consulted Gen Prayuth since the 2010 political unrest on how to root out the so-called Thaksin regime and join hands to reform the country, fight corruption and dissolve colour-coded politics that divided Thais.

"Suthep in talks with Prayuth ‘since 2010’", Bangkok Post, June 23, 2014

In 2010, Suthep was deputy prime minister in charge of national security and director of the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES), which was tasked with overseeing the security situation during the red shirt protests in Bangkok (including authorizing the use of deadly force). Gen. Prayuth was at the time deputy commander-in-chief and tipped to become the successor to then-army chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda. Both played a pivotal role in the deadly crackdown on the red shirt protesters in May 2010 which killed at least 90 people and injured thousands.

So it should come as no surprise that Suthep and the military have maintained contact since 2010 - but also already before that: a leaked US diplomatic cable from 2008 notes that Suthep "maintains contacts in all camps, including the military". Also, it explains the apparent refusal to intervene when the Suthep's anti-government protesters were occupying large areas in central Bangkok and obstructing the elections earlier this year.

Also, Reuters reported in December that defense minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan and former army chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda were supporting Suthep's protests behind the scenes. Both Gen. Prawit and Gen. Anopong are now serving as the junta's chief advisor and its deputy, respectively.

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Nevertheless, the reaction from the military junta was equally unsurprising:

"Gen Prayuth insisted he had never talked or exchanged messages in private with Mr Suthep," Col Winthai said.

"He said as leader of a security force, he had been assigned by the then government to persuade all groups to negotiate, a feat that had never been achieved," he said.

"Yingluck Shinawatra, the government at the time, instructed the army to warn all groups to avoid breaking the law and protect the people," he said. (...)

According to sources, Gen Prayuth was "very upset" with Mr Suthep as the atmosphere is improving. 

"Prayuth denies Suthep's coup plotting claim", Bangkok Post, June 23, 2014

Meanwhile, the Bangkok Post's "military correspondent" Wassana Nanuam has clarified that the initial report was not based on a third party source, but on a Bangkok Post colleague who actually attended Suthep's charity event on Saturday:

Whether or not Suthep was either reminding us that the protest movement he led is still alive or reminding the military junta about their role in the run-up to the military coup, it does show yet again that the interests of those that demanded and ultimately chased out the government of Yingluck Shinawatra were, and still are, closely aligned.

P.S.: About that LINE conversation...

Thailand's political crisis exacerbates: Welcome to Quagmire Country

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 16, 2014 Welcome to Quagmire Country. Last week Thailand's acting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted after a Constitutional Court ruling ruled that she has illegally transferred the head of National Security Council. This was followed by an indictment by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) for negligence of duty in the rice-pledging scheme, which could result in her impeachment and banishing from politics for five years. She was replaced by interim Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, a Thaksin confidante and former executive in his various companies.

Embolden by the news, the anti-government protesters led by Suthep Thuagsuban stepped up their rallies again, harassing and coercing TV stations to broadcast their speeches and not the government security official's announcements. Earlier this week, they moved out of Lumphini Park and moved back to Ratchadamnoen Road where they started their campaign over six months ago.

Meanwhile, the Senate convened initially only to confirm a new executive for the NACC, as dictated by a royal decree - but also decided to elect a new Senate speaker. The vote went to Surachai Liengboonlertchai, an appointed senator and the former deputy speaker - and the preferred choice of the anti-government protesters. But that vote may or may not have overreached what the decree dictated and may be legally challenged, while Surachai awaits royal confirmation.

This highlights the current importance of the Senate - the half-elected, half-appointed upper chamber - in this current political stalemate. For instance, 90 (or three fifths) of the 150-strong Senate are needed in order to impeach former PM Yingluck. Also, as currently the only representative body left in Thailand, calls by the protesters for it to appoint a 'neutral' caretaker government are getting louder and has been considered aloud by some senators in informal sessions and secret backdoor meetings, raising more questions and doubt than actual solutions and confidence.

The new Prime Minister Niwatthamrong had to hit the ground running and pushed for the proposed July 20 elections to go ahead. For that he met with the Election Commission (EC) on Thursday, but that was cut short when a mob led by Suthep bursted onto the compound and forced Niwatthamrong to flee - despite a change of location due to security concerns. The EC then swiftly declared that July 20 elections are "unlikely" in the same reluctant manner we saw before the earlier attempt on February 2.

It was yet another symbolic blow for the remaining Cabinet, as Suthep & co. have already occupied a building of the besieged Government House and made it their center of operations. The EC and earlier this week the Senate speaker-elect have welcomed Suthep and his co-leaders openly to discuss the protesters' solution, giving them the sort of legitimacy Suthep is seeking after months of bullying.

One has to wonder whether or not the EC and the Senate are openly chaperoning Suthep and his demands for an appointed caretaker government, since the protesters claim that there's a 'political vacuum' now after Yingluck's ouster and PM Niwatthamrong has very limited powers. In fact, the Senate speaker-elect Surachai has threatened to go ahead with the 'neutral' PM and stated the importance of not letting "laws impede ability to solve Thai crisis". The thin veneer of impartiality of many (especially appointed) senators is yet another casualty along a long line of politicized institutions and government agencies that are supposed to be neutral.

With the red shirts rallying outside Bangkok, but staying put for now and yet another deadly attack killing 3 protesters on Wednesday night,  the so far gun-shy military issued its sharpest statement yet. Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha threatened to "launch a full-scale effort to end the violence, in order to maintain order", if such violent incidents do not stop.

Thailand is now entering a crucial junction where tensions could exacerbate even more depending on what the Senate will do next. The immediate fate and future of the country is being decided (yet again) by a few behind closed doors whose 'reform' ideas are nebulous at best at this moment. Should Suthep's demands be met by an accommodating Senate and other government agencies, the caretaker government be toppled and a replacement to be appointed, the country is inching from a sustained political crisis towards a fully destructive impasse, under which a compromise is becoming even more difficult than it already is. Then Thailand really becomes the Quagmire Country.

Will Abhisit's 'middle man'-approach end Thailand's political impasse?

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 30, 2014 The efforts of Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva to mediate in the ongoing political crisis is being welcomed by some and regarded with skepticism by others. What is the opposition leader's rationale after all these months, asks Saksith Saiyasombut

The past few days saw a man with his right arm in a sling, but also wearing his new ambitions on his sleeve. Abhisit Vejjajiva, former prime minister of Thailand and the leader of the opposition Democrat Party, is seeking a compromise across all political battle lines as fears of ongoing political tensions escalating into more violence grow.

For six months now the anti-government protests led by Abhisit's former deputy prime minister and former Democrat Party heavyweight Suthep Thuagsuban have taken Thailand's political discourse to dangerous extremes. Within that turmoil the opposition Democrat Party wasn't quite so sure where to position itself in all this, especially considering that many Democrat executives and supporters waged their battle outside parliament on the streets instead.

This dilemma grew bigger when the ruling Pheu Thai Party and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament in December and called for new elections. Since its chances at the polls were low as always and delusions confidence of the protesters at an high, the Democrat Party was left with the choice either to compete in the elections or to boycott them - or in their own words, either "killing" or "crippling" the party respectively, knowing that "it will hurt either way," as Abhisit noted then. Ultimately, the party decided to "cripple" itself and not to take part in the elections.

Despite the February 2 elections being successfully ruined by an obstructionist Election Commission and by mob blockades, and later annulled by the Constitutional Court, the Democrats still weren't quite sure where to position themselves other than beating the same "reform-before-elections" drum of Suthep's protesters. But with the mounting legal challenges against interim PM Yingluck at the Constitutional Court and at the National Anti-Corruption Commission taking longer than its rivals would have liked in order to oust her caretaker government, the political crisis steered closer and closer to an impasse. Meanwhile, the number of anti-government protesters has dwindled, with the hardcore  retreating to Bangkok's Lumphini Park.

Abhisit himself, while recovering from a broken collarbone after a fall at home last month, has now decided to re-position himself as the mediator between the warring factions.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has volunteered to spearhead efforts to break the current political deadlock by personally approaching key political figures to sell them on the ideas of reform. (...)

Appearing in a three-minute video clip posted on YouTube Thursday, Mr Abhisit said the only way to solve the political problems and move the country towards progress and stability is reform.

"I believe that the only way forward for the country is through reform, undertaken constitutionally and democratically with elections an integral part of the process,” he said. He did not elaborate on his reform ideas, saying he wanted to meet key individuals and groups to convince them in person. (...)

Mr Abhisit expects to complete the series of meetings within seven days.

However, he did not place the blame on any particular group. "Now is not the time to play the blame game because everyone is accountable for the situation our country is facing, including the Democrat Party and myself," he said.

"Abhisit offers to head efforts to end deadlock", Bangkok Post, April 25, 2014

Since his highly publicized pledge to bring everyone back to the table, Abhisit had a series of meetings with the military, the permanent secretary for justice and also intends to meet interim Yingluck, to name a few. However, there are no signals from her ruling Pheu Thai Party and their red shirt supporters, while the anti-government protesters have straight up slammed the door on Abhisit's mediator efforts and any talks whatsoever.

Abhisit's approach looks much more level-headed on the surface compared to the shrill and uncompromising calls for an unconstitutional power-grab by Suthep or others. Some might even say that Abhisit is distancing himself from the protesters and finally stepping up to be part of the political solution rather than being part of the problem, even though that might alienate a large section of the Democrat Party's Bangkok-based voters.

However, it is still unknown what exactly his "minor reforms" would look like and Abhisit remains vague in interviews after his personal meetings behind closed doors. He also has yet to reveal what the Democrat Party itself will do in order to move things forward, as it has yet to acknowledge the need for inner-party reform. Also, in a meeting with the Election Commission on Tuesday, which is currently aiming for a new election date some time this summer, Abhisit has hinted that might still be too early.

In fact, in all his public statements during the past week Abhisit has been very non-committal whether or not his party will be taking part in the next election. That might be indicative of the Democrat Party (and others) waiting for the outcome of the legal charges against the Yingluck caretaker government (see above). In other words: Abhisit could be waiting for the political playing field to be re-defined or entirely cleared out of their political rivals.

For now, we will have to wait until Abhisit wraps up his mediation tour to see if the intentions he's wearing on his sleeve are real, or if he's actually hiding another card up his sleeves.

Thai PM Yingluck challenged to live TV debate by protest leader Suthep

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 28, 2014 During the campaign for the 2011 general elections, then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party proposed a televised debate with his challenger Yingluck Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai Party, in the hope that the well-skilled public speaker could score some points against an at that time inexperienced and unproven politician - who ultimately declined. Since then, Pheu Thai assumed the rule, Yingluck became prime minister and Abhisit lost his manners. Furthermore, the Democrat Party has entirely given up on elections, many of its senior figures have now taken to the streets, bringing the entire political discourse to a halt.

For four months, anti-government protesters in Bangkok have done a lot - most of all disrupting the February 2 elections - in order to topple the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in their ongoing "crusade" to "eradicate" Yingluck's brother Thaksin's strong influence on Thai politics. In his regular nightly (and rabble-rousing) speeches, protest leader Suthep Thuagsuban reflects the group's uncompromising attitude and has consistently refused to negotiate with the caretaker government whatsoever (as seen here, here, here and just as recently as last Tuesday - links via Bangkok Pundit).

This stance, however, changed on Thursday:

Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has challenged Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to one-on-one talks broadcast live on television in a bid to end the political deadlock. (...)

"If Khun Yingluck really wants to find a solution through talks, I ask her to make an appointment for a one-on-one meeting with me in an open setting," Suthep told reporters. "The talks should be broadcast live on TV so that the people know what is going on."

"Suthep calls for live TV talks with Yingluck", The Nation, February 28, 2014

The last time a Thai government openly held talks with anti-government protesters was in 2010 when then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva met with the pro-Thaksin red shirts. While the talks were televised for everyone to see, the two-day negotiations ended in no result. But that was just three weeks into the protests and way before things really escalated. These current protests are entering their fifth month.

The timing of this apparent turnaround is noteworthy: the overall situation deteriorated with last week's attempts by the authorities to reclaim some protest sites escalating into a gunfight with protesters, killing six. Last weekend then saw attacks on rally sites in Bangkok and Trat that killed five people - four children were among the victims. Also since then, there have been reports of almost nightly gunfire and explosions near rally sites.

Politically the caretaker government is under pressure. It suffered a defeat at the hands of the judiciary last week when the Constitutional Court rejected its petition to outlaw the protests, showing remarkable indifference to the protesters' actions. Following that decision the Civil Court restricted the authorities' powers to deal with the protesters, effectively banning the dispersal of the rallies.

Caretaker-PM Yingluck herself is facing charges by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) for allegedly neglecting her duty in her implementation of the government's populist rice-pledging scheme. She did not personally show up to hear the charges and the red shirts - taking a page from the anti-government protesters' playbook - have chained up the anti-corruption agency.

PM Yingluck's reply to Suthep's live TV debate proposal:

Prime Minister Yingluck agrees to engage in a peaceful negotiation with Mr. Suthep. (...) Prime Minister asked Mr. Suthep whether he is ready to have the negotiation under the principle of the present Constitution and whether he is ready to end the protest to pave the way for the election (...) Though there is no basic principle for the negotiation process to be successful, there should at least be a common goal that both sides would initially like to attain through negotiation. If both sides continue to hold different view on the process, it would be difficult to find a common ground. (...) If each party does not show any sign of flexibility, in the end, we would not be able to find a common ground.

"Unofficial Translation of PM Yingluck’s reaction to Mr.Suthep’s announcement that is is ready to negotiate as reported in the Thai press." via Suranand Vejjajiva, February 27, 2014

Her statement is neither a flat-out rejection nor a full agreement: The protesters would have to end their rally and any proposal that is not "under the principle of the constitution" (e.g. Yingluck replaced by a 'neutral' caretaker-PM) would not be accepted by the government. And then there's the format itself:

"The talks have to have a framework though I am not sure what that framework would look like," she told reporters in the town of Chiang Mai in the north, a Thaksin stronghold. "But many parties have to be involved because I alone cannot answer on behalf of the Thai people."

"Thai PM faces negligence charges as protest leader broaches talks", Reuters, February 27, 2014

Leaving aside the previous remarks from the anti-government camp that she's incapable of making her own decisions without consulting her brother Thaksin, it appears unlikely that Yingluck would verbally go head-to-head with Suthep, who has constantly hardened his rhetoric against her - often below the belt.

But on the other hand, months of street protests resulting in 21 deaths and hundreds of injured have possibly worn out the early enthusiasm of the anti-government protesters, as seen in the shrinking attendance numbers. Suthep, who previously had an interest in escalating the protests, might be looking now at an exit strategy in these talks.

P.S.: Suthep has also challenged Chalerm Yubamrung, the labor minister who's also overseeing the security situation, to a fistfight...!

Thai govt declares state of emergency as political crisis deepens

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 22, 2014 The political standoff took a new twist Tuesday when the Thai government's declared state of emergency to counter the ongoing anti-election protests. With additional developments in the background, the wheels in this political crisis are about to spin faster.

With the mass anti-election protesters' campaign to "shutdown" the capital Bangkok entering its second week, the Thai caretaker cabinet decided to declare a state of emergency (SoE) on Tuesday evening as a response to the continuous targeting of government offices and banks by the protesters. The move also comes after explosions on Friday and on Sunday injured over 60 demonstrator and killed one. The suspects are still at large and police have set a 500,000 baht bounty on the perpetrator of Sunday's blast.

The 60-day state of emergency, starting on Wednesday, will last until March 22 and covers Bangkok and in parts its surrounding provinces Nonthaburi, Thonburi, Pathum Thani and Samut Prakarn. While the emergency decree is significant in principle - potentially  expanding the power of security forces to include searches, arrests and detentions people with limited judicial and parliamentary oversight and also censor media coverage - details of which regulations are being issued had yet to emerge as of publishing.

The announcement also includes a restructuring of the government organization tasked with handling the demonstrations. It now officially called the "Center for Maintaining Peace and Order" (CMPO) or "ศูนย์รักษาความสงบ" (ศรส.) in Thai.

Tuesday's announcement brought a familiar face in Thai politics back to the front line with the Pheu Thai MP Chalerm Yubamrung, who announced the CoE, assuming the position as CMPO director, while police chief-general Adul Saengsingkaew and defence ministry's permanent-secretary Nipat Thonglek acting as operating directors.

Chalerm is a veteran politician known for his bullish appearance and his reputation of being a blowhard, to put it mildly. When he was reappointed from deputy prime minister overlooking national security to labor minister in a reshuffle last year, he bemoaned his apparent political downfall. But when the current protests kicked off last November, somehow Chalerm managed to wrestle his way back into the headlines when he seemingly single-handedly took charge of monitoring the rallies led by opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban - practically his political counterpart and arch-nemisis. Weeks later, Chalerm even boastfully and colorfully announced that he's "****ing back!"

The CMPO declared that the rallies by Suthep - who in April 2010 as deputy PM issued the last SoE declared in Thailand during the red shirt protests - have "constantly violated the law, especially in closing down government offices and banks and harassment against civil servants to prevent them from working.” But at the same time they insist there are no plans to crack down on the protesters and are hoping that Suthep will surrender himself to the authorities. A notable sight during the televised announcement was the toned down presence by military officers, normally front and center at such announcements, even though many hold positions in the CMPO.

As the effects of the state of emergency declaration are yet to take effect, the government of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has taken a proactive role after months of a hesitant, non-confrontational approach by police. Protest leader Suthep was unsurprisingly defiant, as he called the authorities to "come and get us" and still insists that his movement is "peaceful" despite riots and threats by its militant wing. Suthep says that the protests will continue with a view to stopping the February 2 election.

In related news, the Election Commission (EC) - still very reluctant to hold the February 2 polls - has asked the Constitutional Court to review the possibility of postponing the election. According to the constitution, a general election cannot be moved to another date, but by-elections can. However, with the SoE declaration affecting only Bangkok and surrounding provinces, the court may actually find a reason delay the vote because of these special circumstances. Moreover, candidacy registration has been disrupted by anti-election protesters in over 20 districts in the deep South.

With the state of emergency declaration the tense standoff between protesters and caretaker government goes to the next level and is less than likely being resolved anytime soon, since the government seemingly determined to hold the February 2 election and Suthep most likely now even more determined to stop it. Adding to that the EC's ongoing efforts to delay the February 2 elections, the National Anti-Corruption Commission's investigation against 308 mostly Pheu Thai lawmakers for their role in the proposed constitutional amendments and another probe directly targeting caretaker prime minister Yingluck for her rice subsidy scheme, the current political crisis in Thailand could be in very real danger of spinning out of control.

Organized chaos: Thai anti-election protesters' hardline faction

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 15, 2014 With the ongoing protests escalating again, anti-election protesters spread out across Bangkok this week in their much-touted "shutdown", further putting pressure on the caretaker government of interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and to cancel the elections scheduled for February 2. Various factions inside the protest movement have also mobilised. One group in particular drew attention after this threat on Monday:

Protesters announced they will close the entrance of Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (Aerothai) on Ngam Duplee road and also the Stock Exchange of Thailand on Ratchadapisek road if caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra refuses to resign before the deadline on Wednesday. Aerothai is in sole charge of all communications between aircraft and air traffic controllers in Thailand.

The blockade would be carried out by the Students and People Network for Thailand’s Reform (SPNTR). Uthai Yodmanee, a core leader of SPNTR, said Monday morning that if Ms Yingluck did not resign and leave the country by the given deadline, his supporters would close access to both sites.

He said the stock market has to sacrifice because Thai investors are still ignoring the situation and the protesters viewed the stock market as the “heart” of the Thaksin regime, because former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was still able to manage the capital markets from overseas.

"SET, air traffic control targeted", Bangkok Post, January 13, 2014

A similar threat was also made the night before by Nittikorn Lamlua, a senior advisor to the faction, adding that it would be solely under the responsibility of this group, not of the main protest leaders. A spokesman for the main protest leaders, in an attempt at damage control, almost immediately issued a denial that any protesters would target Thailand's air traffic control or any other public transport system. However, Uthai was seemingly unfazed by their main allies' apparent disapproval and reiterated his threats on Tuesday night:

(...) the hard-line movement Students and People Network for Thailand's Reform (STR) yesterday confirmed it planned to blockade the Stock Exchange of Thailand and the offices of Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (AeroThai) if caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra did not resign.

STR coordinator Uthai Yodmanee said the group would wait until 8pm tonight [Wednesday] - its deadline for Yingluck to step down. "If Yingluck does not resign by then, the STR will block the stock market and the Aeronautical Radio of Thailand office," he said, adding that STR leaders were designing a strategy on how to blockade the two places.

Any disruption of AeroThai's services could cause chaos for civilian aircraft, including domestic and international passenger flights, scheduled to land in Thailand, as well as those flying through Thai airspace, Uthai said.

"AeroThai and SET are in protesters' sights", The Nation, January 15, 2014 

It seems that the protest leadership is losing control over the most hardline and militant wing in their movement, which has previously already been at forefront of this protests' most volatile and chaotic actions.

The so-called "Network of Students and People for Reform of Thailand" (NSPRT) - or in Thai กลุ่มเครือข่ายนักศึกษาประชาชนปฏิรูปประเทศไทย (คปท.) - is led by Uthai Yodmanee, a student union leader at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok. The 32-year-old's political activity goes back as far as 2006, when he was involved in anti-government protests led by the "People's Alliance for Democracy" (PAD), also known as the yellow shirts, demanded the ouster of then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (source). In May 2007 (after the military coup of '06), he reportedly laid flowers at the Constitutional Tribunal, thanking them for dissolving Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party (source).

He also joined the rubber farmer protests last year, which in part turned violent. The anti-Thaksin stance would become a constant in Uthai's political activism. It is reported that he has close ties to fellow southerner Thaworn Senniam, who resigned as deputy leader of the opposition Democrat Party in order to lead the anti-government protests.

The NSPRT came on the scene last year when rallies led by the opposition Democrat Party and others targeted the government's amnesty bill drafts last August, but failed to gain momentum and were slowly fading in support, which led to one anti-government group's relocation of their rally site. That was when the NSPRT took over that stage and was seen as a political fringe group for the first time. With the rewritten amnesty bill draft passing parliament in late October, the anti-government protesters were reignited, which led to the anti-government rallies that are still going on until today.

Another central figure of the NSPRT is the faction's senior member Nititorn Lamlua, a "human rights lawyer" of the Lawyers Council of Thailand and previously attached to the PAD. His most recent activism before the protest targeted the government's 350bn Baht water management scheme ($10.6bn), which has been criticized for its non-transparent process among other complaints.

As the Thai academic Aim Sinpeng correctly observed, "nationalism, anti-mega projects and anti-corruption underlie some of the main motivations" for both men and the NSPRT.

What also distinguishes the hardcore faction are their extreme actions during the protests. Nititorn led a rally to the United States Embassy in mid-December after previously threatening to storm it. The US State Department statement earlier supported the "democratic process in Thailand," essentially endorsing the February 2 elections. At the embassy, Nititorn bizarrely suggested that the US ambassador Kristie Kenney should leave the country. "If she needs to leave the embassy, she'll have to go by helicopter because she has badmouthed the protesters," he was quoted as saying. The NSPRT also attacked the Election Commission's registration center in Bangkok in late December, where two people were killed in the clashes with police and have later temporarily seized the building.

With the deadline imposed by the NSPRT looming and the uncertainty over what will happen next in the "Bangkok shutdown", the questions are if this fringe group will actually launch an(other) attack designed to incite chaos - this time severely threatening to disrupt Thailand's air safety - and whether or not the main leaders have any control over their hardliners. As recent events have shown, there are small groups among the protesters that are prone to spark violent escalations and the NSPRT is one them.

Opinion: Thai opposition boycott a slap in the face to voters

Orginally published at Siam Voices on December 22, 2013 Thailand's opposition Democrat Party is to boycott the February 2 elections, prolonging the current political crisis. But this move will hurt the country's oldest political party in the long-run, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

When Sukhumband Paribatra was reelected as Governor of Bangkok in March this year he did it with a record number of over 1.25m votes, maintaining the Democrat Party's stranglehold on Thailand's capital. However, the rival Pheu Thai Party was able to make ground, especially in the city's outskirts. In a city of roughly 12 million people, only 5 million are registered in Bangkok, while 4.2 million of them were eligible to vote. That means only about a third decided on the future of the other two-thirds. I commented back then that it was important for the Democrat Party to look beyond the city borders to the rest of the country since the next general election would likely be their "very last chance" to make a nationwide impact at the polls.

On Saturday, they slammed the door on that chance.

With the reportedly "unanimous" decision not to file any MP candidates and effectively boycott the February 2 general election, the Democrat Party of Thailand, somewhat ironically, has turned its back on democratic discourse in Thailand. Instead, it has decided to heed the the vague but shrill calls of the anti-government protesters for "reform before elections" in the form of the appointed "People's Assembly", proposed by protest leader and former fellow senior party figure Suthep Thuagsuban and his motley crew of like-minded ultra-conservatives.

Granted, it was always going to be an uphill battle for the Democrat Party. It hasn't won an election in two decades and would be unlikely to sway voters in less than two months. It is also undeniable that Thailand needs political (and social) reform on several fronts and the upcoming election won't solve all these problems. But by siding with the protesters and endorsing their demands, the Democrats have delivered a slap to the face of not only to the 47m eligible voters, but also the 11.5m people that voted for them in the last general elections 2011.

While Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party won that election easily, there were surely still a lot of people willing to give then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva a second chance to initiate reforms he failed to put in place while in power from 2008-20011 and are bemoaning now to be missing today, such as the proposals by Suthep for police reform (despite being deputy-PM in charge of national security under Abhisit back then) or the sudden embrace for decentralization in form of election of all provincial governors (also not mentioned during the Abhisit premiership).

On Saturday, Democrat Party leader Abhisit lamented "the loss of trust in Thailand's political system, and respect for political parties and elections." He didn't, however, touch on the failure of the Democrat Party in the past decade to effectively adapt to the politics and policies of Thaksin Shinawatra's government(s) and the changing political landscape. The need for reform of the Democrat Party into a healthy, rational political opposition is evident. However, in the party meetings this past week, with the re-election of Abhisit and Alongkorn Ponlaboot - the party's most outspoken proponent for reform - effectively sidelined, it showed that the party is unwilling to change itself for now. The boycott decision also shows that it doesn't even acknowledge that it could have been part of the solution, but instead is becoming part of the problem. The Democrats did not "play the ball back" to caretaker-Prime Minister Yingluck, as Abhisit said. They took the ball and simply popped it.

Whatever their gambit is (most likely creating a political gridlock in order to provoke a military or "judicial" coup), it will hurt the Democrat Party in the long-run. A 2006-style impasse is not possible due to amendments in the election rules that doesn't require 20 per cent of the vote for a MP candidate in the third by-election round and also due to the fact that, unlike over seven years ago, other opposition parties have not decided on a boycott yet.

Last week, the new secretary-general Juti Krairiksh said that entering the elections would “kill” and a boycott “cripple” the party respectively. Thailand's Democrat Party chose this weekend to cripple itself and it is doubtful whether or not it can recover in its current form.

Opinion: What will happen next with Suthep and Thailand's 'Democrazy'?

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 10, 2013 The Thai political battle goes into the next round as Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has dissolved parliament and called for new elections. Regardless, the ongoing street protests to drive her and brother Thaksin out of politics continue. With a tearful Yingluck insisting earlier today that she will not resign before the Feb. 2 polls, the two sides remain at an impasse. So, how can we make sense of what will happen next?

This is now the fifth time protest leader Suthep Thuagsuban has announced that a "People's Victory Day" will take place and that has yet to happen. Escalating anti-government protests over the past week triggered the dissolution of the House and the scheduling of elections for February 2, 2014. However, these two steps have been repeatedly rejected before and Suthep's group remain uncompromisingly stubborn.

Suthep's speech on Monday revealed little about his plans how to "reform democracy" and "return power to the people" with his essentially anti-democratic, appointed "people's council". Instead - especially in his post-announcement speech that took longer than the actual announcement itself - he went on the usual shrieking diatribe against Yingluck and Thaksin and also tabled the idea of asking government officials about their loyalty, leaving open what would happen to those that would not side with them. While this movement claims to be peaceful and unarmed in its actions, their words carry a lot of hate.

Now it comes down to the opposition Democrat Party, whose MPs all resigned on Sunday. Should they boycott the elections planned on February 2 next year, they could provoke the same political gridlock like they did in 2006 that eventually caused the military to stage a coup against Thaksin. Since the party seemingly has no apparent rifts with the protesters anymore and willingly joined them, it looks like the Democrat Party is "not so keen on the whole democracy thing" anymore and has given up on elections and the 11 million Thais that voted for them in the last elections.

Thailand's current power struggle is worthy of the label "democrazy" - ironically the same word that the current protesters have used against pro-Thaksin voters in the past, reflecting yet again their electoral powerlessness.

Later on Monday night, Suthep set an ultimatum for the now caretaker government of still-PM Yingluck to resign by 10pm on Tuesday (which she rejected in a tearful presser on Tuesday) and also told protesters to stay a couple of more days to see what happens. Again, he delays "victory day" and leaves us all questioning what will happen next. But one thing is for sure: he will try to seek more chaos in order to provoke a complete derailment of the current political system.

Thailand protests live-blogs: It's been quite some busy days…!

As you may have seen and read it at Siam Voices or on my Twitter account, Thailand has seen the biggest anti-government protests since 2010, as rallies led by former Democrat Party MP, former deputy prime minister and veteran political bruiser Suthep Thuagsuban have gradually escalated their initial anti-amnesty bill campaign into an all-out anti-democratic push to topple the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in order to "eradicate Thaksinism". Here are the live-blogs we have been writing over the days at Siam Voices: November 11, 2013: LIVE: Thailand’s Senate amnesty debate, and the Preah Vihear ruling

November 25, 2013: LIVE: Thailand anti-government protests paralyze Bangkok

December 1, 2013: LIVE: Thai anti-govt protesters make ‘final push’

December 2, 2013: LIVE: Fresh violence raises tensions in Bangkok

December 3, 2013: LIVE: Tensions ease in Bangkok

To keep up with the situation in Thailand that will surely change quickly over the next few days go to my Siam Voices blog at Asian Correspondent and follow us on Twitter @Saksith, @siamvoices and @ASCorrespondent.