A journalist who took a stroll around Lumphini Park in the heart of Bangkok in mid-October was confronted by an extraordinary spectacle — royalist ultra-nationalist anti-government protesters in blackface, wearing skirts made of leaves and bizarre hats, waving banners rejecting a ruling by the International Court of Justice on the status of territory around Preah Vihear temple on the Cambodian border.
The ICJ hasn’t even made its ruling yet. It is due on November 11.
The motley crew of malcontents encamped at Lumphini are mostly supporters of the so-called “People Democratic Force to Overthrow Thaksinism”, who prefer to use the acronym “Pefot”. They also include members of the related “white mask” movement who have staged multiple poorly attended rallies wearing Guy Fawkes masks popularized in Alan Moore’s graphic novel V For Vendetta, apparently oblivious to the fact that the real Guy Fawkes was executed for treason in London in 1606 for plotting to kill the king.
An equally peculiar crowd of their allies set up a camp at Sanam Luang for several months this year. In a further disorienting twist, they included dozens of elderly members of the Communist Party of Thailand who liked to strut around in fading uniforms proclaiming their undying support for the Thai monarchy.
The madness is not confined to the ultra-royalist side. Some hardcore Red Shirt commentators — most notably the ludicrous “Banpodj” — have recently been peddling a theory that claims (as far as I can make out) that King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit are already dead, and that Princess Sirindhorn has become an evil behind-the-scenes mastermind, employing a variety of special effects to give the impression her parents are still alive so that she can keep Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn off the throne. Despite his hatred of the rest of the royals, Banpodj is a huge fan of the prince, regularly lavishing effusive praise upon him.
The deeper one digs into contemporary Thailand, the more of a puzzlement it seems. Why is the establishment so infused with an extraordinary primal hatred of Thaksin Shinawatra, a fairly ordinary man little different from many other corrupt Thai political leaders before him, although admittedly more effective than most? What has turned the traditionally pragmatic and unprincipled elder statesmen of the aristocracy into rabid zealots obsessed with wild notions of impending national catastrophe and existential doom? How can conflict over the looming royal succession be so crucial for understanding 21st century Thailand — as Paul Handley and Thongchai Winichakul, among others, have correctly argued — if everybody agrees that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn will almost inevitably become King Rama X? Most journalism and academic research on Thailand struggles to answer these questions.
In his remarkable, game-changing 1978 article Studies of the Thai State: The State of Thai Studies, Benedict Anderson coolly overturned decades of accepted wisdom on Thailand and showed that many of the most cherished assumptions of scholars were entirely wrong. He proposed four “scandalous hypotheses” that profoundly redefined our understanding of Thai history. Although lacking similar brilliance and depth of knowledge, I am at least able to draw on the work of a large number of scholars who have gone before me and led the way, and because I have already violated the lèse majesté law and elected not to return to Thailand, I am able to speak frankly. In this article, I will set out some scandalous hypotheses of my own that I believe are essential to making sense of Thailand’s era of insanity.
- At the elite level, Thailand’s intractable political conflict does not revolve around Thaskin Shinawatra, although he is a central character in the drama. The conflict among Thailand’s elite is essentially a succession struggle over who will become monarch when King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies. In particular, most of Thailand’s elite are implacably opposed to the prospect of Vajiralongkorn succeeding his father, and are prepared to go to extreme lengths to sabotage the succession.
- Both broad factions in the elite succession struggle have failed to understand that Thai society has fundamentally changed, with the rural and urban poor becoming increasingly assertive and informed. As a result, Thailand’s unacknowledged succession struggle has become entangled with a social conflict that encompasses the whole country, leading to a crisis of legitimacy for the monarchy and the deep state.
- Thaksin Shinawatra is a fairly traditional Thai royalist, albeit one who — unusually — has few qualms about the crown prince. Otherwise, his views are very similar to the large number of elite Thais who — although they may appear to be fanatically ultra-royalist — in fact have limited intrinsic loyalty or love for the monarchy, beyond the extent to which they can harness royal barami to serve their own interests. Moreover, elite Thais opposed to the crown prince have a particular incentive to pretend to be staunchly ultra-royalist while the current king remains on the throne, to help shield them against accusations of treachery or anti-monarchism when the succession takes place.
- It’s somewhat misleading to regard the network monarchy model as demonstrating that the monarchy controls or guides the network. In modern Thai history, the network has mostly controlled the monarchy.
To support these assertions, it’s necessary to take a revisionist look at modern Thai history. This article is a first tentative draft of my attempt at doing so. The themes discussed will be analysed in more detail, and in broader historical context, in my upcoming book A Kingdom in Crisis: Royal Succession and the Struggle for Democracy in 21st Century Thailand. It will be published by Zed Books in 2014.
Once upon a time, Thailand’s royal family seemed happy. Glorified by the military dictators who ruled the country from the late 1950s until 1973, boosted by an American-funded propaganda campaign as anti-communist figureheads, and fêted abroad as a fairytale royal couple, Bhumibol and Sirikit were widely revered in Thailand. But behind the walls of Chitralada Palace, tensions were building over their troublesome son Vajiralongkorn. Taciturn, lazy and prone to violent rages, he seemed ill-suited to be a future King Rama X. Bhumibol’s relationship with his son seems to have been dysfunctional from the start and only worsened as the prince got older. But Sirikit doted on her boy. Disagreements between the king and queen, mostly over Vajiralongkorn, began to rip the royal family apart.
In 1972, when Vajiralongkorn was 20 years old, Bhumibol performed a ceremony elevating his status to crown prince, designated heir to the Chakri throne. But Vajiralongkorn was already remarkably unpopular among Thais, who mocked and scorned him in private conversations. Far more popular was his younger sister Sirindhorn, an unpretentious and apparently amiable girl who many Thais came to adore. The family tensions over royal succession were exacerbated by a mounting sense of paranoia during the mid-1970s over the threat from communism, culminating in the appalling massacre of students at Thammasat University on October 6, 1976, by extreme-right elements in Thailand that had long been fostered and encouraged by the palace. The pretext for the savagery was a mock-hanging staged by students two days earlier — rightists alleged it was intended to depict the execution of Vajiralongkorn, a claim those involved in the play have always denied. Whatever the truth, it was exploited by the far-right to unleash an orgy of murder and rape that shocked the world, tore Thai society asunder and destroyed the monarchy’s carefully crafted image as a unifying institution above partisan politics.
In the months and years that followed, an immense effort was launched by Thailand’s establishment to rehabilitate the reputation of King Bhumibol. This was the start of the absurd hyper-royalism which remains rampant in Thailand today. Although it was underpinned by ubiquitous state propaganda, it took on a life of its own. Thais — particularly among the elite — competed to be as ostentatiously royalist as they possibly could, leading to a phenomenon that political scientist Xavier Marquez (writing about ancient Rome during the rule of Emperor Caligula) has dubbed “flattery inflation“.
One of the most striking aspects of hyper-royalism is not only that Vajiralongkorn was left out of the elite’s veneration of Bhumibol and Sirikit, but that the crown prince’s unpopularity was actually exploited by the Thai establishment in order to feed the personality cult of Rama IX. From the 1970s onwards, there was an overwhelming preference among Thais at all levels of society for Sirindhorn to be their next monarch, and far from trying to crush this sentiment as heretical, the elite encouraged it. Bhumibol himself appeared to agree, and in 1977, the king elevated Sirindhorn to the status of potential heir to the throne too. Official sources usually explain this move by characterizing it as a precaution in case anything happened to Vajiralongkorn, and claim it did not cast the prince’s status as heir into doubt. But in fact, the elevation of Sirindhorn to crown princess generated significant ambiguity that remains to this day. It was interpreted by many Thais as a signal that the king was aware of their concerns and would take them into account.
Soul of a Nation, a BBC documentary filmed during 1979, made with the secretive cooperation of the British embassy and with Bhumibol and Sirikit allowed to view it before it was broadcast in 1980 to ensure they approved, devoted considerably more time to Sirindhorn than Vajiralongkorn. One very short segment discussed the prince and included brief comments from him.
Most of Thailand’s elite are royalist only to the extent that it serves their purposes and preserves a political status quo in which they are atop the hierarchical pyramid. Bhumibol was an ideal monarch for them — beloved by most ordinary Thais, seemingly immensely virtuous and saintly, but weak and pliable. By glorifying Rama IX, the Thai elite was sanctifying a social order in which they were firmly in charge.
Vajiralongkorn was another story. Deeply unpopular and totally unable to fit the image of a virtuous dhammaraja Buddhist monarch, he appalled most of the elite, who believed that if he ever became king it would spell the end of the monarchy — and by extension, the end of their hegemony in Thailand.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the elite’s hatred of Vajiralongkorn was further fuelled by his habit of preying on their daughters. In a throwback to the days of Old Siam in which kings and princes had scores of wives and concubines, Vajiralongkorn became notorious for summoning attractive high-born young women to his palace. The extent to which it happened remains unclear, but it was a source of profound anger and anxiety among the Thai elite, many of whom sent their daughters overseas to be educated specifically to escape the prince’s attentions.
The flipside of the widespread loathing for the prince was exaggerated reverence for Bhumibol, and intense fear about what would befall Thailand when he died. For the elite, this terror was largely due to their sense of self-preservation, but in wider Thai society it chimed with widely held traditional beliefs that an immoral king would cause the decline and fall of the nation, and that the world was on the verge of a dark age, or กลียุค. An alleged prophecy dating from the beginning of the Chakri era, which suggested that the monarchy would collapse after the ninth reign, also fed the anti-Vajiralongkorn hysteria.
Instead of preparing the ground for an orderly succession, the elite used popular hatred of Vajiralongkorn to foster desperate hopes among ordinary Thais that Bhumibol would reign for as long as possible. The prince himself was not unaware of what was happening — asked by Dichan magazine in 1987 about his black-sheep status, he acidly replied:
Sometimes black sheep serve a purpose, one of helping others. Black sheep help those not-too-white ones seem whiter.
Meanwhile, chastened by the disasters of the late 1970s, Bhumibol gravitated towards a less obviously interventionist role for the palace in the 1980s with General Prem Tinsulanonda as prime minister heading what Duncan McCargo famously characterised as a “network monarchy“:
The main features of Thailand’s network monarchy … were as follows: the monarch was the ultimate arbiter of political decisions in times of crisis; the monarchy was the primary source of national legitimacy; the King acted as a didactic commentator on national issues, helping to set the national agenda, especially through his annual birthday speeches; the monarch intervened actively in political developments, largely by working through proxies such as privy councillors and trusted military ﬁgures; and the lead proxy, former army commander and prime minister Prem Tinsulanond, helped determine the nature of coalition governments, and monitored the process of military and other promotions. At heart, network governance of this kind relied on placing the right people (mainly, the right men) in the right jobs.
The network monarchy model assumes that Prem was Bhumibol’s proxy, and that the king was in indirect control of the Thai elite. But this has never been quite true — in fact, it has often tended to be the elite pulling the strings. Socially isolated, and often seemingly adrift from reality, the king has been a puppet for much of his reign, although until recently he appears to have been largely unaware of this fact. In his recent article ‘Working towards the Monarchy’ and its Discontents: Anti-Royal Graffiti in Downtown Bangkok in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, Serhat Ünaldi proposes an alternative to McCargo’s model — a concept he calls “working towards the monarchy”:
The strength of the monarchy is not merely the result of manipulation from above but of a symbiotic relationship which, for a long time, has served the interests of many who all seek economic capital and social distinction.In contrast to McCargo’s ‘network monarchy,’ which helps to explain concrete political actions of elite groups in support of the monarchy, ‘working towards the monarchy’ brings broader structures into focus. It moves beyond clear-cut networks and the immediate royal circle as units of analysis to recognise the dominance of the monarchy in Thailand’s cultural and political life as a widespread, cross-class phenomenon serving the social, political and economic aims of people living in the monarchy’s physical proximity – from entrepreneurs to slum dwellers. Where the ‘network monarchy’ works from an active centre which manipulates politics in the interest of royalists, ‘working towards the monarchy’ reverses the perspective by putting the focus on the monarchy’s followers, its charismatic group, who are legitimising their actions with reference to that centre which, in turn, depends on the active and continued reaffirmation of its charisma by the charismatic group.
The elite needed the king’s sacred aura to legitimise their supremacy, and the leading members of the establishment had to make a constant effort to make Bhumibol believe they worshipped him, and to convince their inferiors in the network that their instructions were imbued with royal authority. But once “king’s men” like Prem (and more recently, Anand Panyarachun and Prawit Wongsuwan) managed to cloak themselves in royal barami, they have had considerable latitude to use the establishment network to advance their own interests, whether or not these corresponded with Bhumibol’s. Usually their interests were aligned, but sometimes they were not, particularly with respect to the succession. Nobody knows whether instructions genuinely come from the king. This issue was discussed in one of the most illuminating of all the secret U.S. cables obtained by WikiLeaks, 09BANGKOK2967:
Many figures in the various circles attempt to appropriate the charisma of the King and prestige of the royal institution for their own purposes without any official remit, a process known in Thai as “ang barami.” … Even Thai relatively close to royal principals treat purported wishes conveyed by other royal associates with caution, given the tradition of self-serving “ang barami.”
Prem and Vajiralongkorn have been sworn enemies since the 1980s. The precise origins of their hatred remain murky, but it probably stems from an unacknowledged family crisis in the royal household in the mid-1980s. Bhumibol and Sirikit had grown apart, and the queen’s open infatuation with her military aide Colonel Narongdej Nanda-photidej became profoundly embarrassing for the king. Narongdej was sent away from Bangkok to the United States as a military attaché, and died suddenly in New York in May 1985 after a game of tennis, at the age of just 38. The official explanation was that he suffered a heart attack but many Thais — including Sirikit herself — suspected something more sinister. Her very public grief over the colonel’s death spiralled into a breakdown, and at the end of 1985 Bhumibol ordered her to undergo hospital treatment for what was officially called a “diagnostic curettage”. Sirikit vanished from view for months, and with public disquiet growing, Princess Chulabhorn was enlisted to calm anxiety in a televised interview in 1986 in which she declared:
We all work for his majesty because of our loyalty towards him. Nobody in our family wants popularity for themselves. Everybody is sharing the work and we work as a team… But again, there are people who say that our family is divided into two sides, which is not true at all.
The opposite was true. The whole sad episode spelled the end of Bhumibol and Sirikit’s marriage, and they lived separate lives for the next two decades. A rival royal court developed around Sirikit — characterised by ultra-right wing politics and all-night dinner dances. Thailand’s establishment was never a monolithic united bloc, and the estrangement of Bhumibol and Sirikit further widened the divisions. This gave even greater scope for other leading agents in the network monarchy — above all, Prem — to pursue their own agenda.
As his marriage collapsed, Bhumibol appears to have begun seriously considering abdication. He shocked the nation on his 59th birthday in December 1986 by hinting that he would soon step aside to make way for Vajiralongkorn to rule Thailand:
The water of the Chao Phraya must flow on, and the water that flows on will be replaced. In our lifetime, we just perform our duties. When we retire, somebody else will replace us…
One cannot stick to a single task forever. One day we will grow old and die.
Palace officials confirmed Bhumibol might retire to a monastery some time after national celebrations planned for July 1988 when he would become the longest reigning monarch in Thai history. Tongnoi Tongyai, a semi-official spokesman for Bhumibol, set out the likely scenario in comments to the Far Eastern Economic Review:
The king will never abdicate, if by abdication you mean leaving his duties behind and retiring… Once his majesty sees the crown prince reaching a more mature age and ready to take over all the royal functions, he may enter a monastery… It does not mean that he will remain a monk. The important thing is that he will continue to be there, behind the throne, and help his son solve any problems.
The plan made some sense, in terms of the long-term preservation of the Chakri monarchy, but there was panic among much of the Thai establishment. Given the dangers of openly questioning the king’s intentions, Sukhumband Paribatra took the lead in opposing the plan. As a royal himself, from a rival Chakri bloodline, he had some degree of protection. In an article for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Sukhumband wrote that: “everyone regards rumours about abdication with great apprehension”.
Meanwhile, a palace image management campaign was under way to rehabilitate the crown prince’s reputation — the glossy Dichan magazine owned by palace public relations guru Piya Malakul published two lengthy and sympathetic interviews with Vajiralongkorn, in August 1986 and July 1987, and the prince also spoke to international journalists representing the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand at a special audience in June 1987. He used these media appearances to present himself as a man whose youthful indiscretions were behind him but who remained misunderstood and a victim of malicious gossip. Meanwhile, Prem’s government and the Thai military and bureaucracy were busy planning more than a year of organized nationwide adulation of Rama IX. Events in honour of Bhumibol’s 60th birthday were slated to start many months in advance, and then the country would switch immediately to the build up to July 1988 when Bhumibol would overtake Chulalongkorn as Thailand’s longest reigning monarch. Prem announced that the king would be granted the title of maharaja, officially making him Bhumibol the Great. Only three previous kings in Thailand’s history had received such an honour. The stage was set for Rama IX to bow out in a blaze of glory in the second half of 1988 after a prolonged and massive national celebration of his rule.
In September 1987, Vajiralongkjorn was sent on a state visit to Japan. It was a chance to demonstrate he possessed the necessary maturity and gravitas to stride out onto the world stage with confidence. Given the stakes, things could hardly have turned out any worse. Ahead of the trip, he demanded that his mistress Yuvathida Polpraserth accompany him in an official capacity instead of his wife; the Japanese refused for reasons of protocol. Once he arrived, things went from bad to worse, as Barbara Crosette reported in the New York Times:
A diplomatic storm blew up between Tokyo and Bangkok over what Thai-language newspapers reported as “slights” to the Crown Prince, a pilot and army major general who commands his own regiment, during an official visit to Japan.
A Japanese chauffeur driving the Thai Prince’s car apparently stopped at a motorway tollbooth to relieve himself — Japanese officials say the man felt ill and had to be replaced. On other occasions, the Prince was said to have been given an inappropriate chair to sit on and to have been forced to reach down to the floor to pick up a cord to unveil a memorial. The prince came home three days earlier than scheduled, leaving a diplomatic crisis in his wake.
Worsening the diplomatic damage, members of the right-wing nationalist Village Scouts militia rallied at the Japanese embassy in Bangkok demanding an apology, and Prem dutifully felt compelled to make a formal protest to Tokyo for insulting the prince and the monarchy, despite being well aware that Vajiralongkorn’s claims were totally bogus. Bhumibol finally persuaded his son to make a public statement a few days later calling on Thais to end their criticism of Japan. In the weeks that followed, diplomats and politicians in both countries quietly cleaned up the mess. If this was a taste of how things would be under King Vajiralongkorn, then the people of Thailand clearly had ample reason to be alarmed about Bhumibol’s abdication. By the end of 1987, the notion that Bhumibol could hand over the throne but still steer events from behind the scenes and keep his wayward son under some semblance of control seemed like wishful thinking, doomed to failure.
In January 1988, Sukhumband wrote another article in the Far Eastern Economic Review, sounding the alarm. He used elaborately polite language, but the fact that a leading member of the Thai establisment was publicly airing doubts about the prince — in an international English-language magazine — was extraordinary:
In post-1932 Thailand, the monarch performs various functions as head of state, but his primary duties are considered apolitical — his role is above politics. But popular acceptance of the monarchy as an institution and of the king as a person, combined with the latter’s role as the catalyst of development, makes royal involvement in politics more or less inevitable.
At the present juncture, the monarchy directly or indirectly, intentionally or otherwise, plays a number of roles which have become integral to the Thai political system.
One is that of the symbol of national unity, essential for a society which, though relatively homogeneous, has its share of cleavages. In this connection, the monarchy also acts as the factor of continuity, when conflicts occur in other political institutions. Since 1932, the kingdom has gone through 13 constitutions, 16 coups and 46 cabinet changes. The monarchy has also become a force of national reconciliation, when extreme political polarisation takes place, as evident from the royally initiated development projects at former communist strongholds.
The second major role is that of the last-resort conflict manager when the stresses and strains of the system reach a point of crisis. On several occasions since 1973, the palace has intervened to restrain military groups which would have toppled the government, caused bloodshed or precipitated unpredictable crises. In turn, this role creates a balance — precarious at times to be sure — among the power groups: military, bureaucracy, political parties and business interests…
Given the monarchy’s role in Thailand’s political and economic development, as well as its place in the hearts and minds of the populace, any uncertainty regarding the future of the monarch inevitably causes a great deal of apprehension. Doubts continue to be expressed, mostly in private but now increasingly in the open, about the crown prince’s capacity to evoke the kind of intense political loyalty from the people and the major domestic political groupings that his father is able to do. Doubts also persist as to whether the crown prince can match his father’s subtle and mediatory role in politics.
All men and institutions go through processes of change and transformation. Bhumibol has achieved a great deal for his country and for the institution he inherited without forewarning, but by doing so, he has set perhaps an impossibly high standard of attainment for his successors. Should the leadership provided by the monarchy become less effective for one reason or another in the future, there will be grave political consequences.
The precarious balance among the major political groups and factions would certainly be destroyed… This vacuum is one which only the military would be capable of filling, given its monopoly of coercive power, organizational cohesion and control of the media and grassroots politics. For many Thais this ultimately is the root of their apprehension.
Sukhumband’s intervention was by far the most public, but behind the scenes other leading figures in the establishment, including Prem, were actively trying to sabotage the plan. Soon afterwards, palace officials spread word that Rama IX would not be stepping down. No reason was ever given to explain why the situation had suddenly changed. By first raising and then dashing his son’s hopes of soon becoming Rama X of Thailand, Bhumibol can only have worsened the conflicts and rivalries within the increasingly dysfunctional royal family.
Prem stepped down as prime minister in 1988, but retained his role as the chief consigliere of the network monarchy through his control of the privy council and the annual military reshuffle, and his status as the leading “king’s man”. Members of the establishment with a more modern outlook, in particular those close to the increasingly influential Anand Panyarachun, found Prem’s inflexible conservatism and militarism outdated and distasteful, and the key political dynamic in Thailand during the 1990s was a struggle between the conservative and liberal wings of the establishment. Among the biggest bones of contention were the appropriate role of the military in Thai politics, and what to do about Vajiralongkorn. Establishment conservatives and liberals were united in their hostility towards the crown prince, but divided over how best to handle him. In two key episodes during the decade, the conservatives were blindsided by social and economic developments they failed to understand, tipping the balance in favour of the “royal liberals“.
The increasing political assertiveness of the urban middle class, who generally adopted a highly moralistic attitude towards politics and corruption and (at least in the 1990s) took a dim view of military meddling in politics, completely wrongfooted Prem and Bhumibol. In the political crisis of 1992 that followed a coup the previous year, both men backed the authoritarian military elements of the elite, and were shocked by the strength and tenacity of middle class opposition. The events of Black May in 1992 appeared to have ended the cycle of regular coups that had blighted Thailand throughout Bhumibol’s reign, forcing the humbled and humiliated army back into the barracks and out of government.
Incredibly, Bhumibol managed to emerge from the episode with his reputation enhanced, thanks to his famous televised scolding of Suchinda Kraprayoon and Chamlong Srimuang at Chitralada Palace on the evening of May 20, 1992, which ended several days of shocking violence in Bangkok and was widely misinterpreted as a decisive royal intervention in favour of democracy. In fact, Bhumibol’s anger had been largely directed at Chamlong and the protesters demanding what the king derisively referred to as “so-called democracy”. Thailand’s middle classes chose to overlook this. As Chris Baker — an insightful analyst of Thai politics when he is not penning half-baked hagiographies of the king or extolling Bhumibol’s sophomoric “sufficiency economy” philosophy — has observed:
Since the 1976 drama, an important section of the Thai elite and middle class has needed to imagine the king as a symbol of democracy, particularly in opposition to the soldiers who wanted to suppress it with guns, and the businessmen who wanted to subvert it with money. These people want to make use of the great moral authority of the monarchy, without paying attention to the politics. They have been complicit in rewriting history to cast the king as a peace-maker in 1973 and 1992, glossing over 1976 altogether, and ignoring the 1932 revolution to make democracy seem to be a gift from the throne.
More progressive members of the elite, led by Anand Panyarachun and Prawase Wasi, recognised after 1992 that the “network monarchy” needed to be reformed to prepare for a post-Bhumibol future, an idea that conservatives like Prem regarded as heretical. Bhumibol seems to initially have been against the idea also, as McCargo notes:
Despite the general view that the violence of May 1992 signalled it was time to stop relying on the military and the monarchy, and highlighted the need for a process of thoroughgoing constitutional and political reform, all the evidence suggests that the King himself failed to understand this… The violence of May 1992 had left the King in an apparently strong position. He emerged as the supreme political referee, following a superﬁcially successful intervention to solve the crisis. Yet the intervention also marked the high watermark of his authority. His consistent support for the military reﬂected an obsolete understanding of the Thai political and social order.
This was the backdrop to the struggle over the “People’s Constitution” of 1997. The conservatives claimed the proposed constitution was an attack on the monarchy, and their opposition to the draft charter would probably have blocked it, had the elite not been sent reeling by the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the baht in 1997. In the fraught atmosphere that followed, the conservatives gave up the fight to veto the constitution, and Bhumibol gave it his assent.
Anand and Prawase were surprisingly explicit about the fact that a key motivation behind the new charter was the need to create a constitutional framework that could keep Vajiralongkorn in check if he became king. The constitution institutionalised the network monarchy: Bhumibol’s “good men” would staff agencies that acted as checks and balances on a strengthened executive government, reducing the need for informal royal intervention. If the crown prince did indeed become Rama X, he would be just a figurehead. Thailand would at last become a genuine constitutional monarchy.
But although plans were now in place for coping with a future King Vajiralongkorn, most of the Thai elite convinced themselves it would never happen. They believed the crown prince was so crazy and out-of-control that sooner or later he would so something so egregiously unacceptable and impossible to conceal that it would rule him out of the running for good.
This was a plausible assumption. The prince was connected with all sorts of shady characters, earning him the contemptuous nickname “Sia-O”. On February 28, 1996, when Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto arrived at Don Muang airport for a summit meeting, his 747 was blocked for 20 minutes as it taxied towards the red carpet by three F-5 fighter jets, one of them piloted by the prince. This was Vajiralongkorn’s public revenge for the disrespect he believed he had been shown during his infamous state visit to Japan nine years previously.
Then in May 1996, as Thailand prepared for Bhumibol’s golden jubilee celebrations, the crown prince caused a scandal that transfixed the nation — and foreign media — by publicly banishing his second wife Yuvathida from his palace and from Thailand, ostensibly because of an affair with the prince’s aide-de-camp. Besides the terrible publicity it attracted, Vajiralongkorn’s melodramatic break-up with Mom Benz dealt a severe blow to his succession prospects, because he also disowned and expelled from Thailand the four sons she had borne him. The crown prince was left with no legitimate male heir.
There was also every reason to believe that Bhumibol shared the widespread contempt for his wayward son and would make Sirindhorn his heir instead at the opportune moment. The clearest signal of this was the extraordinary book The Revolutionary King by Canadian author William Stevenson, who spent several years in Bangkok in the 1990s after being personally enlisted by Bhumibol to write a semi-official biography. Stevenson was granted unprecedented access to King Bhumibol and his inner circle, obtaining hundreds of hours of interviews. No other writer, Thai or foreign, from outside the royal family has ever matched this level of access. The book was published in 1999 to near-universal derision from academics. It was riddled with basic factual errors as well as broader and more astonishing misunderstandings throughout, and no effort seemed to have been made to remedy them for its second printing in 2001. For this reason, scholars have tended to overlook the book’s significance. It should not be read as a work of serious history – on that level it is a risible failure. But as an insight into Bhumibol’s view of himself, and how the palace inner circle perceives reality, and how they want to be seen, it is absolutely invaluable. As Roger Kershaw wrote in a review of the book in Asian Affairs in 2001:
Stevenson’s privileged position as an informal mouthpiece of the King has guaranteed, for us, the privilege of access to the royal family’s construction of its own past and present role.
One of the many astonishing aspects of the book is how it depicts Vajiralongkorn, and Bhumibol’s views on the succession. It quotes Lieutenant General Eugene Tighe, director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency 1977 to 1981, as saying Sirkit’s friend Clare Luce Booth had provided him with inside information from the royal household:
Clare reported that the queen wore the pants and wanted her son to become the next king, but the king favours one of his daughters.
It shared a bizarre anecdote about Bhumibol’s attempts to teach the young Vajiralongkorn some manners:
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, a handsome boy, showed an imperious sense of destiny. He deﬁed a reprimand from a courtier by saying, ‘Don’t talk like that to your future king!’ King Bhumibol tanned his son’s backside with the reminder: ‘You’re not the Tenth Rama yet.’ The boy pulled faces behind the backs of teachers or in solemn ceremonies, until the king begged a favour from a palace attendant who had the peculiarity that he could seem to stand still as stone during long rituals while, with his hands behind his back, he modelled clay heads in the likeness of those around him. The courtier made six sculptures of the Crown Prince. The king lined them up along the foot of his sleeping son’s bed one night and the boy woke up to see his own grotesquely ugly faces.
The prince’s notoriety as a sexual predator is hinted at:
‘Why is he giving you the Evil Eye?’ a lovely young member of the Royal Household Bureau asked me, when [Vajiralongkorn] presided over the casting of Buddha images. I suggested he was looking at her, not me. She shivered: ‘I hope not – it’s fatal for a woman.’ …
‘Perfection was too much to ask from a boy who was Heir Apparent,’ lamented an American-educated noblewoman. ‘Look at these pictures of him in court dress-up! If he had to submit to old customs, then he might as well go all the way, have all the women he wanted, and behave like the earlier kings.’
Stevenson says Bhumibol’s mother Sangwan supported Sirindhorn being elevated to the status of crown princess in 1977 because: “She not the Crown Prince had the makings of the next monarch.” He repeats a rumour that Vajiralongkorn once fired a gun at Bhumibol. And in a surreal and totally inaccurate re-imagining of the 1991 coup and political unrest of 1992, Stevenson depicts the crown prince as one of the main villains, in cahoots with venal generals, while Bhumibol fights for democracy:
It was three hours after midnight on 29th April, 1992 that the Ninth Rama was playing the saxophone at a private Chitralada dinner. The queen danced with General Suchinda Krapayoon. Later, Suchinda went to talk to the Crown Prince who sat at his own table. ‘It‘s strange the Crown Prince is here,’ said one of the king’s close aides. ‘He doesn’t usually come to these things. And look at the men at his table. They’re all crooks.’ Then Suchinda left the room without bothering to bow to the monarch who sat with his jacket slung over the back of his chair, as usual. He had put an old cartoon from MAD magazine on a rostrum: in the centre of the cartoon was the single word, THINK! …
If [Bhumibol] said anything that a dictatorial regime decided was a criticism of the Crown Prince and his supporters, the king himself could be charged under the law of lese majesté; but this was increasingly unlikely. In this new crisis, he stayed in his study, reading a sampling of the wildly ﬂying faxes. They attacked Suchinda and the Crown Prince and supported the king. Then counterattacking faxes smeared Suchinda’s opponents, but still left the king unscathed. He bided his time…
Towards the end of the book, Stevenson evokes an atmosphere of impending doom as Bhumibol’s reign approaches its end, and suggests the king had decided Sirindhorn would succeed him. He again raises the prince’s promiscuity and suggests Sirikit was pressing for the prince to take a role in annexing Laos:
‘I cannot afford to die,’ he joked. All he had worked toward would be in jeopardy the very moment it might seem that his life was running out. The Crown Prince would never allow Crown Princess Sirindhorn to inherit the throne. She had upset her mother long ago when she decided she would never marry. The question of how much longer the king had to live was endlessly debated. Those who planned to monopolise political power could not afford to ignore the future of the Crown Princess. Even if she remained a virgin and even if there was no chance of her bearing an heir to the throne, provision had been made by the king for her to succeed him. And a majority of the people were so devoted to her that they would readily welcome her as the next monarch, however startling an innovation this might be…
The Ninth Rama was now by far the world’s longest reigning monarch, but he had to undergo two major heart operations. After making a swift recovery, he appeared on television and armed with charts and a pointer, described the surgical procedure in detail, and then sounded a warning note. He fully expected, he said, to live for a long time yet.
The warning was meant for those who were already clustering around the likely Tenth Rama, the Crown Prince. [Bhumibol], like any father, was reluctant to believe the stories he heard… It was impossible to trace the authors of reports that alleged the Crown Prince took elaborate precautions before sleeping with any woman who caught his fancy because of the rapid spread of AIDS. The users of fax machines and modems claimed his selected companion had to go into quarantine long enough for doctors to be sure she was free from infection. He was now forty-four and lived in his own heavily guarded palace in Bangkok. Queen Sirikit proposed that he should use his military skills in Laos… Laos, went the argument, had always been part of Old Siam. The Crown Prince would impose order
Stevenson also shared the tale of Vajiralongjorn’s banishment of Yuvathida:
When it seemed the scandal would die down, the Crown Prince plastered the capital’s walls with photographs of his actress-wife and the air marshal together: ‘These two people have been declared persona non grata and expelled from the palace. If anyone sees them, they must be shunned . . . Anand Rotsamkhan has been expelled from his position. If he does anything else, he will be given serious punishment . . . The Thai Government does not want him to return to Thailand. Rest in Peace in Foreign Lands.’
Those backing the Crown Prince as the future king withdrew into a discreet silence. He had no authprity to speak for the government but already he sounded like an absolute monarch.
This was truly sensational, incendiary material. The Revolutionary King was not simply a hagiography of Bhumibol, it was an explicit attack on Vajiralongkorn. The book was never formally banned in Thailand (partly because the king himself had commissioned it) but booksellers generally decided not to stock it. The royalist establishment, privately delighted about the book and its trashing of the crown prince, although unhappy that it referred to the king by his nickname “Lek”, never sought to repudiate Stevenson’s assertions. Many thousands of copies were bought overseas and brought into Thailand, and the Bangkok middle class loved the book. Its depiction of a saintly pro-democracy Bhumibol valiantly trying to prevent the corrupt militaristic Vajiralongkorn dragging the country to its ruin resonated with their own prejudices and assumptions. Anyone reading the book — and taking it at face value — could only conclude that Bhumibol was aware his people hated the prince, and would somehow save the day ahead of the succession.
By the start of the 21st century, the Thai elite had another reason to believe that Vajiralongkorn would never be king. They became aware that the crown prince had contracted HIV, and was also suffering from a rare acute form of leukaemia. Perhaps he would die before his father, or so they hoped. Despised, ill and without any legitimate male heirs, Vajiralongkorn appeared to have ruined his chances of ever reigning as Rama X.
Then everything changed.
Thailand’s elite never realized the ground was shifting beneath their feet. During the long economic boom that transformed the country from the late 1950s, economic inequality savagely widened, and Thailand was transformed into a mafia state. Gangsters, tycoons, police chiefs, criminal godfathers, generals and charlatans made fortunes and bought their way into the establishment, using feigned fervent reverence for the monarchy as a bogus badge of honour. The old aristocracy had always been contemptuous of ordinary Thais, and the upstart additions to the establishment were embarrassed by their lowly origins and did their best to hide them. Thailand’s wealthiest families increasingly lived in a bubble, a fairytale fantasy world. The key to getting ahead in the elite world of patronage and nepotism was knowing the right people and not asking too many questions. The rich sent their children to foreign schools and universities, but never taught them to think, and as the personality cult of Bhumibol grew stronger, critical thinking became a disability for the elite. Face was all-important in the fin-de-siècle world of the establishment: decadence was ubiquitous but hidden behind a mask of respectability. As the years passed, most of Thailand’s elite grew increasingly corrupt and incompetent. Lying and dishonesty became so routine that they lost their ability to recognize truth. Taught to revere their social superiors and the “father of the nation”, King Bhumibol, they became infantilized and ignorant.
Although the poor were mostly left behind by Thailand’s economic progress, and handicapped by the country’s notoriously atrocious education system, by the start of the 21st century they were not the submissive morons the elite assumed them to be. As longtime Thai resident James Stent wrote in his superb 2010 analysis Thoughts on Thailand’s turmoil:
The confined world of rural Thai villages… in the 1950s, where spirits and officials were to be appeased and a traditional subsistence way of life was passed on from generation to generation with little change, has radically changed. Now villagers are plugged into the rest of the world via television, mobile phones, pick-up trucks, and family members spending time working at wage earning jobs in Bangkok. As many taxi drivers, all hailing from countryside villages in the Northeast of Thailand, have told me, “We really aren’t as stupid as the city people think we are. We used to be stupid, but no longer.”
Thaksin Shinawatra set this combustible sociopolitical atmosphere ablaze. Although he was a fabulously wealthy recent addition to Thailand’s elite, and seems never to have fully understood the profound changes in Thai society, Thaksin did not talk down to ordinary people, and he made the effort to formulate policies that were of practical benefit to them. Thailand’s poor were not blind to Thaksin’s corruption but they were smart enough to know the rest of the elite were equally crooked. To quote Stent again:
When I asked the villagers if it were not true that Thaksin was very corrupt, the amused response invariably was “Of course, he is corrupt — all politicians are corrupt, but this is the first corrupt politician who has done something for us.” To this day, the corruption, abuses, and personal wealth of Thaksin are glossed over by his rural supporters—not denied, just treated as irrelevant.
Like the rest of the elite, Thaksin was a royalist in the sense that he recognized the advantages of harnessing royal barami to advance his own agenda. But unlike most of the establishment, he had no qualms about Vajiralongkorn becoming Rama X. On the contrary, he considered it almost inevitable, and in the 1990s he began preparing for it with typical pragmatism, spending considerable amounts from his large fortune to win the crown prince’s favour. As the (very pro-establishment) U.S. ambassador Ralph Boyce wrote in a confidential diplomatic cable in March 2005:
the King will not be around forever, and Thaksin long ago invested in Crown Prince futures.
Bhumibol was furious about Thaksin’s largesse to Vajiralongkorn. The king had been trying to discipline his son by restricting his financial allowance, as if the crown prince was still a schoolboy who could be brought into line by having his pocket money cut. Thaksin’s generosity to Vajiralongkorn sabotaged this strategy, and Bhumibol was livid. In his birthday speech in December 2001 he mocked the prime minister in a monologue dripping with derision.
Thailand’s traditional elite was equally appalled by Thaksin’s apparent alliance with Vajiralongkorn. Prasong Soonsiri, a right-wing former air force officer linked to Bhumibol’s circle, leaked information about the king’s disquiet to Far Eastern Economic Review journalists Shawn Crispin and Rodney Tasker. This was published in the magazine’s January 10, 2002, issue in a brief gossipy item headlined “A Right Royal Headache”:
It promises to be a messy new year for Thailand politically, if the messages from some senior officials are to be believed. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is becoming an increasing source of irritation to King Bhumibol Adulyadej because of Thaksin’s perceived arrogance and his alleged attempts to meddle in royal family affairs. Thailand’s constitutional monarch has no formal role in day-to-day politics, but in a speech in early December marking his birthday he lambasted the premier in public. Thaksin is known to have business links with the king’s son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. According to a senior official close to the palace, all this is frowned upon by the king, prompting speculation of a possible confrontation between the Prime Minister’s Office and the palace. The same source worries that Thaksin, who gained a massive majority in last year’s January 6 general election, may use his status as Thailand’s wealthiest businessman, with solid backing in parliament, to fend off the royal palace. That would have serious and worrying implications for the future stability of Thailand.
Thaksin’s government reacted furiously, threatening to expel Crispin and Tasker, which gave further credence to the report. But the incident did little to damage Thaksin’s soaring popularity. It is widely assumed that the elite was concerned that popular support for Thaksin was undermining reverence for Bhumibol, but this is not quite correct. Their real worry was that Thaksin’s popularity made it less implausible that Vajiralongkorn could become king. The prime minister’s unprecedented approval ratings and electoral legitimacy could compensate for the crown prince’s unpopularity. Together, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and King Maha Vajiralongkorn could make a formidable team, perhaps able to dominate Thailand for decades to come. Heightening these concerns, the crown prince appeared to be maturing and settling down, after a secret ceremony at Nonthaburi Palace in February 2001 in which he married one of his ladies-in-waiting, Srirasmi Akharapongpreecha.
The man with most to lose from these developments was the elderly Prem Tinsulanonda. With no descendants to take care of, Prem had little interest in amassing wealth, but his life revolved around preserving the barami he had accumulated and he was addicted to power. He had been a mortal enemy of Vajiralongkorn for two decades, and knew that if the crown prince became Rama X he would be flung out of the privy council and his personal safety could be at risk. Thaksin showed little deference to Prem and saw no reason why the old general should still be such a powerful figure. After becoming prime minister, he began systematically circumventing Prem’s network and putting his own allies in influential positions.
In 2005, two bombshells detonated in the comfortable world of Thailand’s elite. In February, Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party won a landslide general election victory that was unprecedented in several respects: Thaksin was the first prime minister ever re-elected for a second consecutive term, and the first to win an overall parliamentary majority at the polls. It was a stunning riposte to his critics and it demonstrated that he would be a dominant force in Thai politics for the foreseeable future. Then on April 29, Srirasmi gave birth to a son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti. He was HIV free — Thai newspapers had reported the previous year that doctors had perfected a technique known as “sperm washing” to allow men with HIV to father children who were not infected. Vajiralongkorn had a legitimate male heir once again.
There was panic among the elite, and a coalition of forces assembled to oppose Thaksin Shinawatra. It included almost the entire Thai establishment, the military top brass (loyal to Sirikit and/or Prem), the Democrat Party, the bureaucracy and judiciary, and much of the Bangkok middle class who were rallied by Sondhi Limthongkul and Chamlong Srimuang under the banner of the “Yellow Shirt” movement. It was a curious alliance that encompassed groups that had been at odds during the 1990s — the inner circles of Bhumibol and Sirikit, the establishment conservatives linked to Prem Tinsulanonda and the “royal liberals” in Anand Panyarachun’s network, right-wing business tycoons and leftist NGO and labour leaders. What united them was not simply dislike of Thaksin Shinawatra, it was fear of Vajiralongkorn and the possible consequences of his alliance with Thaksin. From the start, the royal succession was central to the motivations of the Yellow bloc.
Because of the dangers of openly challenging Vajiralongkorn, which include but go well beyond the risk of violating the draconian lèse majesté law, the Yellow coalition never made explicit its opposition to the crown prince becoming Rama X. But the clues were everywhere. In apocalyptic speeches, Yellow Shirt leaders and Thai elder statesmen invoked fears of a looming กลียุค in which corruption and immorality would destroy Thailand. The demonization of Thaksin Shinawatra as a uniquely dangerous supervillain — when in fact he was just an unusually effective and typically corrupt political godfather — channelled decades of fear and loathing for Vajiralongkorn. The elite recognized that an alliance of Thaksin and the crown prince posed an existential threat to their political dominance, and this was the reason for their bloodurdling millenarian rhetoric warning that the world was coming to an end. Their world was coming to an end, and this terrified them. When a mentally ill 27-year-old Thai man destroyed the statue of Brahma at the Erawan shrine at Ratchaprasong in the early hours of March 21, 2006, hysterical ultraroyalists like eccentric Nation Group journalist Thanong Khanthong compared the situation to the last days of Ayutthaya before it was sacked and burned by a Burmese army in 1767, and invoked an ancient prophecy attributed to King Narai. Sondhi’s speeches at Yellow Shirt rallies routinely suggested an existential battle was under way in Thailand to prevent an age of darkness engulfing the country. Anand Panyarachun warned that Thailand was becoming a failed state:
Thai society is now polarized by strong hatred. If this condition is allowed to continue, we will be living in horrifying times.
Despite his support for the Yellow movement, U.S. ambassador Ralph Boyce accurately analyzed this end-of-the-world angst in a confidential cable at the start of September 2006:
So why all the angst? Part of it is just that people tend to forget how bad the bad times were. But part of it may stem from the way politics and Thai society have changed in just a few years. Politics tended to be a game mostly for the elite to play. In the wake of the 1992 demonstrations that toppled the dictatorship, the “People’s Constitution” of 1997, the broader access to media brought by rising prosperity, and the populist policies of PM Thaksin — who staked his electoral success on maintaining the support of the long-disregarded rural population — politics has been, well, democratized. Within Thai society, being “krengjai” (modest, self-effacing) is no longer such a highly prized virtue; citizens more often see the importance of demanding their rights. A much broader segment of the population feels that they have a real stake in the outcome of the political battles in Bangkok, and they are prepared to assert themselves. This does raise the overall political temperature and make spontaneous violence between the rival camps more possible. This may be an unavoidable by-product of a shift from a political system marked by back-room deal-making among the elites to one more genuinely democratic. Old style pols and patricians may be spooked, but we believe that the Thai can, in the end, manage the transition.
Despite all the efforts of the Yellow coalition to create an atmosphere of looming catastrophe and to demonize Thaksin, most Thais continued to support Thai Rak Thai. But the elite and middle class in Bangkok didn’t give a damn about what the rest of the country thought. Helped by an increasingly anti-Thaksin media, they conjured up the illusion that the whole nation was rising up against a dictatorial prime minister. Thaksin himself made some terrible tactical mistakes, most notably with his failure to pay tax on the sale of Shin Corp to Singapore’s Temasek in early 2006, fuelling moralistic middle class rage just when the Yellow movement appeared to be running out of steam.
In an interview by Shawn Crispin the following year, Sondhi Limthongkul confirmed that leading members of the old royalist elite, including Prem, his close ally Surayud Chulanont, and senior generals, had supported the aims of the Yellow Shirts and pressured him to seek confrontation. In the lethal pantomime of Thai street politics, popular support and objective truth are irrelevant, the important thing for anti-government protest leaders is to get some of their own people killed or maimed in circumstances that can plausibly be blamed on the authorities. Sondhi told Crispin:
The request for military intervention or for the king to come out has always had one prerequisite: there must be bloodshed.
That old political theory, that there must be bloodshed for the king to intervene, did not work when its purpose was to get rid of Thaksin. So that more or less upset their planned solution. I remember vividly that when there was [street protest] against Thaksin, I always had people calling me: “Khun Sondhi, could you move things a little bit forward, have a little confrontation, let us see a little blood?” …
I fought Thaksin and I was able to pull up the mass, and they were excited because [the elites] never thought in their minds — and later on they admitted it — that so many people would come out. So they were both shocked and ecstatic. So, all the elites were pulling all their forces behind me.
Sondhi’s Yellow Shirt rallies never came close to bringing down Thaksin by themselves, but they helped create a political climate that enabled a military coup. On September 19, 2006, after months of planning by the Yellow bloc, with Prem Tinsulanonda at the centre of the web, royalist generals deposed Thaksin. Bhumibol immediately gave the new regime his blessing. It was Prem’s coup, but Bhumibol assented to it.
The 2006 coup was a terrible strategic miscalculation by the Thai establishment. They assumed ordinary Thais would passively accept the removal of the most popular prime minister in the country’s history, failing to understand how much society had changed. Millions of Thais who supported Thaksin were initially bewildered that the king, who they had believed to be their protector and guardian, had allowed their democratically expressed wishes to be overturned. As time went by, their shock and confusion began to turn to disgust and anger. Widespread popular reverence for Bhumibol, the sacred glue that held Thailand’s unequal hierarchical society together, began to corrode and decay. The establishment also assumed that Thaksin would follow the unwritten gentleman’s rules of the Thai elite, and meekly accept being turfed out of power. But that was not Thaksin’s style. He fought, and the elderly royalists installed by the coup were utterly befuddled about how to respond. Worse, it quickly became clear that they were incompetent at running a 21st century government.
The establishment had assumed that Prem’s coup was just the first stage of a plan he had worked out with Bhumibol for preventing Vajiralongkorn becoming king. With Thaksin’s political influence neutralized, they thought, the royal succession could be managed to keep the crown prince off the throne. Not only did the coup fail to crush Thaksin’s political power, however, but it quickly became clear that Prem had not made any arrangements with Bhumibol to handle the succession. Although he had never been enthusiastic about his son becoming Rama X, by early 2007 the king appeared to regard it as inevitable, and sent several signals that he had no intention of changing his designated heir. Meanwhile, Bhumibol’s health was worsening and it was clear the succession could come suddenly at any time.
Panic in the royalist ranks reached feverish levels. They had just overthrown a hugely popular prime minister in an exceptionally provocative gambit to sabotage the succession prospects of the heir to the throne. Belatedly it dawned on them that Vajiralongkorn was still highly likely to become king when Bhumibol died. And when this happened, it seemed probable that he would bring Thaksin back from exile and allow him to be prime minister once again. An era of political dominance by Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn seemed inevitable, during which the royalists would face vengeance for what they had done. Both Thaksin and the crown prince are noted for their hot tempers and their appetite for revenge.
In a confidential U.S. cable in January 2007 entitled “Coupmakers’ Haunted Dreams“, Ralph Boyce reported that the royalist generals who toppled Thaksin were so fraught with worry that they were unable to sleep at night. The atmosphere of late-reign panic in 2007 was also insightfully evoked in Duncan McCargo’s article Thailand: State of Anxiety. The Thai establishment had backed a coup they thought would save them from an existential threat. Instead, it seemed, they had only succeeded in making their demise more inevitable.
Desperate times breed desperate measures. In mid-2007, conservative royalists linked to Prem leaked a notorious video showing Srirasmi’s birthday party in Nonthaburi Palace in 2001, at which she had been virtually naked in the presence of numerous courtiers as the crown prince looked on, contentedly puffing on his pipe. A confidential U.S. cable noted that “the Crown Prince’s reputation continues to suffer and may have declined further, in part due to the dissemination online and by DVD of material harmful to the image of the Crown Prince and his Royal Consort”, and added: “some in palace circles are working actively to undercut whatever support exists for the Royal Consort, and we assume that this undercurrent also has implications for the Crown Prince”. In July, while Vajiralongkorn and Srirasmi were in Europe, very high-level sources spread misinformation that Vajiralongkorn had died of AIDS. This sinister episode was recounted on the Wikipedia page for Vajiralongkorn before being removed by royalist sympathizers:
It was an extraordinarily risky strategy for the royalist establishment to adopt — they were actively damaging the image of the monarchy, even though they needed to maintain popular reverence for the palace to ensure the continued survival of the existing social order. To make sense of it, one needs to understand their desperation. The prince already knew they had been actively seeking to undermine him and sabotage his succession prospects. It had become an all-or-nothing struggle — if the coup leaders and elite backers of the Yellow movement failed to prevent Vajiralongkorn becoming Rama X, they were doomed. They were prepared to do anything to prevent this, whatever the cost.
Remarkably, their kamikaze tactics had some success. Vajiralongkorn appears to have realized that his HIV could be used against him to prevent him becoming king. The reason had nothing to do with health or longevity — the crown prince has not developed full-blown AIDS, and HIV can now be managed effectively using anti-retroviral drugs for those with the means to afford them. But the theology of Thai kingship derives from two intertwined religious ideologies, Buddhist and Hindu. In the Buddhist tradition the king is a dhammaraja whose legitimacy derives from his great spiritual merit. On these terms, Vajiralongkorn’s claim to the throne was exceptionally weak. In the Hindu tradition, the legitimacy of a devaraja king derives directly from the purity of his bloodline. Previously, Vajiralongkorn’s dynastic claim was impeccable — he was a celestial prince, the only son of the king and queen. The fact his blood was diseased — with leukaemia, and more importanly with HIV due to the moral stigma that tends to be attached to it — made him vulnerable.
During 2007 an experimental project was initiated in Thailand on behalf of the prince in which doctors investigated using plasma filtration and magnetic activated cell sorting (MACS) technology to remove infected cells from the bloodstream. The equipment was assembled but in the end it was never used — Vajiralongkorn instead began spending long spells at a clinic in Munich. Intriguingly, this came at a time when German doctors successfully managed to cure a man of HIV — Timothy Brown, the so-called “Berlin patient”. He was cured with a bone marrow transplant that gave him HIV-resistant bone marrow treated with stem cells, a highly complex procedure that only made medical sense because Brown suffered from acute myeloid leukaemia as well as HIV. His leukaemia necessitated the bone marrow transplant, and his German doctors used the transplant to also cure his HIV. Vajiralongkorn also has both HIV and leukaemia, but while he may have explored the possibility of a bone marrow transplant, it never happened, for unknown reasons. In the end, he began an alternative unorthodox treatment regime in Germany that involved regular transfusions of HIV-free blood. A curious aspect of both the experimental treatment explored in Thailand and the transfusions in Germany is that they could never cure HIV, only greatly reduce the prevalence of HIV infected cells in a patient’s blood. Yet Vajiralongkorn appears to believe it is important for him to purify his blood as much as possible.
Another extraordinary development followed the smear campaign by leading royalists. After decades of being Vajiralongkorn’s staunchest supporter and insisting he remain first in line for the throne despite Bhumibol’s doubts, Sirikit began to waver. She believed she was destined to save Thailand from calamity, and that in a former life she had been the 16th century Ayutthayan queen Sri Suriyothai, who supposedly disguised herself as a man and rode into battle on an elephant to defend her husband King Maha Chakkraphat during the Burmese-Siamese War of 1548. Suriyothai was killed in the battle but her husband was saved and the Burmese were vanquished, or so the story goes. Egged on by her cabal of ambitious ladies-in-waiting, who hated Vajiralongkorn, Sirikit began to think she would be the best person to lead Thailand, as regent for Vajiralongkorn’s young son Dipangkorn. She also grew close to Sondhi Limthongkul, whom she met at the residence of her sister Busba. Sirikit liked to go secretly to Busba’s place to relax, drink and play cards away from the constantly watchful eyes of palace courtiers. Sondhi was often there too because he was having an affair with Busba’s daughter Suthawan Ladawan, the wife of Suriakart Sathirathai. Sirikit became increasingly influenced by her discussions with Sondhi.
As the elite obsessively and secretively plotted over the royal succession behind the high walls of their mansions and palaces, outside in the real world Thai faith in the monarchy was collapsing. On August 19, 2007, the coup-installed government held a referendum on a new draft constitution to replace the 1997 charter which had failed to function as the elite had hoped it would. There were many things wrong with the latest version, but voting against it was futile as this would allow the government to pick any past constitution it wanted from Thailand’s history, according to the rules the elite had written to ensure an outcome that suited them. A huge military-backed propaganda campaign told Thais that voting to reject the charter was tantamount to voting against King Bhumibol, using the slogan “Love the King. Care about the King. Vote in the referendum. Accept the 2007 draft charter.” Copies of the draft constitution were distributed with a yellow cover — the king’s colour. In spite of all this, more than 42 percent of those who cast their ballots voted “No”.
This was a remarkable result. Given the fact that an opinion poll would be unthinkable, it is very difficult to estimate what percentage of Thais genuinely revere the monarchy. The 2007 constitutional referendum is probably the best gauge, and it suggests that the number of Thai royalists is far lower than the establishment likes to claim.
Another major propaganda campaign preceded the general election held on December 23, and the military and royalist establishment used several underhand (and illegal) tactics to stack the odds against Thaksin’s new proxy party, the PPP. Nevertheless, the PPP easily won the elections, with the perennially useless Democrat Party far behind in second place. On February 28, Thaksin Shinawatra returned from exile abroad, prostrating himself on the ground outside Suvarnabhumi Airport as thousands of supporters cheered and wept.
These were crushing blows to the royalist establishment. Despite suspending democracy for more than a year and attempting all kinds of dirty tricks, they had been totally unable to deflate Thaksin’s popularity in Thailand. And yet, within a few months, the gloom and anxiety that had pervaded the Yellow bloc the previous year evaporated, replaced by a giddy mood of exuberant combativeness. The reason was Sirikit. By April 2008 she had pledged her full support to Sondhi’s PAD and made up her mind to freeze her wayward son out of the royal succession and reign as regent when Bhumibol died — provoking a furious row with Vajiralongkorn in Chulalongkorn Hospital in March 2008 that was mentioned in a secret U.S. cable. It was a crazy plan, not least because Sirikit was approaching the age of 76 and her health was not much better than her husband’s. But the desperate royalist establishment and Yellow movement rejoiced at this remarkable development. Just when it seemed that everything was lost, and that the looming ascendancy of Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn was unstoppable, Sirikit had switched sides and given them hope. They began to dare to believe they might prevail after all.
Besides all its more obvious flaws, there was another huge problem with the establishment’s plan to bypass Vajiralongkorn and instal Sirikit as regent — Bhumibol was implacably against the idea. He had been estranged from his wife for two decades, and although he had grave misgivings about his son, he was even more appalled by the idea of Sirikit effectively succeeding him. Had royalist veneration of Bhumibol been genuine, his opposition to their succession machinations would have put an end to the plan. But for the Thai elite, self-preservation was far more important than principle, and whatever affection they may have felt for their dear old monarch, it was trumped by their existential fear of the crown prince. And so Bhumibol’s objections were blithely ignored. The elite could afford to do so because they had Sirikit on their side. At the age of 80, only two years after his diamond jubilee had been celebrated with an outpouring of adulation across Thailand and around the world, King Rama IX discovered just how little real power he really had. To add insult to injury, the Yellow Shirt leaders who were knowingly flouting Bhumibol’s wishes ceaselessly proclaimed their bogus love for the king and insisted they were motivated by their determination to protect him from the evil schemes of Thaksin. Making things even worse for the hapless monarch, Sirikit moved in with him in Hua Hin’s Klai Kangwon (“Far From Worries”) palace in mid-2008, ostensibly to look after the increasingly infirm Bhumibol but actually to keep an eye on him and prevent him circumventing her schemes.
To have any hope of success, the plan to prevent Vajiralongkorn becoming Rama X required three institutions in particular to be on board. First of all, the privy council was crucial: if Bhumibol died without removing the crown prince’s status as designated heir, the privy council could still propose an alternative candidate as monarch by invoking Article 10 of the 1924 Palace Law on Succession, which states:
The Heir who is to succeed to the Throne should be fully respected by the people and the people should be able to rely on him happily. If he is considered by the majority of the people as objectionable, he should be out of the line to the Throne.
Secondly, the army leadership had to agree with the plan. If the military disagreed with efforts to meddle with the royal succession they would swiftly crack down and crush the plot. Given the possibility the crown prince might attempt to launch an armed challenge to the privy council’s decision, the army would also have to be on standby to lock down the capital and enforce the alternative succession plan. Thirdly, under Thailand’s constitution, parliament had to formally ratify the privy council’s decision and proclaim the new monarch. There would be no time to circumvent this requirement by staging a military or judicial coup and appointing a new parliament because another crucial element of the plan was that it would have to be executed with decisive speed. As soon news of Bhumibol’s death became public, Vajiralongkorn would begin acquiring the status of monarch by default unless an alternative candidate was proposed and ratified immediately. Every hour that passed without an alternative monarch formally in place would gravely lessen the plan’s likelihood of success and increase the probability of serious civil conflict. Moreover, for those in charge of carrying out the plan, the consequences of openly trying and failing to sabotage Vajiralongkorn’s succession were too grim to contemplate. Once the plan was set in motion, failure to achieve success would be suicidal.
The privy council was fully on board — Prem was a prime mover in the plan to sabotage the succession, and his elderly cronies all passionately loathed Vajiralongkorn. The army leadership also supported the plan — all of the top brass were acolytes of Sirikit and most were fanatically loyal to her. The problem was parliament. Ever since the start of the 21st century, Thaksin Shinawatra had won control of parliament every time an election was held, even when the odds were heavily stacked against him. Given the fecklessness of the Democrat Party, there was no prospect of this changing any time soon. Some way had to be found to prise parliament from Thaksin’s grip — and more importantly, prevent him winning it back at the first opportunity he got.
And so, apparently oblivious to the damage this would do to the reputation of the monarchy and the stability of a country still roiled by the royalist coup of September 2006, the establishment and the Yellow Shirts launched an aggressive campaign to topple the newly elected government, with the explicit backing of the queen. For Thaksin, the royalist assault on the PPP presented both a serious threat and a beguiling opportunity. If he could successfully resist, and ensure Vajiralongkorn became Rama X, he could expect to be richly rewarded for his role as kingmaker.
The new U.S. ambassador Eric John, a far shrewder observer of Thai politics than his bumptious and biased predecessor Ralph Boyce, analyzed the conflict in a confidential cable during 2008:
The battle lines in Thailand’s political environment are clearly drawn, even if there are multiple actors in play. However, reductionist arguments that the crisis is about “the King vs. Thaksin” are overly simplified; neither camp controls all who claim allegiance to each, and key secondary figures in both camps have differing agendas. While all countries have their unique dynamics — Thailand’s revolves around the institution of monarchy — Thailand nevertheless is experiencing a version of a scenario that has played out in other East Asian countries: economic growth outstripping the pace of democratic institutional maturation, and new groups challenging the prerogatives of old elites.
Although both sides in this polarized society have independent-minded and middle-class participants, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra provides direction and, we assume with confidence, financing for his allies, relying on a loyal electorate in the northeast and north of Thailand which benefited from his populist policies from 2001-06. The Thaksin machine faces off against a mix of royalists, Bangkok middle class, and southerners, with Queen Sirikit having emerged as their champion, as King Bhumibol largely fades from an active role. The two sides are competing for influence and appear to believe, or fear, that the other will use the political power it has to marginalize (if not eliminate) the opposing side. They are positioning themselves for what key actors on both sides freely admit to us in private will be Thailand’s moment of truth — royal succession after the King passes away.
On March 28, Sondhi Limthongkul resumed regular Yellow Shirt rallies. On May 19, Visakha Bucha day, the most important Buddhist holiday, Sirikit visited Wat Channa Songkram, Bangkok’s “War Victory Temple”, with army commander Anupong Paochinda. As a leaked cable from U.S. chargé d’affaires James Entwistle noted:
That temple is not the traditional venue for the royal family on this holiday, but is normally a place where people pray before going into a battle of one sort or another.
It was a declaration of war. The events that followed in 2008 were truly extraordinary — a guerrilla insurgency openly fought by Thailand’s establishment against the country’s elected government. There was a remarkable degree of coordination among different elements of the Yellow alliance — the PAD, elite elder statesmen, the biased judiciary, the Democrat Party, newspapers and the military leadership. This was the “network monarchy” flexing its muscles, but it was Sirikit and her cronies pulling the strings, not Bhumibol.
The shrill and paranoid climate of rabid hyper-royalism was ratcheted up ever higher, with the lèse majesté law used to undermine the government and intimidate the foreign media. Jakrapob Penkhair, a minister attached to the prime minister’s office who was the main government spokesman, and Jonathan Head, a highly respected BBC journalist, were accused of violating Article 112 during an August 2007 panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand at which Jakrapob had criticized Thailand’s culture of patronage and directed some snide remarks at Prem. Abandoning any pretence of being a progressive party that believed in freedom of speech, the Democrat Party began preparations to impeach Jakrapob, who eventually resigned on May 30. Meanwhile, Anand Panyarachun, who had long cultivated a cosy relationship with prominent foreign journalists and remains the only significant elite source most of them have, privately assured Head he would not be charged, but on May 27 police showed up at the FCCT and questioned club president Nirmal Ghosh for three hours, also threatening to confiscate the club’s computers. The intimidation worked. Foreign journalists in Bangkok remain terrified of writing anything that could be construed as lèse majesté, and have done an atrocious job of explaining to the world what is really going in Thailand.
On May 25, the Yellow Shirts held a rally at Democracy Monument attended by around 10,000 people. The PAD supporters attempted to march on parliament and Government House, and after being stopped at the nearby Makkawan Bridge, they set up a permanent protest site there. It was the beginning of 193 days of continuous and increasingly disruptive protest by the Yellow Shirts, explicitly intended to sabotage the government’s ability to govern.
On June 18, Thailand and Cambodia signed a Joint Communiqué in Paris endorsing the registration of the 9th century Khmer temple of Preah Vihear as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The clifftop temple was on disputed territory, claimed by Thailand, and although the International Court of Justice had ruled in 1962 that it belonged to Cambodia, Thailand continued to contest 4.6 square kilometres of territory around Preah Vihear. The UNESCO agreement followed years of diplomacy, during the Thaksin and Surayud administrations, to agree a position on the UNESCO listing that was acceptable to both countries and did not impact Thailand’s territorial claim. The Joint Communiqué explicitly stated that Thailand’s support of UNESCO status for Preah Vihear would not prejudice ongoing border negotiations with Cambodia. But the Yellow movement saw an opportunity to attack the government by claiming — entirely inaccurately — that the PPP administration was “selling Thai territory” to Cambodia. They stoked dangerous tensions at the border to try to inflame nationalist anger and rally opposition to the government.
On June 20, thousands of PAD supporters broke through police barricades and marched on Government House. The Democrat Party demanded a no-confidence debate in parliament on June 24-25, also joining the attack over Preah Vihear. The government easily defeated the no-confidence motions, but most Thai media coverage favoured the opposition. Meanwhile, the courts once again began delivering judgments damaging to the Thaksin camp. On July 8 the Supreme Court upheld electoral fraud charges against Yongyuth Tiyapairat, a senior ally of Thaksin’s. The decision meant that the PPP could face dissolution according to the rules of the 2007 constitution. The Constitutional Court also ruled that Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama should have received formal parliamentary approval before signing the Joint Communiqué with Cambodia. As a result, Noppadon resigned on July 10. The U.S. embassy commented “we find the Court’s analysis questionable”, adding:
This ruling will likely reinforce the impression of Thaksin supporters that the Court is ill-disposed toward Thaksin and his allies.
Thaksin’s opponents also stepped up their efforts to convict him and his wife Pojaman on corruption charges over a 2003 deal. Pojaman also faced separate tax evasion charges. U.S. ambassador Eric John warned in a confidential cable that the politicization of the judiciary would have highly damaging long-term consequences for Thailand:
The courts may prove capable of marginalizing Thaksin, either by incarcerating him or by tarnishing his reputation beyond repair. It is possible that Thaksin’s conviction in one or more cases would represent a straightforward dispensation of justice, as we believe he likely used his authority as Prime Minister to benefit himself and his cronies. However, we also note that there is an increasing perception among Thais that the judiciary has become politicized; this perception has grown ever since a watershed speech in April 2006, in which King Bhumibol called on the judiciary to take action to resolve the ongoing political crisis. While the courts currently have the requisite level of prestige and credibility to marginalize Thaksin — a goal that the Army proved incapable of achieving in the 2006-07 period — the judiciary may also suffer in the long term, as it moves beyond its traditional role and increasingly serves as a decisive instrument for shaping political life.
On July 22, activist Darunee Charnchoensilpakul, known as “Da Torpedo”, was arrested on charges of lèse majesté over speeches she had made at anti-PAD rallies on July 18 and 19. As the U.S. embassy noted, some of her comments breached the most sensitive taboos:
She implied that King Bhumibol was involved in the unusual death of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol; urged Thailand to follow the example of Nepal in abolishing the monarchy; and suggested that the aging King relied on Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda to make his decisions.
Inevitably, the antics of the royalist establishment, the Yellow Shirts and the judiciary further damaged the reputation of the palace. A U.S. cable at the start of August quoted Thaksin ally Jaran Ditapichai and PAD leader Somkiat Pongpaiboon as saying anti-monarchism was surging:
UDD activist Charan, a former communist who has expressed his distaste for monarchies in a controversial book on the French revolution, told us he was surprised by what he perceived as an increasingly open expression of anti-monarchy sentiment, such as Daranee’s. He said “many Thais are like her now… online, in coffee shops, and on community radio.” The King, he said, is being heavily criticized in public, by the public, for the first time in modern history. He claimed to have heard many community radio programs in which people phoned in to complain that the monarchy had supported past coups, and many callers viewed the monarchy as an obstacle to democracy in Thailand. PAD co-leader Somkiat also told us he had noticed a proliferation of anti-monarchy websites, starting in 2005, and he also referred to the widespread availability of video discs that show the Crown Prince’s Royal Consort, Srirasmi, semi-nude.
During August, Thaksin and Pojaman travelled to China for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Instead of returning to Thailand at the end of their visit, they flew to London and on August 11 Thaksin faxed a handwritten statement to the Thai media declaring he would not return to face legal proceedings he denounced as unfair. The Yellows scented blood. Thaksin Shinawatra was officially on the run.
On August 31, a 41-year-old Australian working as a university lecturer, English teacher and freelance writer in Chiang Mai became the latest Westerner to fall foul of the lèse majesté law. Harry Nicolaides had self-published a novel in 2005, entitled Verisimilitude: Is the truth, the truth? He printed just 50 copies, of which only seven were ever sold. In one passage, the novel related the sexual shenanigans of a Thai prince, unnamed but clearly based on Vajiralongjorn:
From King Rama to the Crown Prince, the nobility was renowned for their romantic entanglements and intrigues. The Crown Prince had many wives major and minor with a coterie of concubines for entertainment. One of his recent wives was exiled with her entire family, including a son they conceived together, for an undisclosed indiscretion. He subsequently remarried with another woman and fathered another child. It was rumoured that if the prince fell in love with one of his minor wives and she betrayed him, she and her family would disappear with their name, familial lineage and all vestiges of their existence expunged forever.
Nicolaides was arrested at Bangkok airport while trying to leave the country to return to his native Australia. He was denied bail, and held in Bangkok Remand Centre awaiting trial.
Border hostilities with Cambodia continued to simmer, with efforts to defuse the confrontation over Preah Vihear damaged by some aggressive Thai troop movements. The pro-Sirikit military leadership was doing its part to keep tensions on the boil.
At the end of August, Eric John sent a cable to Washington entitled “THAILAND PROTESTS: A PAD PRIMER”. He billed it as “a guide to PAD, its leaders, and motives”. The cable discussed the alarming extremism of the Yellow Shirts, and their intimate links with Queen Sirikit:
The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) behind the ongoing street protests against PM Samak’s government first surfaced in 2005 in reaction to growing discontent over the alleged corruption of then-PM Thaksin. It largely disappeared following the September 2006 coup that ended the Thaksin administration, only to reemerge in Thai politics on March 28 with the same leadership but fewer supporters and a more radical agenda. Since then, it has been an active, occasionally aggressive, daily force on the Thai political stage. The last 90 days of protests have halted Bangkok’s infamous traffic on numerous occasions, temporarily seized a media outlet, and even displaced the Prime Minister on several occasions from his office…
Before the aggressive actions launched August 26 which led to arrest warrants for its leadership and left its future uncertain, PAD appeared to be transforming itself from a movement whose purpose was to combat Thaksin and his allies whenever they were perceived to be untouchable, to a political party with a simultaneous populist and royalist-nationalist bent, with megalomaniac Sondhi Limthongkul using it as his personal vehicle, much as Thaksin did with Thai Rak Thai. PAD’s 2008 reincarnation largely abandoned its origins as a wide, loose coalition of the working class, royalists, and middle class Bangkokians seeking justice and increased transparency in government in a shift to anti-democratic principles and increasing association with the Queen’s circle rather than the King alone…
In the latest round of protests, PAD supporters have also started wearing armbands and other items in light blue, a color associated with the Queen, seen by many in Thailand to support a more nationalistic approach on issues like the south and a more aggressive opposition to the Thaksin camp, including if necessary with military involvement.
Sondhi Limthongkul’s anti-democratic beliefs were made clear when he began openly proposing a philosophy of “New Politics” in which 70 percent of parliament would be appointed by the network monarchy and only 30 percent directly elected. The bizarre scheme was motivated by a determination to put parliament forever beyond Thaksin’s control and ensure Vajiralongkorn could be prevented from becoming king.
On August 26, the PAD escalated the political crisis once again, storming and occupying Government House during a day of coordinated provocations aimed at forcing Samak’s administration into a violent response. As the U.S. embassy reported:
In the latest twist in Thailand’s on-going political drama, the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD) staged a mass demonstration in Bangkok and strategic points around the country in a what some press sources are reporting as a last bid show-down with the Peoples Power Party (PPP) led government of Samak Sundaravej. Kraisak Choonhaven, Democrat party MP and deputy party leader, told us that the PAD leaders had laid out their intentions to him late August 25; the PAD hoped to provoke clashes with the police, leading to enough violence and government overreaction to spark military intervention/another coup…
The day’s activities got off to an unexpected start early on August 26 when some 80 to 100 PAD supporters attempted to take control of the government-run NTB television station between 0430 and 0530. Although Royal Thai Police units responded and arrested a large number of the demonstrators (press reports indicate between 60 and 80), control of the NTB compound and the quality of the transmission varied throughout the day. In the end, it appeared the NTB showdown was only the first incident in a series of determined PAD attempts to provoke PM Samak and security forces into a direct confrontation.
With surprising efficiency, the PAD executed simultaneous marches on the Ministries of Education, Finance, Agriculture and Transportation, as well as the Government House compound which is the formal seat of the PM and the government. By 1500 they had occupied these ministries and the Government House compound.
On August 29 the Yellow Shirts raised the stakes once more, forcing the shutdown of several provincial airports including Phuket, Krabi and Hat Yai, and blocking key railway services. Thousands of Thais and foreign tourists were left stranded.
Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej did not take the bait, although this was partly because he knew he could not count on the support of army chief Anupong Paochinda. Anupong was a man with split loyalties: he was part of the Queen’s Guard army clique and had joined the 2006 coup plotters, but he was also in Thaksin’s Class 10 military network. During 2008, he insisted he was remaining neutral in the worsening political conflict, but this meant that he failed to offer Samak the military support that the prime minister would have needed for a robust response against the Yellow Shirts. Aware of this, Samak refrained from pushing for a serious crackdown, although the police did issue arrest warrants for the PAD leadership. As the U.S embassy commented:
While there is little doubt that PAD had hoped to provoke conflict, the Thai government and police have so far pursued a passive posture with the apparent intent to avoid confrontation.
In their excellent 2009 book Thaksin, Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker note that the military’s refusal to back the government was far from being a “neutral” position:
General Anupong Paochinda, who had succeeded as army chief in October 2007, persistently claimed that he and the army would not make another coup but would remain “neutral”. He said the dispute was “political” and thus had to be solved by political means. But in a situation in which PAD had begun to break laws as a deliberate strategy to undermine the authority of the government, “neutrality” took on a special meaning…
Anupong’s “neutrality” was effectively a withdrawal of services from the PPP government — the horse bucking off its jockey. This move both symbolized the army’s growing independence of action and undermined the PPP’s legitimacy to govern.
Meanwhile, leading network monarchists were plotting Samak’s downfall. Privy councillor Siddhi Savetsila told Eric John on September 3 about a secret scheme he was planning to present to King Bhumibol to remove Samak (and Thaksin) from politics:
Privy Councilor ACM Siddhi Savetsila made clear to Ambassador Sept. 3 that he viewed Thaksin and, by extension, PM Samak as an existential threat to the Thailand he supported, centered on the monarchy…
Stressing that Ambassador was the only foreigner he would share the information with, Siddhi laid out a scenario which he said he would present to King Bhumiphol later in the day in an audience for the Privy Councilors in Hua Hin. The solution was not by using force but to rehabilitate Thai democracy. The same Constitution would remain, amended to allow outsiders (non-MPs) to serve in the Cabinet. The House and Senate would stay. Universally respected former PM Anand should serve as the leader of the “project,” which would involve respected, “honest” ex-military and Ministry of Interior officials, academics, one or two PAD members, and perhaps some Democrat Party figures. The mandate would be to initiate a wide array of reforms in the economic, social, and political sphere. That in turn would “weed out” the bane effects of Thaksinism from the system. Army Commander Anuphong would have to deliver the message to Samak; no one else could.
Siddhi said that a group of prominent figures had approached him with the plan, more than could fit in his modest living room. The only one he named was Pramote Nakorntab, a retired respected professor and political scientist from Chulalongkorn University; others included a high ranking Air Force officer and a Constitutional Court Judge. Since, as a Privy Councilor, he was not supposed to be involved in politics, only in advising the King, Siddhi agreed to meet “as a former military leader” ready to do his best for the country. He was willing to push forward and present the project to the King in part to shield Privy Council Chair Prem Titsulanonda, who had been heavily and unjustly criticized for backing the PAD and trying to promote a Democrat Party-led government. The stakes were high; it was essential to rehabilitate the democratic system in Thailand. “If we lose, Thaksin will come back, and if Thaksin comes back, the monarchy will be lost,” Siddhi explained.
It was a remarkable insight into the working of the network monarchy, with elite figures scheming and conspiring in private and then seeking a signal of support from the king. The plan was yet another variant of “Thai-style democracy” — suspending genuine democracy and replacing it with the rule of appointed royalist “good men”. Siddhi was an 89-year-old political dinosaur who had been close to Phao Sriyanond’s clique in the 1940s and 1950s and served as a foreign minister under Prem. The very fact he believed he had a right to meddle in politics and advocate the overthrow of an elected government demonstrated how out of touch and deluded senior royalists had become.
Anand Panyarachun told U.S. diplomats that Samak was likely to be forced from power: “I cannot rule out regime change, but it would not be a traditional coup d’etat.” He confirmed he had been in contact with the plotters:
Anand acknowledged he had been listening to the group for the past week, but refused to get involved directly in anything before the plan was put into action. If the plan went forward, he was prepared to meet with them at that point. It was imperative to ensure the least impact on the contents of Thai democracy; even in the case of non-elected persons of supposed quality, care needed to be taken. Anand claimed that “I’m always my own man,” and that he had turned down many positions offered when he thought others sought to control him.
Ambassador underscored the critical importance of developments in Thailand staying within the framework of the constitution and rule of law; if that did not occur, the U.S. would respond accordingly. Anand replied that he had disagreed with the U.S. reaction to the 2006 coup and frequently disagreed with western views of what constituted democracy in various countries.
The bureaucracy and judiciary were playing their part to help. On September 2 the Election Commission voted to seek the dissolution of the PPP due to vote buying by Yongyuth Tiyapairat. On September 3, Tej Bunnag resigned as foreign minister. Samak hung on, though he was increasingly isolated. Meanwhile, at Government House, the number of PAD protesters began dwindling, as the U.S. embassy reported:
The PAD siege of Government House continued despite deteriorating living conditions at the site; the weekend rains turned the trampled grounds of Government House compound into a sea of mud. In an effort to ward off the increasingly unsanitary conditions, and diminish what the Thai press called the prevailing stench of urine, protest organizers began sprinkling white “disinfectant” powder over the stinking muddy ground. Protesters jokingly said they could bear the stench better than they could stand the government.
Fearing that they were losing momentum, the Yellow bloc struck back on September 9. The Constitutional Court ruled that the prime minister had violated conflict-of-interest rules by continuing to appear on a TV cookery programme, Tasting and Grumbling, even though he received at most only nominal payments. It was a bizarre and clearly partisan decision (expertly dissected by Verapat Pariyawong in his Harvard thesis Three Course Recipe for the Court’s Cookery) that made it clearer than ever that the judiciary had become a tool of the royalist elite to thwart the democratic will of the majority.
Samak had to resign as a result of the decision, but parliament could have opted to renominate him as prime minister. Instead, however, Thaksin and his allies decided it was time to drop Samak. As Eric John noted, they had “realized that Samak is now a far greater liability than asset”. Instead, Thaksin’s brother-in-law Somchai Wongsuwat was nominated as the next prime minister. In a meeting with Eric John after resigning from the PPP, Samak was scathing about Sirikit:
Samak described to Ambassador the political pressure against him during his seven months in office. He showed disdain for Queen Sirikit, claiming that she had been responsible for the 2006 coup d’etat as well as the ongoing turmoil generated by PAD protests. He alleged the Queen operated through Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda who, along with others presenting themselves as royalists, worked with the PAD and other agitators. Citing his own regular meetings with King Bhumibol, Samak claimed he — rather than his opponents — was sincerely loyal to the King and enjoyed the King’s support. In his discussion of the monarchy, Samak made no mention of the Crown Prince.
On October 3, fighting erupted between Thai and Cambodian troops around Preah Vihear. The same day, police detained one of the PAD leaders, Chaiwat Sinsuwong, and two days later, arrested key Yellow Shirt figurehead Chamlong Srimuang. The arrest of Chamlong appears to have been a carefully laid trap, possibly involving Prem Tinsulanonda. The government was led to believe that the palace approved the arrests. Chamlong was aware he was about to be detained: as in 1992, he was using his treatment by the authorities as a way of stirring up his supporters. As the U.S. embassy reported:
Chamlong appeared to have anticipated his arrest; he had left a letter to be read to protestors at Government House at 9:00 a.m., describing the anti-government demonstrations as a patriotic duty, and instructing the remaining PAD leaders to break off negotiations with the government after his arrest…
Protests at Government House had become less energetic and poorly attended in recent weeks; on one mid-day, mid-week visit in late September, we counted no more than 250 protesters. Many supporters stopped coming to Government House in person, opting to watch the speeches via the pro-PAD Asia Satellite Television (ASTV). Chamlong’s arrest in particularly appeared to energize PAD sympathizers. On October 4, visiting INR analyst estimated roughly 1,000 supporters were inside the Government House compound. According to media reports, the crowd at Government House grew substantially after Chamlong’s arrest, and PAD supporters from other provinces are moving into Bangkok. A senior police official told us on October 6 that more than 10,000 PAD supporters were at Government House on the night of October 5. This official anticipated approximately 5,000 additional people to join October 6 rallies at the site.
As Eric John commented in a later cable:
In retrospect, it appears that PAD leader Chamlong Srimuang sprung a perfect trap by consenting to be arrested October 5. Chamlong’s arrest gave renewed vigor to an increasingly dispirited PAD protest, at a time when a possible government-opposition agreement to form a commission to review possible constitutional changes threatened to take the winds completely out of the PAD sails.
It was all part of the Yellow plan. The arrests were a prelude to an attempt to provoke violent confrontations with police on October 7, when new Prime Minister Somchai was required to deliver his policy statement to parliament. Royalist tycoon Chutinant Bhirombhakdi of the Singha beer dynasty had dinner with a senior Yellow Shirt leader on October 6 who explicitly admitted the PAD was hoping at least two dozen of its own supporters would be killed in the confrontation, to give the military justification for a coup. As Eric John reported in a November cable:
Chutinant believed PAD continued to aim for a violent clash that would spark a coup. He asserted that he had dined on October 6 with a leading PAD figure (NFI), who explained that PAD would provoke violence during its October 7 protest at the parliament. The unnamed PAD figure predicted (wrongly) that the Army would intervene against the government by the evening of October 7. Chutinant asserted to us that PAD remained intent on a conflict that would generate at least two dozen deaths and make military intervention appear necessary and justified.
On the night of October 6, the Yellow Shirts marched from Government House to the parliament building, erecting barricades with razor wire and booby traps. PAD guards with slingshots, metal bars, golf clubs, ping pong bombs and cudgels patrolled the perimeter. The stage was set for the deadly confrontation of “Black Tuesday”.
At around six in the morning on October 7, police began their effort to disperse the Yellow Shirts. Nick Nostitz, probably the best foreign journalist in Thailand, witnessed the events of the day as they unfolded and wrote a detailed account on the New Mandala website. Nostitz says police warned the protesters multiple times via loudspeakers that unless they peacefully ended their blockade, tear gas would be used. The police said conflict would not help anyone, that they were all Thais, and they should not fight each other. When the Yellow Shirts failed to move, the police fired tear gas canisters and advanced towards the barricades. Yellow Shirts threw ping pong bombs and firecrackers. There were some unusually powerful explosions. Nostitz describes what happened as the skirmish ended:
In all the rush and the smoke it was very difficult to see exactly what was going on; biting teargas blinded nearly everyone… Also very few police officers had proper masks, and were just as affected. During all the time the loudspeaker from the police asked protesters to stop fighting. Soon after the protesters stopped, and sat down on the road, and police achieved their goal of opening the gate.
That was when I was made aware of the badly injured protesters. One man was sitting, with his left leg blown away at the knee, folded beside him just held by a few strings of skin. He was surrounded by shocked police officers; some tried to comfort him. There were two or three other badly injured protesters around… Things then calmed down. I spoke with several police officers over the injuries. They were all shocked.
The police action allowed the parliament session to begin and the prime minister began his speech. But during the morning the Yellow Shirts counterattacked, taking police by surprise. As a U.S. cable recounted:
The RTP morning operation resulted in over 70 protesters being admitted to hospital, mainly with tear gas symptoms, but media reported a handful of more serious injuries, including one protester who lost a leg and a second who allegedly suffered shrapnel wounds. By mid-afternoon, after the mid-day clashes, hospital personnel confirmed to us that the number of admitted had risen to 101, that most but not all of the injuries were consistent with tear gas and trampling injuries, and that one protester had lost a leg. Several police were reported injured in the mid-day clashes.
Police COL Suwat, deputy Commander of the Metropolitan Police for Demonstrations/Intelligence, told us the police had only used tear gas and flash bangs in the morning operation. The RTP believed a crude homemade pipebomb with black powder, similar to fireworks and likely in a metal container, had exploded, perhaps accounting for the more seriously wounded. One woman had lost a leg when the bomb exploded; the RTP believed the bomb belonged to the PAD…
Police… inexplicably let down their guard while PM Somchai was speaking, and a secondary PAD effort reestablished the blockade. Media reported that PAD protesters used sticks to drive off the police from the main entrance into the parliamentary compound, then commandeered police vehicles to barricade the entrances, trapping MPs, Senators, and for a time PM Somchai inside. House Speaker Chai Chidchod then suspended the policy debate and canceled the session planned for October 8.
Street battles raged throughout the afternoon and into the evening. PAD protesters attacked police with sticks, ping pong bombs, and slingshots firing iron ball bearings and marbles. Some Yellow Shirts even had firearms. Protesters tried to ram several vehicles, including a lorry, into police barricades. One policeman was deliberately run over by a Yellow Shirt in a pickup truck, who then reversed back over him.
During the afternoon, an explosion destroyed a stationary Cherokee jeep some distance from the fighting, killing Methee Chartmontri, a former police lieutenant colonel who was head of the PAD guards in Buri Ram and brother-in-law of PAD leader Karoon Sai-ngarm. Methee’s body was blown apart by the blast: one leg was still inside the vehicle, most of his corpse was blasted out of the wrecked jeep, and his hands were never found. The second fatality on Black Tuesday was Angkhana Radappanyawut, nicknamed “Nong Bow”, a 28-year-old business administration graduate from Bangkok’s Assumption University and the eldest of three sisters. She had joined the protests that day with her family, all supporters of the Yellow Shirts. Angkhana died near the corner of Royal Plaza, in the thick the battle, the left side of her chest torn open by a blast that lacerated her heart, stomach, spleen, left kidney, and liver, and broke her left arm and all her ribs on the left side. She was dressed in a yellow PAD T-shirt and jeans, with a wristband in the red, white and blue of the Thai flag.
Nostitz described the scene in the first volume of his planned trilogy Red vs. Yellow:
Another injured woman was lying in the midst of a heap of debris on the street. At first I did not even realize there was a person there; it was only when army medics attended to her that I realized it was a woman. Not until one month later was I able to confirm that this was… Angkhana Radappanyawut… one of the two people that died that day.
Great controversy hangs over the events of October 7. The Yellow Shirts accused the police of brutality, pointing to the deaths of two PAD supporters and the shocking injuries suffered by some protesters. They lauded the two Yellow Shirts who died as martyrs. Based on investigations by forensic pathologist Porntip Rojanasunan, they alleged that the deaths and injuries were caused by Chinese-made tear gas canisters fired by the police. But this story does not stand up to scrutiny. Porntip has since been exposed as a corrupt and incompetent fraud, ignorant of basic scientific principles, as a result of the GT200 debacle. There is no credible doubt that Methee Chartmontri was killed by explosives he was transporting detonating prematurely, probably while he was handling them — the reason for his missing hands. As for Angkhana, her family angrily denied accusations that, either knowingly or unwittingly, she had been carrying a PAD bomb. Nostitz discusses the controversy in Red vs. Yellow, Volume 1:
The death of Angkhana Radappanyawut became a huge issue over the following days and weeks. She was portrayed by the PAD as an innocent protester who was simply walking back to Government House when the police attacked and killed her. A cult of martyrdom and hero worship was created around her death. The UDD called her a naïve person who was being used to carry explosives that went off and killed her.
From the location where she died, there are doubts about her non-involvement in the fighting. She died at the front line of the fighting, and not at the back of Royal Plaza where there were no hostilities and which would have been the closer and more logical route for a protester to follow when walking back to Government House from Parliament… The debate about Angkhana continues, and will probably never come to a satisfying conclusion.
Although the circumstances of Angkhana’s death are murky, it is not implausible that she was accidentally killed by explosives she was carrying, as part of the Yellow Shirt leadership’s strategy of trying to get some of its supporters killed that day. As the U.S. embassy noted in confidential cable 08BANGKOK3042, the confrontation at parliament was the latest effort by the PAD to provoke an aggressive response:
For most of the day, it was the PAD attacking police formations, not the other way around. The police reported that PAD demonstrators utilized pistols, knives, and metal pipes during the clashes and also had gasoline-filled pingpong balls, essentially mini-Molotov cocktails.
In line with the Yellow strategy, opposition politicians and the royalist media exploited the deaths and mayhem to attack the legitimacy of the elected government. In comments that would later haunt him, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva declared at a news conference:
For all that has happened, the PM cannot deny his responsibility, either by negligence or intention. What is even worse than laying the blame on the authorities is vilifying the people. I have never thought that we would have a state which has the people killed and seriously injured, and then accuses the people of the crimes. This is unacceptable. I have heard those in the government always asking people whether they are Thai or not. Considering what you are doing now, it is not the question of being Thai or not, but whether you are human at all… There is nowhere else on earth, in democratic systems, where the people are abused by the state, but the government which comes from the people does not take responsibility.
Doctors at Chulalongkorn Hospital said they would not treat wounded police. “The medical team of Chulalongkorn Hospital will not give assistance to police officers injured from the clashes with PAD supporters. This is a social measure to show that doctors and nurses condemn the violent actions,” said Dr Suthep Koncharnwit. Meanwhile, newspapers actively sought to sensationalize the riot and smear the police and the government. Here is the front page of The Nation on October 8:
On October 9, the Appeals Court threw out the most serious treason charges against the nine core leaders of the PAD. Chamlong was freed on bail. The same day, the Administrative Court ordered police to use less forceful crowd control methods. The government looked weaker than ever.
On October 13, six days after Angkhana Radappanyawut died, Queen Sirikit personally presided over her cremation ceremony. Thousands of Yellow Shirts at the funeral chanted “Long Live Her Majesty”. Afterwards, Angkhana’s father Jinda wept as he told reporters: “Her Majesty said my daughter was a good woman since she had helped the nation and preserved the monarchy.” The Yellow Shirts seized on Sirikit’s gesture as proof of explicit royal backing for their cause. But it was a deeply divisive and highly dangerous move for the monarchy. Many Thais were shocked by Sirikit’s overt support for an extremist anti-democratic movement which had deliberately provoked confrontation with the police in an effort to topple an elected government. As the U.S. ambassador noted in leaked cable 08BANGKOK3289:
Queen Sirikit … made a bold political statement practically without precedent in presiding over the funeral of a PAD supporter from humble roots who died during the October 7 clash between PAD and the police. Even some figures close to the Queen have expressed their private unease at the overtly political act, since it seems to erode the concept, which the King has long sought to promote, of an apolitical monarchy. After the Queen’s funeral appearance, there was a notable increase in public complaints about acts of lese majeste, with many seemingly targeting the Queen; PPP-affiliated politicians have expressed a combination of fear and loathing for the Queen in private conversations with us in recent months. Such politicization of the monarchy at this time appears to create extra uncertainty around the eventual royal succession, and it could well boomerang on royalists when the time comes to redefine the role of the monarchy after the King’s passing.
Besides Sirikit, the funeral was attended by Princess Chulabhorn, army commander Anupong, Democrat Party leader Abhisit and PAD leader Sondhi. The October 14 funeral rites of Methee Chartmontri, the PAD guard leader blown up in his jeep by his own bomb, were presided over by Anand Panyarachun, who the royalists were hoping to instal as an unelected prime minister, with Abhisit also in attendance. The stellar royalist presence at the funerals was a remarkably open display of contempt for the electoral choices made by Thailand’s people and for the rule of law. The queen of Thailand, the head of the army, the leader of the parliamentary opposition and the man angling to become an installed “national unity” premier were all publicly aligning themselves with a movement ready to use any means necessary to undermine the legitimate government of the country. The date of Angkhana’s funeral — October 13, 2008 — has acquired near-mythical status among Thais who have turned against the monarchy. It was the day it became impossible for them to keep believing the palace was above politics, a neutral arbiter in the conflict. They call it วันตาสว่าง — the day of enlightenment.
Siddhi Savetsila claimed the king was fully in favour of Sirikit’s attendance at the funeral, in a conversation with Eric John:
Siddhi viewed PAD as providing essential support to the monarchy. “If we lose PAD, we lose the battle,” he said. He related that he and Prem had advised the King to show support for the PAD after the October 7 clash, and he claimed the King had supported the Queen’s appearance at the funeral of one of the PAD supporters killed in the incident. The King subsequently thanked Siddhi for his advice (according to Siddhi). Siddhi said he and Prem were the only Privy Councilors advising the King and Queen on the political standoff.
He was lying. Bhumibol had never supported the plan, as Chutinant Bhirombakdi told the ambassador:
Chutinant agreed that the Queen’s appearance at the October 13 funeral had highly negative ramifications, saying that even politically neutral Thais felt she had inappropriately brought the monarchy into politics. He also acknowledged increasing semi-public criticism of the monarchy, focused on the Queen. Chutinant stated with confidence that the King had sought to deter the Queen from attending the funeral by questioning the wisdom of that plan, but had stopped short of forbidding her to do so.
Moreover, Bhumibol was deeply unhappy about his wife’s overweening ambitions, and the mayhem caused by the Yellow Shirts.
An eruption of hostilities on the disputed border with Cambodia on October 15, with Thai and Cambodian forces fighting an artillery duel around Preah Vihear, heightened the ominous atmosphere of impending conflict. The same sense of looming menace permeated Thai politics. While the army appeared reluctant to launch another coup, the royalists were exploring other methods to topple the government, as Anand Panyarachun told U.S. charge d’affaires James Entwistle on October 16:
Anand offered assurances that there “would not be a coup in the traditional sense of the word,” but said the next three weeks were perilous for Thailand, which “never in history had been so deeply divided.” …
Anand professed not to know a clear path which could resolve the crisis, but he clarified remarks he made publicly October 14 after the funeral of a PAD supporter killed on October 7: ex-PM Thakin held the key to dissolving the crisis. Thaksin could gracefully accept fate/legal judgment for his transgressions, stop directing and funding political activities, and allow the country to move forward. The problem, stated Anand, that Thaksin did not want to give up either money or (indirect) power.
Meanwhile, key members of the network monarchy were suddenly unreachable as U.S. diplomats tried to contact them to caution against a coup, suggesting that feverish plotting was afoot:
Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda and Privy Councilor Siddhi Savetsila, both seen as connected to efforts to bring down the Somchai government, declined to meet/talk to us October 16. Prem’s assistant, a Vice Admiral, told us that Prem did not feel comfortable meeting with foreign diplomats at the current “delicate” time, adding that Prem had declined a similar request from the British Ambassador. Siddhi’s secretary simply told us Siddhi was not available this week. Privy Councilor (and former Prime Minister) Surayud Chulanont, upcountry in Khorat, deferred receiving a phone call from the Charge until the evening of October 17, after he returns to Bangkok. (Comment: We believe that the Privy Councilors could guess the purpose of the requested meetings and that they most likely made a deliberate decision not to engage. End Comment.)
Army commander Anupong explicitly called on the prime minister to resign in a speech on October 16, declaring: “No one can stay in a pool of blood.” And on October 17, Anuporn “Joe” Kashemsant, a palace official on Sirikit’s staff, echoed Anand’s hints that the royalists were exploring various strategies for bringing down the government, in comments to U.S. diplomats:
Anuporn Kashemsant, a foreign liaison officer for the Queen in the Principal Private Secretary’s office, remarked to us October 17 that various political maneuvers were ongoing. He said “a coup like what happened September 19, 2006 is not one of the options” for resolving Thailand’s political crisis, because the military had proven it was incapable of running the country. His qualification evoked the remark of former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun on October 16 to Charge that there would not be “a coup in the traditional sense of the word.” Anuporn hinted that significant developments likely would take place in the coming days, but refused to predict what might occur, beyond saying there were two possible paths forward.
The royalist offensive against Thaksin’s influence would indeed follow a two-pronged attack strategy — judicial intervention and escalating disruption by the Yellow Shirts.
Supreme Court judges made Thaksin a convicted criminal on October 21, sentencing him to two years in jail for corruption over his wife’s purchase of land from a government agency in 2003. His prospects of returning to Thailand seemed more distant than ever. Thaksin himself was incandescent, and vowed revenge, as he told U.S. ambassador John by telephone:
After the verdict, Thaksin phoned the Ambassador. He denounced the verdict against him as “the fruit of a poisoned tree,” emphasizing that the court had relied on material prepared by the Asset Examination Committee, which was composed solely of ardent foes of Thaksin. With slight sarcasm, Thaksin said he was happy to have been convicted, as his opponents in the political class would only face larger problems as a result of treating him unfairly.
Another cable gives more details of the telephone call from Thaksin, including talk that Sirikit was agitating for another coup while Bhumibol was adamant the military should not intervene this time:
In a rambling but spirited exposition of his views, Thaksin recalled how his Thai Rak Thai party had won the 2005 election in a landslide, only to be evicted by the 2006 coup d’etat. Thaksin affirmed that he remained popular and said “my party” (now the People’s Power Party, but presumably he also referred to any subsequent incarnation) would continue to win elections by a significant margin.
Thaksin said he had sent a message to Army Commander Anupong Paojinda that the Army should not seize power. Thaksin said he could guarantee that a coup in current circumstances would not resemble General Sonthi Boonyaratglin’s 2006 coup — it would not be peaceful, and Anupong would regret it, Thaksin said.
Thaksin told the Ambassador that Anupong did not want to launch a coup, but Queen Sirikit was pressing him to do so. Thaksin also asserted that Anupong knew that King Bhumibol did not favor a coup. Thaksin highlighted that, at the same time when the Queen presided over the funeral of a PAD protestor, the King granted an audience to PM Somchai, sending a more positive public message than the Queen’s. Thaksin added that he had been on the verge of releasing a letter in response to his conviction, but his staff had discouraged him from doing so, saying his tone would have been too angry and negative toward the monarchy. Thaksin said one item on his agenda (and presumably in his draft letter) was the need to remove lese majeste provisions from the criminal code; Thailand could not rightfully claim to be democratic so long as there remained a threat of prosecution for lese majeste
One of Thaksin’s top allies, former parliament speaker Yongyuth Tiyapairat, told Eric John on October 28 that King Bhumibol was out of touch and exploited by belligerent ultra-royalists to further an agenda that would end up damaging the palace:
Yongyuth said with dismay that Thailand claimed to have a constitutional monarchy, but in reality it often seemed Thailand had an absolute monarchy, with the Palace vetting appointments to high-ranking military and civil service positions, and the King was treated “like a god.” The King was generally inaccessible, and those around him often provided him with inaccurate information. Many people (e.g., PAD) tried to harness the influence of the Palace and to direct popular anger at their opponents by claiming they were not loyal to the monarchy. These circumstances were unhealthy for Thailand, and also detrimental to the long-term interests of the royal family, Yongyuth said.
An extraordinary episode during October, never properly reported by Thai or international media, would demonstrate just how isolated and weak Bhumibol had become. The king sent a clear signal that he wanted the ultra-royalists to cease their strategy of confrontation and violent disruption. It was time for the long Yellow Shirt occupation of Government House to end. As usual, he did not say so directly, but instructed three of the most trusted members of his inner circle to convey the message.
The first messenger was Bhumibol’s favourite among his four children, and the only one of them who remained close to him: Princess Sirindhorn. During a visit to the United States, Sirindhorn gave a news conference on October 9. This was very unusual: foreign press access to the princess is usually strictly stage-managed, and she generally prefers to keep a low profile on her international visits. She strenuously avoids being drawn into discussion of politics. But, as the Associated Press reported, this time Sirindhorn made some unexpected remarks about the Yellow Shirts:
The princess of Thailand said Thursday that she does not believe protests in her home country are being staged to benefit the monarchy.
Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn talked about the importance of public service Thursday at the Choate Rosemary Hall prep school in Wallingford. She later headed to the University of Pennsylvania for a U.S.-Thailand education discussion.
Her visit came amid the worst political violence in Thailand in more than a decade. Thousands of protesters have camped at the main government office complex to demand electoral changes and an end to corruption in Thai politics.
In violent clashes on Tuesday, 423 protesters and 20 police were injured, Thai medical authorities said. One woman was killed, and a man died in what appeared to be a related incident.
It was the worst political violence since 1992, when the army killed dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators seeking the ouster of a military-backed government.
The princess was asked at a press conference following her talk whether she agreed with protesters who say they are acting on behalf of the monarchy.
“I don’t think so,” she replied. “They do things for themselves.”
Asked why the king has not spoken out, she said, “I don’t know because I haven’t asked him.”
The story was ignored by most of the Thai media, with Khao Sod the only mainstream newspaper to report Sirindhorn’s comments. Sondhi Limthongkul made a ranting rebuttal, saying the U.S. journalists who had asked the question and written the article had been bribed by Thaksin, and claiming wrongly that Sirindhorn’s comments had been mistranslated.
Later in the month, Bhumibol again signalled his opposition to continued Yellow Shirt disruption, via public comments by two more of his closest confidantes: Sumet Tantivejkul, secretary general of the Chaipattana Foundation which has administered Bhumibol’s royal projects since 1988, and Disathorn Wathcharothai, chair of the Rajaprajanugroh Foundation, a palace-sponsored disaster-relief organization. Both men are named as key members of the king’s inner circle in Eric John’s 2009 analysis of palace power politics, “CIRCLES OF INFLUENCE INSIDE THE INSTITUTION OF THE MONARCHY IN KING BHUMIBOL’S TWILIGHT“:
Those few whose counsel the King has sought in recent years, according to various sources, are neither household names nor political players, but associated with his charitable development foundations or his closest staff. These include the sharp-tongued Thanphuying Butrie Viravaidya, his deputy Principal Private Secretary (DPPS) and wife of NGO activist Meechai “the Condom King” (Butrie is currently ensconced at Siriraj Hospital); Wud Sumitra, another DPPS; Sumete Tantivejkul, head of the Chai Patana Foundation; Disathorn Watcharothai, Chair of the Rajanukhrao Foundation and son of the Lord Chamberlain; and Pramote Maiklap, former director of the Royal Irrigation Department. The Privy Councilor closest to the King is likely Air Chief Marshal Kamthon Sidhvananda, former long-time head of State Electricity Giant EGAT, whom the King credits for electrifying much of rural Thailand. His most regular social interaction in recent years came in weekly late-Saturday night jam sessions with his pick-up jazz band, whose geriatric members have played with the King for decades.
Another U.S. cable recounts the interventions of Sumet and Disathorn in October 2008:
In late October 2008, the King directed two of his proxies to carry his water for him, Sumet Tantivejakul, the Secretary-General of the King’s Chai Pattana Foundation, and Disathorn Wathcharothai, Chair of the Rajanukhrao Foundation. Speaking October 26 before a group of academics closely associated with the yellow shirt movement laying siege to Thailand at the time, supposedly in defense of the monarchy, Sumet called on protesters to “stop violence and secure peace via dialogue.”
Disathorn was even more direct three days later, on October 29 at a seminar in Chumphol. “No matter whether the PAD or UDD, I wish to say that if we love the King, please don’t go farming at Government House. Don’t go to show forces anywhere…. If you love the King, go back home. Showing your power over there makes no benefit at all. Worse, it just creates disunity. I dare to say it here because I am a real man and a real voice. I carry the King’s message.”
Their message was unmistakeable, and Disathorn even went as far as explicitly stating that he spoke with the king’s authority. Bhumibol was making clear that he did not support the Yellow Shirt occupation of Government House, and indeed that the PAD did not have his backing despite its constant claims to be acting in his name. Piya Malakul confirmed to Eric John on November 4 that Bhumibol wanted the Yellow Shirts to end their protest and go home:
King Bhumibol explicitly told Army Commander Anupong Paojinda not to launch a coup, Piya Malakul, an advisor to Queen Sirikit, told Ambassador November 4…
Piya’s claim that the King instructed Anupong not to conduct a coup is the strongest account we have heard to date about the King’s opposition to a coup and his communicating this to Anupong; it would explain why Privy Counselors Prem and Siddhi, both seen as opponents of the current government, gave recent assurances to the Ambassador that there would not be a coup. While Piya did not specify how he heard of this exchange, the purported instruction does appear consistent with Anupong’s actions, other high-level military assurances to the Ambassador, and reporting in other channels…
Piya remarked that King Bhumibol was highly irritated by PAD’s occupation of Government House and other disruptions caused by the anti-government group, but the King was unsure how best to ensure PAD would vacate the compound. Piya said the King had instructed two of his loyalists to convey his desire that PAD leave Government House…. Piya considered PAD co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul to be obstinate, however, saying Sondhi had become obsessed with his own sense of mission.
The Yellow Shirt leadership and their ultra-royalist establishment allies failed to follow Bhumibol’s clearly expressed wishes. Adding insult to injury, Sondhi Limthongkul denounced both Sumet and Disathorn from the PAD stage at the Makkawan bridge near Government House, where he gave regular vitriolic speeches to inspire his increasingly fanatical followers. A U.S. cable from 2009 describes Sondhi’s response:
In the late 2008 political crisis caused by the occupation of Government House, and ultimately Bangkok’s airports, by the yellow-shirt PAD activists claiming to be defending the monarchy, both Sumete and Disathorn joined Princess Sirindhorn in October 2008 in publicly stating that the King did not consider the yellow-shirts to be acting on his behalf. Disathorn went so far as to tell a seminar: “if you love the King, go home.” Instead, PAD leader Sondhi Lim denounced both men from the PAD stage with curses; Sondhi repeated his criticism of Disathorn at the November 15 PAD rally.
Sondhi Limthongkul was knowingly and explicitly defying messages from three of King Bhumibol’s most trusted allies. He must have been well aware that in doing so he was publicly defying the king. And yet he didn’t stop there: he cursed and insulted them. In one speech, using his usual apocalyptic and messianic language, he said Thailand was divided into two: the righteous, and the unrighteous. Sondhi said contemptuously of Sumet that: “Instead of siding with the righteous, he preached unity.” It is inconceivable that Sondhi could have behaved with such swaggering insolence towards King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the monarch he claimed to revere, unless he was very confident that he had the backing of Queen Sirikit and her allies in the establishment and military.
The marital power struggle was won with ease by Queen Sirikit. Bhumibol was not only ignored: he was humiliated. When Sondhi Limthongkul denounced Rama IX’s messengers from the PAD stage, he was also sending a signal to Bhumibol and the king’s inner circle: their time was over. Sirikit and her cronies were calling the shots, and she would not be swayed by the entreaties of her husband, even if he was the king. The ultra-royalists were unwilling to call a halt to their crusade against the government even though that was clearly what Bhumibol wanted. Within a month, the PAD was to launch a dramatic escalation of its campaign of disruption, proclaiming a “Final War” involving operations codenamed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and storming Bangkok’s airports. As Eric John observed:
Instead of responding positively to the King’s message… PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul denounced Sumet and Disathorn’s “meddling.” Three weeks later, the yellow shirts escalated their activities by seizing the airports.
Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, who gives away his crown and his kingdom in the hope of a peaceful and contented retirement but instead becomes a helpless and tormented old man raging impotently at forces he no longer has the power to master, Bhumibol had found himself marginalized and irrelevant, ignored by royalists who claimed to revere him, and mocked and insulted by a clown like Sondhi Limthongkul. Millions of Thais claimed to love the king so much they would die for him, and yet Bhumibol was unable even to persuade the protesters occupying Government House to disperse and go home. Their T-shirts and headscarfs and wristbands were festooned with slogans proclaiming their loyalty to the king, but they were unwilling to do the one thing he asked of them. Bhumibol was a fading old man, and he could offer the royalist establishment no protection after his passing. Sirikit was now the undisputed power in the palace, and an establishment fearful of the future ahead of the looming trauma of royal succession saw the queen as their best (and only) hope. Bhumibol could not protect them from Vajiralongkorn and Thaksin’s vengeance, but perhaps Sirikit could. Elite royalists consumed by apocalyptic end-reign anxiety regarded her as their guardian angel.
On November 1, some 90,000 Thaksin supporters rallied at Bangkok’s Rajamangala Stadium. They were overwhelmingly dressed in red, which was to become the colour signifying support for Thaksin in Thailand, just as yellow had been adopted by the rival royalist PAD mass movement. Addressing the huge crowd by telephone from an undisclosed location abroad, Thaksin denounced the coup and his corruption conviction, and very deliberately raised the stakes once again in his battle with the royalists by making a calculatedly incendiary comment:
The only things that can bring me home are royal mercy or the people’s power.
Thaksin’s comments were intended to be ambiguous but potentially menacing, containing an implicit threat that unless he received a royal pardon and the monarchist establishment ceased its hounding of him, he could only return by mobilizing the people against the palace. A U.S. cable dated November 3 discussed the remark:
Thaksin’s statement is controversial, and rightly so. He appears to be urging the King to act on his behalf, although convicts generally request a royal pardon after they begin serving their sentences, not when they are ensconced abroad to avoid incarceration. Also, raising “the people’s power” as an alternative to “royal mercy” could make it seem as though Thaksin is disputing the Palace’s supremacy, or trying to drive a wedge between the Palace and “the people.”
A later cable carried further analysis of the comment, including remarks by wealthy royalist Chutinant Bhirombhakdi and evidence that Thaksin had crafted the phrase with great care:
Chutinant discussed former Prime Minister Thaksin’s statement in his November 1 address to supporters that either “royal mercy or the people’s power” could allow his return to Thailand. Chutinant said this juxtaposition, which he viewed as highly strategic, had the predictable effect of energizing Thaksin’s opponents in the royalist camp. This reaction allowed Thaksin to demonstrate publicly that many palace figures were aligned against him, thereby eroding the prestige that the palace derived from its status as an institution above politics. (Separately, after Thaksin’s remarks, a member of Thaksin’s legal team told us that the sentence in question was part of a “very refined product” and that she had heard this sentence “four or five times” in Thaksin’s rehearsal of the speech.)
What made Thaksin’s comment so subversive was that it suggested that the palace and the people were not united in Thailand — contrary to the official fairy tale of a harmonious kingdom where the monarch was selflessly devoted to his adoring people — and that it was Thaksin, not the monarchy, who had the support of the masses. Like all of his most provocative remarks, it contained a great deal of truth. For the first time in Thai history, ordinary people were turning against the monarchy in significant numbers. In a cable entitled “QUESTIONING THE UNQUESTIONABLE” the U.S. embassy discussed the consequences of the queen’s conduct:
After Queen Sirikit presided over the October 13 funeral of a People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protestor killed during an October 7 clash with police, public criticism of the Queen increased notably. Thanapol Eawsakul, editor of left-wing Same Sky Magazine, told us that critical online comments posted to his website spiked, and overall traffic to his site increased from 10,000 hits per day to 30,000 hits.
Thanapol, who has been charged with lese majeste for material previously published in Same Sky, told us he spent much of his time cleansing his website of content that could lead to further lese majeste accusations, such as: nude photos of the Crown Prince’s consort, including video clips of an infamous birthday party; multiple postings ranting about the Crown Prince’s lewd sexual behavior; photos (that Thanapol suspected to be digitally edited) of the Queen wearing what appears to be a famous stolen Saudi blue diamond; and multiple links to other sites with purported evidence linking the royal family to the stolen Saudi jewelry. To his surprise, people even posted comments speculating about King Bhumibol’s involvement in his brother’s death, some going as far as to suggest that Bhumibol shot then-King Ananda. Posters also drew upon Forbes magazine’s recent report claiming the King’s assets topped $35 billion, decrying the monarchy’s wealth as a result of generations of extortion, and calling the upcoming royal funeral of the King’s elder sister as a waste of taxpayer money.
Prachatai, one of the few news organizations in Thailand that makes an effort to do serious journalism on issues related to the monarchy, reported a similar leap in interest, the U.S. embassy said:
Prachatai.com Executive Director Chiranuch Premchaiporn told us that after the 2006 coup d’etat, daily online visitors to Prachatai increased from 1,000 to 10,000, and that the October 7 clash between PAD protestors and Thai police drove an increase from 15,000 to 30,000 visitors. The surge in posted comments, similar to what SameSky experienced, required significant additional hours of “eye-ball” scans to purge their sites of potentially offensive comments.
Criticism of Sirikit was not just confined to the internet. In private, growing numbers of Thais were swapping gossip and complaints about her behaviour. In pro-Thaksin neighbourhoods, villages and districts, particularly in the northeastern province of Isaan with its long history of resentment towards Bangkok rule, distaste for the queen was surprisingly open, according to BBC correspondent Jonathan Head, quoted by the U.S. embassy:
BBC reporter Jonathan Head, subject of an ongoing lese majeste, spoke with us on November 3 from the northeastern province of Udon Thani, where he said people raged publicly against the Queen in a manner he had never witnessed before. “The Queen ripped up the rule book when she attended the (PAD) funeral,” he said, adding that he remained uncertain how to incorporate recent interviews into future BBC reporting without becoming the subject of additional lese majeste investigations.
Shocked and alarmed by the surge in online attacks on Sirikit and the rest of the royals, the military took an increasingly hard line against lèse majesté, despite lacking a constitutional mandate to do so. As the U.S. embassy noted, top generals in the Queen’s Guard clique took the lead in the battle:
Army Commander General Anupong Paojinda warned Thai citizens of the dangers associated with criticizing the monarchy in a televised press conference on October 27. According to an English-language daily, Anupong said, “There must be no cases of contempt or disrespectful acts toward the monarchy. The Army will take action using every means against any person or group acting in contempt of or being disrespectful toward the monarchy.” Anupong’s remarks appeared to be a direct response to the recent increased criticism of the monarchy.
Note: The Thai criminal code outlaws lese majeste, but there is no legal basis for the Army to take action against those committing that crime. The Constitution specifies, however, that the King concurrently holds the position of head of the Thai Armed Forces. The Internal Security Act does provide that the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), an interagency body headed by the Prime Minister with the Army Commander as his deputy, is supposed to, among other tasks, “encourage people to be aware of their duty in upholding nation, religion, and King.”
UDD co-leader Charan Ditthaphichai claimed to us that most lese majeste investigations involving UDD supporters resulted from the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Task Force 6080, which focuses on offenses against the monarchy, reporting cases to Anupong, who then forwarded them to the police. Charan stated that Army Chief of Staff General Prayut Chan-Ocha, a close associate of the Queen, manages Task Force 6080 by virtue of his role as Secretary of ISOC.
Government ministries also began making greater efforts to keep criticism of the royal family contained. The U.S. embassy detailed some of the steps being taken:
The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Ministry and the Ministry of Interior (MOI) joined recent Army and Police efforts against lese majeste in late October. The ICT Ministry sought the cooperation of website editors in self-censoring content and announced an effort to create an expensive gateway to filter anti-monarchy postings. The MOI directed provincial governors to monitor leaflets and community radio stations for anti-monarchy material…
Comment: The recent move by the ICT Ministry to further scrutinize anti-monarchy Internet chatter reflects a government response to perceived more widespread criticism of the royal family, particularly of the Queen. Operators of websites and other online media are increasingly concerned about measures the RTG might take against them and are self-censoring site content to pre-empt future lese majeste charges. As a result, critics of the monarchy are finding less open space to voice their opinions, even anonymously — precisely what defenders of the monarchy intend through more aggressive implementation of lese majeste. End Summary and Comment.
But heavy handed repression of open debate about the monarchy and the succession could prove counterproductive and provoke more questioning of the appropriate role of the palace in Thai society, the embassy warned:
The Army Commander’s statement indicates that lese majeste offenses are not viewed simply as criminal acts but as a threat to Thailand’s supreme institution. The rise in high-profile lese majeste cases, the frequency of online remarks bordering on lese majeste, and the seriousness of the authorities’ response indicates that some segments of society are highly dissatisfied with the behavior of some members of the royal family, if not the institution itself. If the authorities were to harshly repress critics of the monarchy, this could prove counterproductive, as quiet discourse in many circles could shift from mere gossip about some royals’ distasteful behavior to a more weighty questioning of the monarchy’s role after the death of widely-beloved King Bhumibol.
On November 23, Sondhi Limthongkul rallied Yellow Shirts at Government House for a “final battle” against the government. Initially it appeared to be a failure, as Nostitz recounts in volume 1 of Red vs. Yellow:
The “Final War” began with a clear defeat for the PAD, or so it seemed at first. The PAD had failed to gather its claimed 100,000 supporters, instead bringing only perhaps 24,000 people on to the streets, many from Chonburi and the southern provinces. They had failed to provoke the police into violence.
On November 24, the PAD besieged the cabinet’s temporary offices at Don Muang airport, where ministers had relocated following the occupation of Government House. And then on November 25, thousands of Yellow Shirts occupied Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. The military did nothing to prevent the occupation of Suvarnabhumi or to end the blockade (which later extended to Don Muang airport too). Instead, army chief Anupong gave a news conference on November 26 in which he ruled out a coup but once again publicly demanded the resignation of the prime minister.
PM Somchai had been out of Thailand at an APEC summit in Peru, and returned on November 26. Unable to land in Bangkok, he instead arrived in Chiang Mai, in the pro-Thaksin north of Thailand. As Nick Nostitz says:
The state was still unable to deal with the increasingly messy situation. Several members of the pro-government forces fled overseas, possibly to prepare a government in exile in case of a military coup. Others planned to go underground, and organize resistance from their strongholds in Isarn and the north. The government was already a government in exile in its own country, functioning from Chiangmai in the north, where Prime Minister Somchai was based, protected by pro-government forces.
It seemed that the security forces were not following government orders, the military were refusing to work with the police. Twice orders to disperse the protests at the airports were given, preparations were made, but the time passed without any action by the police. On November 28th national police chief Patcharawat Wongsuwan was sacked for failing to execute the order to disperse the PAD at the airports…
Civil war seemed entirely possible, and likely to be coming within days.
At such a precarious, frightening, pivotal moment for Thailand, with the legitimate government unable to function and extremist mobs shutting down Bangkok’s airports and doing immense damage to the nation’s economy and international reputation, many Thais looked to Bhumibol to do something. This was just the kind of national crisis that most Thais believed their king would step up to solve. That was what they had always been taught. They were to be profoundly disappointed. Bhumibol had tried to intervene in October and had been humiliated, his prestige badly damaged. He had neither the inclination nor the influence to intervene again.
By November 28, Eric John was explicitly pressing for the king to resolve the situation — an extraordinary stance for a U.S. ambassador to take — but leading monarchists insisted it would not happen:
PAD leader Chamlong told supporters at an airport stage November 28 that an important person (phu jai in Thai) had asked him to stop the protest, but that he had replied it was too late to do so, for the nation’s sake. Chamlong vowed that the PAD occupation of the airports would continue until Somchai stepped down and warned of a massive uprising by PAD supporters if core leaders were arrested. A fellow leader acknowledged additional “lightly armed” guards were reinforcing PAD presence at the two airports in anticipation of police action. Several trucks bearing a medical logo/red cross were caught on video unloading weapons at Suwannaphum airport late November 28.
At this point, perhaps the best option for a non-violent, peaceful resolution of the current crises, both airport occupation and political stalemate, would be for the Thai King to intervene. Such extraordinary intervention, technically outside the constitution, has happened twice before in the King’s 62 year reign: in 1973 and 1992. With this in mind, Ambassador separately engaged the two most politically active Privy Councilors November 28, Privy Council Chair Prem Titsulanonda and ACM Siddhi Savetsila, suggesting that the King’s intervention now could prevent bloodshed and resolve the crisis in the national interest.
Both Prem and Siddhi said such intervention would not happen, and that they would act to protect the King from being dragged into the political crisis. Prem stated that the King could intervene after bloodshed occurred, but not prior. Prem lamented the stalemates — between the PAD and government, and the government and military — but did not offer any solutions. Both circled back time and time again to Thaksin; the real problem in this crisis was not the PAD and the airport occupation, but Thaksin, who would not admit/accept his guilt, and would use every resource at his disposal to fight to the end. Prem said that for the King’s intervention to be effective, as it was in 1992, Thaksin and Chamlong needed to be in the room; Somchai and Chamlong would not solve the matter.
Prem in particular seemed crestfallen by Ambassador’s depiction of the international mood vis-a-vis the PAD and the airport occupation, and the explanation of how actions by the PAD, which claims to act in defense of the monarchy, were actually actively undermining the monarchy’s standing at a critical moment. Prem countered that it was Thaksin who was damaging the monarchy.
Siddhi echoed the same themes, while acknowledging that a Privy Council meeting November 26 concluded that the situation would worsen; they feared bloodshed, particularly if the pro-Thaksin redshirts swung into action. Time worked against the PAD, said Siddhi. The best option would be for the PAD to abandon the airports and return to Government House, but he was not optimistic that they would do so. Siddhi thought it possible that the Constitutional Court might rule to dissolve Somchai’s ruling People’s Power Party (PPP) December 2-3, which would offer a way out. Prem, however, suggested the Court wished to call several more witnesses, and that a decision was not imminent.
With the king’s birthday approaching on December 5, it seemed inconceivable that Bhumibol could avoid commenting on the mayhem engulfing Thailand. In particular, his traditional annual speech on December 4 was keenly awaited. Meanwhile, speculation was growing that the politicized and partial judiciary would once again intervene to break the deadlock: not by insisting on the imposition of basic law and order but by disbanding the PPP for electoral fraud.
On December 2, as a mute Bhumibol joined the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony with Sirikit and Vajiralongkorn, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva and his colleague Korn Chatikavanij visited Eric John at his Wireless Road residence. Abhisit claimed he had no intention of seeking political gain from the actions of the Yellow Shirts, and made excuses for Bhumibol’s silence:
Abhisit appeared frustrated, despairing that he saw no easy way out of the current stalemate. Abhisit said he had long favored Army Commander Anupong Paojinda’s recent suggestion that Prime Minister Somchai should dissolve the House of Representatives, although Anupong ought to have suggested this privately rather than publicly. Abhisit acknowledged that some PPP figures expressed concern that royalists would take advantage of House dissolution to impede new elections and impose rule by an ad hoc council (a contingency not provided for by the Constitution), but he dismissed this scenario as “crazy,” “rubbish,” and “ridiculous.” (Comment: We are not as quick to dismiss this prospect; a leading Privy Councilor told the Ambassador that he and other senior royalists hoped to bring about rule by such a council. End Comment.)
Appearing genuinely pessimistic, Abhisit denied that he would seek to build majority support in the House for his own potential candidacy as Prime Minister. (Note: Abhisit formally became a candidate for PM after then-Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was forced out of office in September. End Note.) Abhisit said he might be open to talks with other parties’ faction leaders if they were to approach him, but it would be inappropriate for him to go courting their support. He said he would watch carefully for signs of disunity among PPP figures, noting the pace at which they would move to the Puea Thai party, which pro-Thaksin figures formed as a backup vehicle in the event of PPP dissolution…
Abhisit noted pessimistically that PAD’s seizure of the airports had set a very negative precedent that would now be included in both sides’ playbooks for years to come. He said that he was not willing to rule out the vague, dire predictions from some quarters that Thailand would fall into a state of civil war…
Abhisit remarked that King Bhumibol was in a very difficult position. In years past, the King had remained above the fray and was respected by both sides in a social conflict. Now, however, the pro-Thaksin side was trying actively to make the monarchy appear as though it was a biased participant in the current crisis. When asked whether the King might be able to bring about a peaceful resolution of the current standoff, Abhisit said the King might be able to make a general appeal to the nation, but any specific proposal would entail a “huge risk” to the monarchy, which would lose prestige if the King’s advice were to be ignored. When asked whether the absence of the King’s intervention at a time of crisis would also undermine the institution, by raising questions about its continued utility, Korn scoffed at the notion; Abhisit replied simply: “You can already read comments raising that question posted on the BBC website.”
A few hours later, the Constitutional Court dissolved the PPP, banning Prime Minister Somchai and other party executive board members from politics. The PPP’s coalition partners Chart Thai and Matchima Thipathai were dissolved too. Once again, the judges had done their best to undermine Thaksin and his allies. But it remained unclear who would form the next government or whether the Yellow Shirts would now cease their blockade of the airports. As Eric John commented:
The Constitutional Court’s ruling was widely expected, but it is unclear whether it will end anti-government demonstrations or provoke a violent response from government sympathizers. PAD leaders, whom we sense are divided, may realize that their seizure of Bangkok’s airports is fast eroding the support they enjoyed from Bangkok’s middle and upper class; the ruling offers them a chance to declare victory, end the airport occupations, and allow public focus to return to the King’s birthday celebrations. If, as Abhisit predicted, the PAD does not choose this option and the King does not use his December 4 annual birthday message to send a clear signal to end the protest, the stalemate could drag on, with no fixed end in sight.
The ruling further eroded the legitimacy and credibility of the courts in the eyes of the millions of ordinary Thais who supported Thaksin Shinawatra. Leading royalists had made it clear for months that they regarded the PPP’s dissolution as a foregone conclusion. As Marc Askew wrote in his article Confrontation and Crisis in Thailand, 2008-2010:
By the end of 2008, a lethal combination of organized street agitation, civil disobedience, paranoid nationalism, hyper-royalist hysteria, calculated military inaction and punitive court decisions finally succeeded in destroying the PPP-led administration.
Bhumibol failed to appear to give his birthday speech on December 4. He decided to hide behind feigned ill health. While there is little doubt Bhumibol was unwell, there was no real reason he could not give the speech. As the U.S. embassy commented:
On December 4, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and his sister, Princess Sirindhorn, appeared jointly before assembled dignitaries to announce that King Bhumibol was ill and unable to deliver his customary annual address to the nation. After the Crown Prince made brief remarks on the King’s behalf, Princess Sirindhorn explained that her father had bronchitis, was exhausted, on an IV, and unable to eat. Subsequent official reports from the Palace indicated that the King suffered from a fever and had an infection, but by December 8 his condition was improving and he was able to eat soft food…
Comment: The rivalry between the Crown Prince and Princess Sirindhorn is well known to Thailand’s political class, and we believe this joint appearance sent a deliberate signal of Palace solidarity. While the Princess’ briefing on the King’s health was justified by her recent meeting with the King, we note that the Crown Prince served as the King’s formal representative at the event. End Comment.
The military put enormous pressure on wavering Thaksin allies to jump ship and support Abhisit as the next prime minister. The generals wielded both carrot and stick — legislators were offered large financial inducements to switch their allegiance (40 million baht each, according to Thai media), and the military told them that if they stayed in the Thaksin camp there would be a coup. The deeply corrupt Democrat Party secretary general, Suthep Thaugsuban, was heavily involved in the negotiations, which focused in particular on the faction controlled by the (also deeply corrupt) Buri Ram godfather Newin Chidchob, previously a staunch ally of Thaksin. As Paul Chambers explains in In the Shadow of the Soldier’s Boot:
The military, now dominated by the virulently pro-Prem Queen’s Guard faction, saw it in their best interests to keep pro-Thaksin MPs out of power and help negotiate into office a government opposed to Thaksin… Two familiar and connected pro-Prem soldiers were instrumental in this oblique intervention: army chief Anuphong Phaochinda and retired Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan. Joining them was then army chief of staff … General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Like Prawit and Anuphong, Prayuth had served in the 21st Infantry Regiment of the Second Division — the Queen’s Guard. Indeed, shared past service in the Queen’s Guard had now become the central bond of loyalty connecting most senior soldiers.. In early December, on the heels of the court verdict, talks began between these soldiers and members of several political parties … as well as several members of the pro-Thaksin Phuea Thai Party to set up an anti-Thaksin ruling coalition. The three soldiers also contacted the now wavering Thaksin henchman and long-time politico Newin Chidchob — who proved to be less than loyal to his erstwhile patron.
Anupong met several key politicians whose loyalty was up for sale, including Newin, at his official residence in the First Infantry Regiment compound off the Vibhavadi Rangsit road on December 6. Prayuth was also present, and Prem’s influence on the proceedings was obvious. A report in The Nation described the negotiations:
A key leader of one of the former coalition parties said most parties had moved to the Democrat camp due to a request by a senior military figure, who was conveying a message from a man who could not be refuted.
Besides, he said, all parties knew that if the Pheu Thai were to take over, anti-government protesters would take to the streets again.
Another source said that if Pheu Thai did form the next government, the military would definitely have to stage a coup…
On the evening of December 5, Democrat Party secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban and MP Niphon Promphan met with key leaders of former coalition parties. The leaders included Sanan Kachornprasart and Somsak Prissanananthakul from the disbanded Chart Thai party, Pradit Pattaraprasit and Suwat Liptapanlop from the Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana Party, Pinij Jarusombat and Preecha Laohapongchana from the Puea Pandin Party, Newin Chidchob and the now defunct People Power Party’s Sora-at Klinprathum.
In the initial stages of this meeting, the Democrats promised that the three parties and Newin’s faction would be given the same ministerial quota they had under the previous government.
However, the decision-making had to be hastened when the ex-wife of fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, Pojaman Damapong, suddenly jetted in to Bangkok later that night.
The Democrats called for a press conference at 5pm the very next day.
But before they met the press, key Democrat leaders namely Suthep and Niphon, along with their supporters namely Pradit, Somsak, Suchat Tanchareon from Puea Pandin, Somsak Thepsuthin from the disbanded Matchima Thipataya, and some MPs from Newin’s group met Army Chief Gen Anupong Paochinda at his residence. The only parties not invited were Pheu Thai and Pracharaj.
This meeting would have been secret if the politicians hadn’t got lost. So a soldier was sent to meet them at a PTT petrol station, then escort them on a motorbike to the Army chief’s house.
Former army chief Gen Pravit Wongsuwan and army chief-of-staff Prayuth Chanocha were also at the meeting.
A source said the politicians met Anupong to ask his advice about forming a Democrat-led coalition. The Army chief told them all parties should put the country first, because if the next coalition was the same as the previous one, Thailand would plunge even deeper into turmoil.
The meeting lasted three hours. After that leaders of the Democrats and the four minor parties met the press — two hours late — at the Sukhothai Hotel, and declared their agreement to form the next government.
Newin Chidchob had long been a notorious figure in Thai politics. Born in 1958, he was named in honour of the Burmese dictator Ne Win by his father Chai, a former village headman who had established a highly profitable quarrying business. Chai Chidchob established himself as a godfather in the Buri Ram area and Newin followed in his father’s footsteps. He became a close confidante of Thaksin Shinawatra, due to some particular skills that the prime minister considered invaluable. He was an expert in the dark political arts: vote-buying, intimidation, blackmail, bribery, and rabble-rousing — the U.S. embassy describes him as an “infamous dirty-trickster”. And the half-Khmer Newin was also considered highly adept at black magic. As Pasuk and Baker explain in The spirits, the stars, and Thai politics, their presentation to the Siam Society in 2008:
Newin seems to have brought two skills which attracted Thaksin. The first was vote-buying. Newin was tried for vote- buying and escaped only on a narrow technicality. At the 2005 polls, he was sent to the south to organize wholesale vote-buying with money distributed through the government machinery. (It failed after local Democrats taped the proceedings).
Newin’s second talent is that he is Khmer. In the Thai imagination, Cambodia is a source of great spiritual power, and Khmers have access to powerful techniques. Newin has never claimed any special expertise, but the image clings to him because he is Khmer…
Now, at the end of 2008, Newin Chidchob was betraying his former political master. In a phone call he told Thaksin: “It’s over, Boss.” This meant the aloof and ineffectual Abhisit Vejjajiva could beceme prime minister. As Andrew Walker commented in a post on New Mandala:
With the assistance of a military coup, two party dissolutions, a new constitution, an activist judiciary, royal backing, an ultra-nationalist crisis, six months of escalating street provocation, military insubordination, and an economically disastrous airport shutdown, the Democrat Party now seems to be within striking distance of forming Thailand’s next government…
Their path to government has been anything but honourable, but the ultimate decision will be made by parliament. If the Democrat Party can muster the numbers in parliament, they have a right to form government.
Sure enough, on December 15, parliament elected Abhisit as Thai prime minister. The “silent coup” of 2008 was complete. Parliament was back under the control of the elite and Queen Sirikit.
From the start, the administration of Abhisit Vejjajiva faced an insurmountable legitimacy deficit. The hypocrisy of the new prime minister and his allies was plainly evident. Right up until army-backed horsetrading that propelled him to the premiership, Abhisit was insisting that new elections were the only solution to Thailand’s political deadlock. Once he became prime minister through a parliamentary vote that by no means reflected the wishes of Thailand’s electorate, Abhisit suddenly abandoned his eagerness for elections. He was to hang on to power for almost 30 months without going to the polls to seek a democratic mandate. Abhisit also professed distaste for the criminal actions of the PAD and the interventionism of the army, yet he allowed them to engineer his political ascent. He repeatedly gave pedantic legalistic justifications for his right to rule, utterly failing to acknowledge the understandable outrage of the millions of Thais who had seen their democratically expressed wishes trampled by the so-called Democrat Party. As Michael Montesano wrote in his article Contextualizing the Pattaya Summit Debacle: Four April Days, Four Thai Pathologies:
Abhisit was serious about staying in power. He appeared to view his path to the premiership as entirely legitimate, notwithstanding the roles played by airport occupiers, helpful Constitutional Court justices and the Army commander in preparing that path for him. Realizing the need to focus on being able to win the general elections that would inevitably come, he hunkered down to pursue what he viewed as normal politics…
This vision of normalcy represented a willful public denial that the political crisis that had engulfed Thailand since late 2005 and early 2006 continued, and that it had pushed Thailand into far from normal, into even “revolutionary”, times.
Even the U.S. embassy noted Abhisit’s sanctimoniousness:
One can find irony in Abhisit’s pledge to end “failed politics,” as he owes his election as Prime Minister to the recent disorder, culminating in the closure of Bangkok’s airports in late November. That disorder appeared to hasten the Constitutional Court’s dissolution of the previous ruling People’s Power Party and convince many in the Bangkok elite, including its usually apolitical big businessmen, that it was necessary to establish a new government unaligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin.
Abhisit’s foreign minister exemplified the hypocrisy of the new administration. Kasit Piromya was a career diplomat who had fallen out with Thaksin and joined the PAD, giving several ranting speeches from the Yellow Shirt stage. He was involved in the blockade of Suvarnabhumi, and foolishly told diplomats and foreign journalists that the illegal airport occupation had been “a lot of fun“. Kasit’s presence at the heart of government demonstrated the dishonesty of Abhisit’s promises to enforce the rule of law. The new administration’s double standards were illustrated when police swiftly issued arrest warrants for supporters of Thaksin who had protested outside parliament on December 15. As the U.S. embassy commented:
There is reason to believe that the security forces and the courts may be significantly less tolerant of disorderly acts by Thaksin supporters than they were of the PAD’s. (To date, no court has issued any arrest warrant for PAD leaders based on the recent airport takeovers.)
But the most significant and dangerous of Abhisit’s compromises was Democrat Party’s new alliance with Newin Chidchob and the Bhumjai Thai party. Abhisit proclaimed a policy of “zero tolerance” for corruption upon taking office, but he was utterly dependent on the backing of Newin and his cronies. They were determined to extract as much loot as possible in return for propping up the ramshackle coalition of the supposedly honest and clean prime minister. The new cabinet received royal assent on December 20. Newin’s Bhumjai Thai Party was given control of three of the most lucrative ministeries for corruptly siphoning cash: Transport and Communications, Commerce, and Interior. The Interior Ministry is also immensely powerful, with tentacles reaching deep into Thai society in all regions of the country and extensive ability to manipulate local officials and disseminate propaganda.
Prem Tinsulanonda, who incessantly fulminated against “bad people” in politics but had clung to power throughout the 1980s by striking one deal after another with one of parliament’s shadiest godfathers, Banharn Silpa-archa, oddly failed to mention the new government’s odious underbelly when Abhisit went to seek his blessing on December 27. As The Nation reported:
Chief royal adviser General Prem Tinsulanonda voiced optimism on Sunday in the leadership of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, saying it was fortunate for Thailand to pull out of the political trouble.
“In the past years, people are not happy and it is fortunate for the country to have installed the new prime minister who I am confident can overcome the turmoil,” he said in his New Year greetings.
Abhisit led his Cabinet members to call on Prem to wish him a Happy New Year. Prem said he had no doubts that Abhisit would succeed in putting politics back on course even though he had to overcome so many political hurdles.
He urged the government to administer the country under five principles — endurance, tolerance, sacrifice, lead by example and winning the people’s trust. He said he knew that Abhisit and Cabinet members would have no easy job in facing tough challenges ahead. He wished them every success in striving to serve the country, the King and the people.
After receiving Prem’s blessing, Abhisit said he felt heartened for the moral support.
The privy council president and his Yellow Shirt allies did not appear to understand that the consequences of their “silent coup” would come back to haunt them. Many Thais were utterly incensed at the manner in which a legitimate government had been removed. The reputation of the monarchy had been further damaged. And the mob tactics of the royalists could — and would — be copied by Thaksin too. As James Stent wrote in Thoughts on Thailand’s Turmoil:
The precedent of civil disobedience by illegally occupying public space was set in 2008 by the yellow shirts when they dispossessed the Prime Minister of his offices at Government House for several months, and subsequently closed down for a few days Suvarnaphum and Don Muang airports, damaging both Thailand’s international reputation and the Thai economy. They did not consider that the other side could copy their tactics.
In an assessment of the state of Thai democracy at end-2008, the U.S. embassy correctly predicted that the Yellow Shirt disruptions that paralysed the PPP’s ability to govern would now be followed by Red Shirt sabotage of Abhisit:
Looking forward, the new Democrat-led coalition will face the same harassing street tactics from the pro-Thaksin red-shirts that the PPP-led coalitions faced from the PAD yellow-shirts… While the tension is currently less than during the height of PAD protests, and coup talk has receded, there is no end in sight for the polarization characterizing Thai politics.
On January 19, Harry Nicolaides pleaded guilty to defaming the monarchy, the only hope for those accused of lèse majesté if they want a royal pardon. He was sentenced to six years in prison, cut in half to three years because of his guilty plea as is standard practice in Thailand. Photographs of a gaunt and weeping Nicolaides clinging to the bars of his detention cell at the court, his feet shackled, were carried in newspapers and television reports around the world. It was another disaster for Thailand’s international image. A handwritten account by Nicolaides of his treatment in jail was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in February with the headline “The medieval price an author pays for insulting Thailand’s monarchy”:
My book, Verisimilitude, was a rather clumsy first attempt at fiction — only 50 copies were printed and seven sold. I love Thailand and respect the royal family. It was never my intention to offend anyone…
I can’t afford to fall sick — the mental strain is enough — so my family send me some chicken and a salad every day…
On the king’s 81st birthday I saw fireworks in the distance. Some prisoners had tears in their eyes, praising a man they regard not just as their king but their father. I may not be Thai, but I am a son, and I know what it means to love a father. I am applying for a royal pardon. I pray the king learns of my plight so I might enjoy his grace.
When I’ve finished my chicken, Thais beg for my scraps.
Nicolaides received a royal pardon on February 21, 2009, and was deported to Australia. “I have been crying for eight hours,” he told reporters on arrival in Melbourne. Shortly before boarding the flight in Bangkok he had belatedly learned his mother had suffered a stroke during his imprisonment.
Strict enforcement of the lèse majesté law was central to the agenda of the Abhisit administration, which owed its very existence to the scheming of the royalist establishment. In his inaugural policy speech at the end of 2008, the prime minister proclaimed that “protecting the monarchy” was the top priority of his government. In the warped worldview of the Democrats and their allies in the Yellow coalition, protecting the monarchy apparently involved enthusiastically backing the queen, ignoring the king’s wishes, and plotting against Vajiralongkorn.
Information and Communications Minister Ranongruk Suwanchawee (a nonentity who had a cabinet seat purely as a proxy for her faction-leader husband Pairoj who was officially banned from politics) quickly declared very publicly that her top priority would be cracking down on the communication of information. She set up a so-called “war room” of officials scouring the internet for websites supposedly insulting the monarchy, and announced that 2,300 had been blocked. Month after month, with pride rather than embarrassment, the government would give a new and ever higher tally of blocked sites: the number was soon in the tens of thousands. In 2010, a billboard even appeared around Bangkok showing a smiling Abhisit on the phone. “If you find an inappropriate website,” read the caption, “call 1212.” It was not clear from the billboard whether the photograph of Abhisit was supposed to depict him doing his civic duty by phoning the hotline to report an internet infraction he had inadvertently stumbled upon, or whether lucky citizens who dialed in with tip-offs about unacceptable online content might find the call answered by their prime minister himself, eagerly jotting down the offending URL before swinging into action.
A secret U.S. cable in February 2009 noted the increasingly repressive climate, and the risk that the administration’s hardline approach would prove counterproductive:
While the political crisis that gripped Thailand the second half of 2008 has disappeared from the streets for now, the deep gulf in Thai society and the body politic remains, and the eventual fate of the monarchy is one of the key cleavage lines. The struggle by many parties for position and advantage in shaping public perceptions in anticipation of the passing of the revered King, a potential messy succession involving the far less respected Crown Prince, and the almost certain redefinition of the role of the institution of monarchy continues unabated.
Many of the Democrat Party leaders who have moved into top government positions are cosmopolitan, well-educated people who nevertheless appear to be facilitating growing efforts to clamp down on forms of speech critical of the monarchy. Whether that is primarily out of personal conviction or political advantage, or both, remains unclear. Thailand has a reasonably strong and active civil society, however, that promotes changing societal attitudes towards traditional institutions and behavioral norms; this issue will not be easily swept under the carpet. Broad-brushed efforts against all unflattering mention of the institution, King, Queen, and Crown Prince through crude application of the blunt instrument of lese majeste laws, without distinction between those who actually intend ill towards the monarchy and those expressing opinions which otherwise would not find an audience, may end up undermining the institution the law is meant to protect — an unintended consequence akin to the People’s Alliance for Democracy’s (PAD) extreme actions in 2008 and the Queen’s ill-advised patronage of the October 13 funeral of a PAD demonstrator. End Summary and Comment.
In a January 22 lunch with U.S. diplomats, Prem and Siddhi gave Abhisit lukewarm praise, and fulminated about Thaksin:
Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda described PM Abhisit as “clean” and “one of the best we have.” Prem hoped the government would get off to a good start. Prem and Privy Councilor Siddhi Savetsila were considerably more animated about ex-PM Thaksin and his supporters. Prem stated that Thaksin would not stop his political efforts; he would keep trying to protect and promote himself. Siddhi claimed that anti-government protestors were losing credibility as a result of their actions, such as throwing eggs at their opponents (such as former PM Chuan). He suggested the tactics were designed simply to keep the protestors, and by extension Thaksin, in the news. Prem added that this type of motive was also behind Thaksin’s talking up an alleged assassination plot…
The Ambassador said he could easily imagine two scenarios for Thaksin going forward: stay abroad and fight, while slowly losing influence here in Thailand; or come back, go to jail, and hope for a pardon as part of a deal. Prem replied that he considered it “almost impossible” for Thaksin to come back, because he did not think Thaksin would ever agree to go to jail. Prem added that Thaksin was a very dangerous man and should be jailed…
On February 9, Anglo-Thai academic Giles “Ji” Ungpakorn fled Thailand to Britain to avoid prosecution after being charged with lèse majesté in January for using a quote from Paul Handley’s banned The King Never Smiles in his 2007 book A Coup for the Rich. On arrival in the UK, Giles published The Red Siam Manifesto, an article in English and Thai that openly challenged monarchist fairytales:
- grew in stature under the corrupt military dictators: Sarit, Tanom and Prapass.
- allowed innocent people to be executed after they were falsely accused of killing his older brother.
- supported the blood bath at Thammasart University on 6th October 1976 because he felt that Thailand had ‘too much democracy’. He was also the patron of the violent gang that were called the ‘village scouts’.
- allowed the army to stage a coup in September 2006. Furthermore he allowed his name to be used by the army, the PAD protestors and the Democrat Party, in the destruction of democracy.
- has been an advocate of economic views which reveal his opposition to state social welfare for the poor. But what is worse, as one of the richest men in the world, the king has the arrogance to lecture the poor to be sufficient in their poverty (through the notion of the Sufficiency Economy).
Finally, this king allows his supporters to proclaim that he is ‘the father of the nation’, and yet his own son is not respected by anyone in Thai society!
The elites in Thailand, who claim legitimacy from the king, are exploiters and blood-suckers. They are not the real owners of society. They should remember that their wealth and status is as a result of the hard work of those ordinary citizens whom they despise.
For the millions of Thais who know all this to be true, it is only fear and intimidation that stops us all from speaking this truth out loud.
On March 6, police raided the offices of the Prachatai news agency, one of the few independent and reliable voices in Thai journalism, and arrested its widely respected director, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, on the very same day that Abhisit had pledged to uphold media freedom in a speech at the Asia News Network’s 10th anniversary celebration in Bangkok
Meanwhile, Thaksin and the Red Shirts further escalated their campaign to bring down the government. With the king’s health extremely fragile, Thaksin was desperate to retake control of parliament so that he could block any attempt by his enemies to sabotage Vajiralongkorn’s succession and instal an alternative monarch. As Askew writes in Confrontation and Crisis in Thailand, 2008-2010:
The evolving events from March 26 showed how the red-shirt movement was modelling its tactics on the PAD’s successful pattern of declaring demands, provoking reactions and claiming pretexts for the escalation of crowd action. The government was also embroiled in this delicate game, which hinged on claiming the moral high ground of legality, order and non-violence. Symbol and action, innuendo and accusation were intimately entwined in the play of events, and the first player to be demonstrated as the initiator of violence would lose the moral advantage.
On March 26, the Red Shirts rallied again: tens of thousands marched on Government House and set up camp there once more, planning a prolonged siege. Red Shirt protesters were routinely denounced by Abhisit’s government as paid stooges of Thaksin Shinawatra but a U.S. embassy cable noted that this was inaccurate — many of them clearly believed in their cause. The Red Shirts began calling themselves phrai — an old term roughly meaning “serf” — and contrasting themselves with the amart, the establishment. They mocked the pretensions and double standards and deceitfulness of the elite, and the fairy tales of Thailand as a united, free and harmonious nation. On the evenings of March 27 and March 28, Thaksin addressed Red Shirt protesters at Government House via video link. For the first time, he explicitly accused Prem Tinsulanonda of plotting the 2006 coup, and also named Surayud Chulanont and Piya Malakul as key conspirators. All three responded with appalled denials
A partial translation of Thaksin’s March 27 comments was provided by Chris Baker on New Mandala. The exiled former prime minister told the crowd that his famous 2006 comments about a “charismatic” person trying to overthrow him had, of course, referred to Prem Tinsulanonda:
The phrase “person with extra-constitutional charismatic power” created a big fuss. Sondhi [Limthongul] claimed I meant the King. I was not so bold. I’m loyal. I was not so bold as to say that. In truth, the person with extra-constitutional charismatic power is General Prem Tinsulanond [Big cheer]. I didn’t dare say it then. And one of General Prem’s people phoned to ask me to say clearly that it was not General Prem. But it was, so I wouldn’t. [Big cheer]
Because General Prem was involved in politics, and the military was involved, we had the coup, the constitution of 2007, and the country has gone backwards by at least 15 years…
That Pa [Prem] descends to play politics, to order this and that, in his role as a person with extra-constitutional charismatic power, is something that destroys the procedures of the country, gives rise to a system of double-standards, gives rise to social injustice.
Pa has no children but children are growing up. They must have a future, must live in a country with a proper system, a democracy that commands international acceptance, and social justice, not a system in which Pa can press this button and that button.
On March 30, Thaksin told the crowd that Prem had routinely interfered in military promotions for decades. As the reaction of the U.S. embassy shows, this was also absolutely true:
Addressing the crowd by video link from abroad, Thaksin on March 30 continued to attack Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, claiming that Prem, as Privy Council President, had frequently sought to influence the promotions of military officers. (Note: We have reported that for years. End note.)
What panicked the elite was that Thaksin’s accusations were extremely accurate. He was breaking one of the unwritten rules of the Thai establishment, airing their dirty laundry in public, and challenging the fables that elite networks created to mask their political meddling.
By early April, Thaksin appears to have decided to launch a significant escalation, and seek to topple Abhisit’s government through mass unrest. The protesters announced that their “D-Day” would be April 8, when they would march on the residence of Prem Tinsulanonda. It was a deliberately provocative tactic. On the evening of April 6, his ex-wife Pojaman and their children and other close relatives left Thailand on various flights ahead of the showdown. The same evening, Abhisit appeared on national television to say he would tolerate peaceful protest but would not allow “civil war or a people’s revolution”. He also told protester’s to leave Prem’s house alone. On April 7, a group of “supporters” of Prem gathered at his residence. It was quite clear that they were not who they claimed to be, as Nostitz reported:
On April 7 there was news that a new group of Prem supporters had gathered in front of Prem’s residence at Thewet. They wore light blue neckerchiefs, and called themselves a spontaneously founded citizens’ group – the “Glum Rak Pandin Goed” (The Group that Loves their Land of Birth). Most of the few dozen people had difficulties remembering the group’s name, and garbled it when I asked them. They walked in and out of the army installation next to Prem’s residence, mingled with the soldiers there. I met many PAD guards who I knew from the government house occupation of last year, and who remembered me as well.
The same day, Red Shirt protesters in Pattaya, where Abhisit was holding a cabinet meeting, attacked the prime minister’s car. Abhisit escaped but his driver and some police officers were beaten up.
Also on April 7, Buri Ram gangster and parliamentary faction leader Newin Chidchob held a theatrical televised news conference in which he tearfully proclaimed his loyalty to the king and pleaded with Thaksin to stop “hurting the monarchy”. It was a shamelessly cynical performance. The Nation reported his remarks:
A tearful Newin Chidchob on Tuesday launched a stinging attack on former boss Thaksin Shinawatra and asked him to put a brake on the red shirted movement’s activities that may have upset His Majesty the King.
His voice choked with emotion, Newin said if he could ask for two things from Thaksin after “risking my life” for him, he would want the former prime minister to “tell his men” to stop “hurting” the monarch and ending activities that could damage Thailand as a whole.
The political drama unfolded on TV as Newin and his colleagues appeared at a press conference to rebut claims by the redshirted movement that they had “betrayed” Thaksin…
Newin asked red shirted protesters who planned to join in a mass rally on Wednesday to reconsider their decision, saying their leaders had ulterior motive beyond toppling Abhisit government…
“Please think twice, the red shirt protesters. You all are being used. Your leaders have hidden agenda beyond what they told you, beyond ousting this government,” he said.
Newin’s voice was choked with emotion when he said he was ready to die for the monarchy and would do anything to fight those who wanted to destroy the monarchy.
Besides Newin’s high-profile news conference, the Interior Ministry which he controlled sent an order on April 7 marked “most urgent” to all provincial governors, ordering billboards to be erected all over Thailand with the slogan “PROTECT THE INSTITUTION — CALM PEACE UNITY”.
On the morning of April 8, the Red Shirt “D-Day” protest began. More than 100,000 people packed Sri Ayutthaya Road, Royal Plaza, and the roads surrounding Government House. On April 9, many Bangkok taxi drivers — who overwhelmingly support Thaksin — blocked roads in the capital in sympathy with the protest. But numbers at the Bangkok rally began to wane as the focus switched to seaside sex resort of Pattaya, where world leaders were arriving for the ASEAN summit at the Royal Cliff Hotel. Besides the police and soldiers deployed to Pattaya to maintain order during the summit, a militia group also appeared wearing navy blue T-shirts with the slogan “PROTECT THE INSTITUTION — CALM PEACE UNITY”. During the years he was allied with Thaksin, Newin had played a key role in arranging street mobs. Now he was doing the same for his new allies in the Democrat Party, in particular Suthep Thaugsuban. The two men — both supremely corrupt — had been bitter enemies in the 1990s but now were comrades. Suthep was in overall charge of the security response to the Red Shirt protests, and he drew on Newin’s shady expertise.
On April 10, a brief clash between the Blue Shirts and Red Shirts erupted after Arisman Pongruangrong, a popular singer who had become a UDD leader, delivered a letter of protest to ASEAN delegates. In Bangkok, Red Shirt leaders on the stage outside Government House announced that transport was available for those willing to travel to Pattaya to reinforce their comrades there. Taxis, vans and buses crammed with Red Shirts began streaming down the highway to Pattaya.
By the morning of April 11, the police securing the Royal Cliff Hotel, where the summit was to be held and most foreign delegations were staying, had been replaced by soldiers, members of the Border Patrol Police militia, and Blue Shirts. Confrontations between the Blue Shirts and Red Shirts erupted in several parts of Pattaya. Newin was videoed and photographed personally directing the Blue Shirts. As the atmosphere grew increasingly confrontational, hundreds of Red Shirts forced their way into the hotel. Nick Nostitz describes what happened:
Red Shirts stood at the front doors, and suddenly began pushing. One large glass window suddenly broke, and Red Shirts stood inside the Hotel. I was completely astounded, and let myself be carried with the flow of protesters who streamed into the hotel like an overflowing river. There were bewildered journalists, delegates and observers from many Asian countries watching on. In between were tourists in swimming trunks. Some Red Shirts stood next to them and snapped pictures with their mobile phones, and the tourists took their images. There was no violence, it was just plain bizarre and surreal. Soldiers ran to protect the entry of the main hotel building; Red Shirts ignored them, walked around and entered through a side entrance, searching for Abhisit. In general, the protesters were noisy, but very well behaved.
In Red vs. Yellow volume two, Nick Nostitz discusses the reasons for the government’s creation of the Blue Shirt militia, and the incompetence of the security operation defending the Pattaya summit:
The idea behind the setting up of the Blue Shirts was to avoid the security forces appearing to use violence against protesters. This concern stems from the fear of the state, after many occasions in past decades when crackdowns have gone terribly wrong… Therefore a militia, the existence of which could plausibly be denied, was set up. I spoke afterwards with one of the PAD guards I met in Pattaya. When I asked him if he felt used, given that PAD relations with both Newin and Suthep are not exactly cordial, he said of his involvement: “That thought often occurs to me. These people always tend to use us for their own advantage, and we don’t know until after the events. I just went there with my friends to protect ASEAN, and didn’t know anything. Only there I found out that most of the people with me there were soldiers, including many conscripts that did not want to be there.”
The intelligence screw-up is a notorious factor throughout this conflict. Ground-level intelligence officers are under extreme pressure. Government ideology says that Red Shirts are bought and paid for by Thaksin Shinawatra, do not truly believe in their cause and are less numerous than they claim. Therefore, when ground-level officers report numbers that seem too high, they will not be believed, and are reprimanded and suspected of being pro-Red. In order to avoid these accusations, many intelligence officers report the numbers that their superiors want to hear. In the case of Pattaya the number given was 1,000 to 1,500 Red Shirt protesters, while the real number was in the range of 4,000 to 5,000. Enough Blue Shirts were in place to deal with the lower number but they were completely overwhelmed by the true numbers. The orders to the security forces in uniform not to use violence were the final straw and ensured the day ended in a true mess…
If the government had authorized regular forces to use regular crowd dispersal methods, namely teargas and water cannons, in order to prevent the Red Shirts from coming close to the conference venue, this would have been within what is permitted by international rules, and would hardly have raised an eyebrow among the international media or the delegates, both being used to regular violent protests at similar international conferences. It is also open to question whether the hotel invasion would have occurred, if the Blue Shirts had not attacked the Red Shirts in Pattaya in the first place.
The summit was cancelled. Nine foreign heads of state — including the Japanese and Chinese prime ministers — fled from the roof of the Royal Cliff Hotel by helicopter. It was a humiliation for Abhisit and his government.
The focus of confrontation switched back to Bangkok. On April 12, police arrested UDD leader Arisman, provoking immense anger among the Red Shirts over double standards — no Yellow Shirt leader had been arrested over the airport occupation four months earlier. Later in the day, speaking at the (Bhumjai Thai Party-controlled) interior ministry, Abhisit declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding provinces too. Around 50 people wearing red shirts forced their way into the ministry compound and attacked Abhisit’s car. The prime minister managed to escape the crowd, with security officers firing warning shots in the air. But later a car carrying Niphon Prompan, secretary of the prime minister’s office and a longtime friend of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, was set upon by protesters after it crashed while trying to break through the crowd. In a phone-in to supporters on April 12, Thaksin called for a “people’s revolution”:
I would like to invite all sides: Let join hands. Take this opportunity to make a People’s Revolution in order to bring about the true democracy to the people.
Abhisit’s three-month-old administration was looking increasingly vulnerable. The prime minister was haemorrhaging credibility. In response, the government and military leadership launched a crackdown in Bangkok. On the night of April 12, the troops stationed in the Din Daeng area to the east of government house were replaced by soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division Queen’s Guard, the royalist army regiment that had come to dominate the military power structure. Army chief Anupong was from the Queen’s Guard, as was his deputy (and successor) Prayuth Chan-ocha, who had particularly intimate links with Queen Sirikit and Prem Tinsulanonda. Several sources suggest that the switch of units was a result of a conflict in the armed forces. In particular, Panlop Pinmanee, the dubious retired general who had been a sworn enemy of Thaksin’s but now appeared to be an ally again, was widely reported to be helping direct violent militia members within the Red Shirts.
The royalist troops proceeded to launch an all-out pre-dawn assault on Red Shirt protesters at Samliem Din Daeng east of Victory Monument, under the command of Colonel Romklao Thuwatham, a rising star in the Queen’s Guard. The soldiers, in full combat gear, fired repeated volleys of automatic gunfire and also used teargas. Very few journalists were present: those who were commented on the ferocity of the military assault. Although the military leadership was later to insist that soldiers had only fired live ammunition over the heads of protesters, multiple eyewitnesses confirm that some troops had fired directly at the Red Shirts. The protesters fought back with firebombs, slingshots and rocks. Soldiers were also targeted by sporadic gunfire. Red Shirts set tires ablaze to make barricades against the advancing troops. As April 13 progressed, fighting spread. Red Shirts massed at Victory Monument, and commandeered several buses to use as barricades. Some were set on fire. Gas tankers were parked in two places near Victory Monument: outside the Din Daeng apartments, a ramshackle complex that was home to hundreds of people, and outside the King Power Hotel on Soi Rangnam, owned by one of Newin Chidchob’s cronies. Men wearing red shirts threatened to blow up both tankers. Skirmishes also broke out between locals and Red Shirts in several neighbourhoods, some of which were Yellow Shirt strongholds.
Unlike in 1973 and 1992, the military crackdown of April 13, 2009, did not turn public opinion in Bangkok decisively in favour of the protesters. Although the army assault in the early morning had been very disproportionate, the Red Shirts had lost significant public support because of the violent actions of some of those among them. The Din Daeng gas tanker incident was particularly damaging. Also, a few Red Shirts carried firearms, and many carried small improvised explosives, clubs, swords and petrol bombs. Several of the most armed and violent elements among the Red Shirts wore black.
Meanwhile, a propaganda battle was being fought on international television between Abhisit and Thaksin, as both tried to spin news coverage to their advantage. Abhisit was the clear victor. In a reversal of their domestic appeal — Thaksin communicates brilliantly with ordinary Thais while Abhisit is aloof and fumbling — the British-educated prime minister was plausible and likeable when speaking in English while Thaksin appeared shrill and unconvincing. This, too, helped turn the tide back in the government’s favour. The mainstream Thai media overwhelmingly backed Abhisit, as Askew notes in Confrontation and Crisis in Thailand, 2008-2010:
The government-promoted view, which shaped the dominant media narrative of the meaning of the Songkran turbulence, was that the demonstrations and aggressive crowd action were a deliberate effort to seize state power by Thaksin and key UDD allies. They were aimed towards creating public chaos and sowing divisions in the ranks of the military to provoke a coup that would return Thaksin to power. It is unclear that this was the case, although Thaksin had obviously tried to exploit the events.
On April 14, after a tense but relatively uneventful night, and with a decisive military assault on their main camp at Government House expected imminently, the Red Shirt leadership announced an end to the protest to avoid further bloodshed.
Abhisit and the military had won, but at the cost of further dividing the county and making their hypocrisy and double standards more obvious than ever. In August 2008, Abhisit had helped sabotage police efforts to clear the PAD blockade of Government House. After October 7, the Thai elites had erupted in fury at the “brutality” of the police crackdown on the Yellow Shirts. The military had failed to help either Samak Sundaravej or Somchai Wongsawat enforce the rule of law. The PAD leaders who led the occupation of Bangkok’s airports remained free, and a leading PAD member was Thailand’s foreign minister. Now Abhisit and the army brass had overseen the ruthless suppression of the Red Shirts, and arrested their leaders. The sense of rage and bitterness felt by many Thais since the 2006 coup, further stoked by Sirikit’s funeral visit and the overthrow of the PPP government in 2008, now burned fiercer than ever.
Abhisit and the elite failed to understand the anger of ordinary people, in particular less wealthy residents of Bangkok, and Thais in the north and northeast of the country. They believed the Red Shirts were just pawns in a political game being played by Thaksin. There was some truth to this view. Leaked U.S. cable 09BANGKOK974 cites a conversation with one of Thaksin’s main lawyers, Manida “Micky” Zimmerman, showing that during the April 11-14 standoff, Thaksin was attempting — and failing — to negotiate a deal of his own via backchannel contacts with the royalist elite:
Although the UDD has advocated a restoration of the 1997 Constitution and denounced the current government as undemocratic, we believe that Thaksin has sought to use the UDD to advance his objectives, many of which are narrow and personal rather than ideological.
Manida “Micky” Zinmerman… a lawyer working for Thaksin, told us on April 13 that Thaksin had made unsuccessful overtures to Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda; part of Thaksin’s agenda, she said, included the disposition of his family’s frozen assets, amounting to over two billion USD. Manida indicated Thaksin’s efforts were rebuffed, and she said the violence in effect showed, “This is what happens if (the royalist/RTG side) doesn’t even consider (Thaksin’s) offer.” Separately, Isra Sunthornvut, Deputy Secretary General to the Prime Minister, told us on April 12 that there was little reason for the RTG to try negotiating an end to the standoff with the UDD, because Thaksin’s main demand was the release of his family’s funds, and this was both legally difficult and a political non-starter.
If… the mid-April violence was intended to improve Thaksin’s bargaining position, we believe it must be judged a failure. We note, too, that Thaksin recently indicated privately… he believed the UDD’s protests would prove a historic turning point and could speed his return to Thailand. We believe that Thaksin, who has been outside of Thailand since August, may be making decisions based on poor quality information, much of which may be provided by persons hoping to win financial support from Thaksin…
During the strife, rumors spread of a possible military coup d’etat. Isra Sunthornvut, Deputy Secretary General to the Prime Minister, admitted to us that the Prime Minister did not have the full support of the Army, but Isra estimated approximately 90 percent of soldiers backed the PM, with the other 10 percent being allied either with Thaksin or with retired General Pallop Pinmanee. As the Army dispersed UDD protestors, we saw no indication of less than full support for the administration.
Just as the establishment had done in 2008, Thaksin was now playing with the lives of his supporters, spreading mayhem and trying to get some of them killed. But this was only part of the story. The rank-and-file Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts were not just pawns following their leaders, they were people who mostly cared passionately about important issues of governance and democracy, and cared enough to take to the streets. By ignoring the entirely legitimate grievances of the Red Shirts, and a huge number of ordinary Thais who sympathised with them, Abhisit and the establishment totally failed to understand the seriousness of the legitimacy crisis facing the monarchy and the elite — a crisis entirely of their own making.
Bhumibol had nothing to say. The king has always hated chaos and disorder, but he also hated Thaksin, and he knew that any attempt to intervene would only demonstrate his impotence. So he pretended to be ill. As the U.S. embassy reported:
The monarchy’s position became difficult during the recent upheaval. In late 2008, Surakiart Sathirathai, a former Foreign Minister with close ties to the Palace, wrote an English language op-ed justifying the lack of royal intervention to end the standoff that had shut Bangkok’s airports. Surakiart argued that royal intervention in Thai politics had only taken place — and would only be appropriate — in response to widespread loss of life. This argument aimed to deflect implied criticism of the monarchy for allowing the airport standoff to continue as long as it did.
The most recent violence surely raised fear at the Palace that the UDD’s actions would meet the high standard to which Surakiart had referred and make King Bhumibol’s intervention seem necessary. (Indeed, as the April crisis developed, a former Senate President, Suchon Chaleekure, publicly initiated a petition appealing for royal intervention.) …. Despite the King’s high status in Thailand, we believe he is unable to intervene successfully in the current context. In 1992, the King, who was above the fray, brought contending parties before him and ended a period of strife. Now, however, in many people’s minds, the King cannot serve as referee, because he and Thaksin are among the principal players in a contest for power and influence.
In 2008, Palace contacts and others privately expressed serious concern to us that the King would suffer a drastic loss of prestige were he to try unsuccessfully to restore calm. We were not surprised, therefore, when we heard rumors days ago — traceable to Privy Councilor Palakorn Suwanrath — that the King had fallen ill. We believe those rumors were meant to justify Palace non-intervention while avoiding an appearance of abdication of royal responsibility for Thailand’s well-being. (Not only did Abhisit tell the Ambassador that the King was in good health — but an Australian diplomat also told us the King was well, according to a doctor who had seen the King on April 13.)
There was plenty wrong with this analysis. The idea that Bhumibol had been “above the fray” and able to act as a “referee”, in 1992 or ever, was a fairy tale. He had always been a political schemer, and a hostage of the elite. Furthermore, the cable omitted to mention that in late October 2008 Bhumibol had indeed suffered a drastic loss of prestige, after Sondhi Limthongkul mocked and cursed the king’s modest intervention to try to rein in the Yellow Shirts. But the core assumption of the embassy — that Bhumibol was highly unlikely to intervene even to prevent chaos and bloodshed — was plausible.
Sondhi Limthongkul, meanwhile, was talking too much. After the 2006 coup, Sondhi had been enraged that Prem and Surayud failed to give him credit — or any reward — for his role in toppling Thaksin. He gave an extremely indiscreet interview to Shawn Crispin in April 2007 in which he complained of being used by the “feudal elite”:
I’m a threat to them now. They’re very scared of me now…
Their biggest mistake after kicking Thaksin out, instead of allying with me and agreeing with me that there is a need to reform the whole country, they look at me as a threat. So they cut me off…
I am being myself, I’m not serving anyone. I thought over the year that I fought, certain times almost violently, I almost lost everything that I have, I fought because I believe in this country. And all of a sudden I see a new group of people and they’re coming and sucking everything again, and that pisses me off.
Further revelations followed, including in a speech in the United States in August 2007, broadcast on his ASTV satellite channel, which annoyed the elite so much he had problems returning to Thailand. In 2008, Sondhi was again needed by the elite, and became very close to Sirikit. Once again, he felt used and ignored after Abhisit came to power, and once again, he began talking indiscreetly, in particular about his links to the queen. As a U.S. cable observed in April 2009:
Contacts have told us that Sondhi privately told other Thais that Queen Sirikit directly supported his efforts. In advance of a recent application for a U.S. visa, Sondhi requested expedited procedures for his appearance at the Embassy, citing concerns for his security.
The establishment was still in shock from the backlash over Sirikit’s decision to preside at Nong Bow’s funeral rites, and the last thing they needed was Sondhi shooting his mouth off about his support from the queen. Prawit Wongsuwan was tasked with shutting up the media tycoon permanently.
In the pre-dawn darkness on April 17, assassins ambushed Sondhi when his black Toyota minivan stopped at a gas station during his regular morning drive to his office. Gunmen in two pickup trucks shot out the tires and fired more than 100 rounds and at least one M-79 grenade at the vehicle from relatively close range. Incredibly, Sondhi survived the attack, but suffered a head wound from a ricochet. His driver was more seriously wounded. The grenade missed its target, hitting a bus parked nearby, and the assassins were forced to flee before completing the job. Predictably, the investigation went nowhere. Four suspects were named, three military and one police officer, but they could not be found. Nick Nostitz reported in Red vs. Yellow volume two that powerful figures wanted the truth hidden:
High-ranking police officers have commented in private to me that they have faced massive interference from very high quarters in their investigations, and that they doubt thet can find the people behind the attack.
On May 11, Eric John invited privy council president Prem and his sideick Surayud to lunch. Prem’s notorious egotism was on full display in his assessment of Abhisit, as the ambassador noted in a deadpan interjection:
Prem reiterated his previously expressed support for current PM Abhisit as the right man at the right time for Thailand. While suggesting that Abhisit might not be the best or most talented Premier Thailand has had in comparison to his predecessors (note: Prem served as PM from 1980-88, Surayud from 2006-08. End note), Prem viewed Abhisit as among the best in terms of integrity and commitment to move the nation forward. Abhisit, moreover, was genuine in his current efforts to promote political reconciliation.
A few days later, John met two key figures from the opposing side: Thaksin’s outspoken adviser Pansak Vinyaratn, and former minister Surapong Suebwonglee. Both commented that the palace had damaged its prestige by becoming entangled in politics and refusing to be content with a ceremonial role:
Surapong remarked that there was a relatively small degree of anti-monarchy sentiment in Thailand, but this had grown, thanks partly to unspecified rumors and partly to the actions of members of the royal family, such as the Queen’s support of PAD in 2008. Consequently, the monarchy had lost some prestige; it was important for the royal family not to take any side in a political conflict.
Pansak was considerably more direct about the failures of the institution. “We (Thaksin and company) tried so hard to help the royal family survive the 21st century” was his unbidden opening comment. Adding a reference to social turmoil under the Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia in the 1970s: “we weren’t interested in any Pol Pot ends to a post modern democracy.” Pansak disparaged the advisers to the King and Queen who, in his mind, lacked the spine to propose a slimmed down monarchy along the lines of northern Europe or Spain, which was the model which could work for Thailand in the future. He also questioned the competency of the management of the Crown Property Bureau’s (CPB) assets.
Part of the establishment plan to neutralise Thaksin’s influence was to allow Newin’s corrupt Bhumjai Thai party to loot the funds of the three ministries it controlled and use this to finance a major propaganda and vote-buying campaign in north and northeastern Thailand. Abhisit and his allies remained utterly ignorant about the real reasons for Thaksin’s popularity, assuming his electoral success was purely a result of effective vote buying which won the support of uneducated rural Thais. And so they thought allowing Newin to outbid Thaksin and giving him a free reign to unleash his dirty tricks would solve the problem. It was more evidence of how out of the touch the elite were, and of their contempt for ordinary people. Thai voters proved much smarter than they expected. In a by-election on June 21, 2009 in Sakon Nakhon province, the Peua Thai candidate scored an impressive victory in spite of Newin’s attempted bribery. As the U.S. embassy commented:
A pro-Thaksin candidate trounced the representative of coalition member Phumjai Thai party in a June 21 House of Representatives by-election in the upper northeastern province of Sakon Nakhon. The election was widely seen as a test of the influence of both former Prime Minister Thaksin and Buriram politician Newin Chidchob. The election appears to confirm Thaksin retains substantial influence in Thai politics, at least in the upper northeast heartland…
The two candidates and their parties devoted substantial efforts toward their campaigns. Former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, still abroad, phoned canvassers directly, according to press reports. Somphong Amornwiwat, a veteran politician who is informally active in Puea Thai, told us on June 18 that Buriram politician Newin Chidchob (the informal top figure behind Phumjai Thai) had moved operatives from his Buriram base in lower Isaan into Sakon Nakhon to lobby at low levels on Pitak’s behalf, and the Sakon Nakhon Governor was distributing funds to lower-ranking officials. (The Governor is under the authority of the Interior Minister, who is a Phumjai Thai official.) Somphong claimed Sakon Nakhon residents were accepting Phumjai Thai money but planned to vote for Puea Thai’s candidate regardless, primarily because of their loyalty to Thaksin.
Subsequently three U.S. diplomats travelled to Buri Ram province, Newin’s home territory and political powerbase, to evaluate the strength of his support and gauge the Bhumjai Thai Party’s political prospects. What they discovered was that even in the local stronghold he had dominated for years through bribery and intimidation, Newin was losing the popularity battle to the exiled Thaksin Shinawatra:
A range of contacts from the local Buriram powerbase for Newin Chidchob in lower Isaan (northeastern Thailand) told us that Phumjai Thai, Newin’s political party, held considerable advantages through control of ministries and the allegiance of local power brokers. While these advantages could help to expand the party’s influence, the difficulty Phumjai Thai faced was that voters still remained dedicated to former Prime Minister Thaksin…
After a sudden rise prominence as a key power broker after his late 2008 defection from the primary Thaksin-affiliated party allowed the Democrats to form a government, Newin’s prospects for further expansion of power appear to have leveled off, at least for now. A wide range of actors in Newin’s home territory readily admitted that Phumjai Thai faced significant challenges in appealing to voters who were still drawn to Thaksin; it is likely that Newin will not be able to supplant Thaksin and Puea Thai as the leading party in Isaan. That said, Phumjai Thai is crucial to the continuing viability of the Democrat-led coalition, and this standing will continue to allow the Chidchob family the means to profit from control of key ministries…
A petition organized by the Red Shirts to ask the king to issue a royal pardon for Thaksin caused further embarrassment to the elite. Abhisit and his colleagues denounced it as an unacceptable attempt to drag the supposedly apolitical monarchy into politics, which only made them look even more ridiculous. By 2009, Thais were simply not buying this kind of bullshit.
The petition was submitted on August 17, with around five million signatures in 38 boxes. Here is an extract:
We, and the people in general, are aware that double standards are being used in the enforcement of law against two particular groups of people which we consider as uncivilised and unacceptable approaches. For this reason, we have staged rallies to demand justice and legitimacy. If they hadn’t forced so many injustices upon us, we would not have had to take such steps as there is a limit to everyone’s patience.
We would like to tell Your Majesty that you are the one and only person we know we can turn to for help. This is because Your Majesty are always committed to improving the people’s well-being. You have a long-term vision and adhere to good governance, and we have faith that Your Majesty will not allow us to endure hardships for too long.
Just a few days later, the succession conflict erupted into the open once again, further tarnishing the image of the monarchy and endangering the stability of Abhisit’s coalition. The prime minister wanted General Prateep Tunprasert to be the new police chief, but behind the scenes Vajiralongkorn was trying to shore up his succession prospects by quietly taking control of key institutions. The crown prince favoured a different candidate, General Chumpol Manmai, and through his links with Anuthin Charnvirakul persuaded Bhumjai Thai to back his choice. Thanks to his friendship with Niphon Promphan, the prince persuaded some Democrats — including Suthep — to also back his candidate. Infuriated, some Democrats sought to enlist Queen Sirikit’s help to thwart to the prince. The royal mother-son power struggle was now causing a major political scandal. The U.S. embassy reported on the feud in several cables:
The simmering feud over the National Police Chief position continues to exacerbate the bad blood between the Democrats and Phumjai Thai and expose the Abhisit-Suthep fissures. Though PM Abhisit routinely asserts that he will forward Police General Prateep Tunprasert’s name for consideration again as the nation’s top cop, there are indications that Phumjai Thai will not easily fall in line. This time, however, they are looking to hide behind the apparent desire of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn to see Police General Jumpol Manmai appointed Chief (Note: It is widely believed former PM Thaksin, while in office, used Jumpol as a bag man to deliver funds skimmed from the state lottery to the Crown Prince’s office to fund his lifestyle. End Note.)
Phumjai Thai’s Supachai coyly told us that Phumjai Thai would “support whomever Suthep and Niphol do.” The Crown Prince, currently in Germany, had recently summoned Niphol Promphan, who handles his finances but is also a Democrat MP and Secretary General of PM Abhisit’s office, to Germany to receive instructions to support Jumpol’s candidacy, according to a wide array of contacts and press reports. (Note: Phumjai Thai Party Leader Charawat’s son Anutin, the Chair of construction giant Sino-Thai, is also seen as very close to the Crown Prince, as a “friend” and financier. End Note.)
Intriguingly, the Crown Prince may not be the only member of the Palace interested in shaping the race for the Police Chief position. Deputy Democrat party leader Kraisak Choonhaven told us September 5 that he had appealed to several influential members in court circles to have Queen Sikrit trump the Crown Prince’s support for Jumpol. The Queen had conveyed her support to Abhisit for Prateep, Kraisak claimed; Supachai acknowledged to us September 4 that they had heard the Queen may indeed be backing Prateep. According to Kraisak, with the Queen’s support in hand, Abhisit would be able to push Police General Prateep through at the next Royal Thai Police Office Board. Niphol’s overt promotion of the Crown Prince’s desires was dangerous for Niphol and the party, Kraisak fumed.
The prince was spending most of his time in Germany, continuing to receive regular blood transfusions. As the U.S. embassy reported in late 2009:
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has spent most (up to 75%) of the past two years based in Europe (primarily at a villa at a medicinal spa 20km outside of Munich), with his leading mistress and beloved white poodle Fufu. Vajiralongkorn is believed to be suffering from a blood-related medical condition (varying sources claim he is either: HIV positive; has Hepatitis C; is afflicted by a rare form of “blood cancer,” or some combination which leads to regular blood transfusions). His current (third) wife Srirasmi and 4 year old son … known as Ong Ti, reside in his Sukhothai Palace in Bangkok, but when Vajiralongkorn travels back to Bangkok, he stays with his second mistress in the retrofitted Air Force VIP lounge at Wing Six, Don Muang Airport (note: both mistresses are Thai Airways stewardesses; the Crown Prince has shifted from flying F5s to Thai Airways Boeings and Airbuses in recent years. End note). Long known for violent and unpredictable mood swings, the Crown Prince has few people who have stayed long in his inner circle.
One key exception: boarding school classmate Niphon Promphan, who has long tended to the Crown Prince’s finances/affairs at the palace and recently resigned as PM Abhisit’s Chief of Staff due to the spat between Abhisit and the Crown Prince over the Police Chief selection. Niphon is widely tipped to be the likely next Privy Council Chair, presuming Vajiralongkorn assumes the throne and cleans house. A relatively new close associate and princely financier is banned former Thai Rak Thai politician Anutin Charnvirakul, son of Interior Minister/Phumjai Thai Chair Charavat, and executive of the Sino-Thai construction conglomerate. Deputy Police Commander Chumpol (see above) reportedly served for many years as then PM Thaksin’s bagman, delivering funds skimmed from lottery proceeds to the Crown Prince and his staff; more recently, Chumpol is alleged to have been the conduit for Thaksin to “gift” a $9 million villa in Phuket to the Crown Prince.
Vajiralongkorn was spending vast sums of money flying his 737 from city to city in Europe with a large entourage. Most of his time was spent with his mistresses, not Srirasmi. When he spent time in a hotel, he would often reserve an entire floor, and one of the rooms would be turned into a private kitchen to cook the prince’s food. He also routinely demanded that an elevator be reserved for him so he did not have to share it with other guests. He went on high-profile shopping sprees, buying enormous amounts of tacky ornaments. Foo Foo the poodle was in constant attendance.
As his wife and son feuded, Bhumibol was unable even to stop the infighting in his own family, let alone restore national unity. He was a lonely, isolated, fading figure, as the U.S. embassy observed:
While there is no question the King is the most widely revered figure in all of Thailand, his recent influence on actual political events and actors is less than either his supporters or detractors acknowledge. By one count, he — either by himself or though his proxies — has issued notable public politically-related entreaties as few as a half dozen times since 2001 (birthday speeches in 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2007, plus April 2006, November 2008, and April 21). Only his April 2006 speech to judges had any discernible impact.
The King, for one, appears to recognize the limitations of his rhetorical reach, apart from a fine appreciation of the constitutional limitations on his actual power; we know this from private comments made to American ambassadors over the decades. We believe the King’s purported influence actually far exceeds his actual ability to control events…
Now in the deep twilight of his long reign, the King remains deeply venerated by the vast majority of his subjects, and symbolically he remains the central pillar of Thai identity. Despite this adulation and symbolic importance, however, the evidence suggests his ability to influence current events in his Kingdom, on the rare occasions he attempts to do so, is on the wane…
Bhumibol’s inaction was a grave disappointment to millions of Thais who had formerly revered him. Thais were losing faith in the monarchy, and a minority were becoming openly hostile to the palace, as U.S. diplomats reported:
Against the backdrop of the UDD’s next big planned protests, we continue to hear reports of increasing factionalism within the red-shirt camp. Vira Musikapong told us on August 21 that the so-called “June 24” faction (named in honor of the date of the 1932 coup) within the red-shirt movement had become increasingly difficult to manage. He characterized the faction as a group of small “die hard republicans willing to use violence.” He said UDD leaders would soon meet in order try to bring order to the red movement and set standards; those who refused to adhere to UDD policies would be expelled from the movement.
Human Rights Watch consultant Sunai Phasuk seconded Vira’s claims of increasing factionalism within the red-shirt camp, telling us August 25 that an increasingly vocal portion of the red-shirt camp was growing impatient and disillusioned with the movement’s glacial pace. Sunai guessed that approximately 10 percent of the red-shirts were “radicals” bent on using violence to topple the monarchy. He warned that the moderate leaders were having more and more difficulty reining this radical red-shirt sub-faction in.
On September 15, 2009, Bhumibol went to Siriraj Hospital for a routine check-up. The following day, he was admitted to the hospital for further treatment. Curiously, army leaders close to Sirikit played down the seriousness of the king’s ailments. The Royal Household Bureau also lied about the date of his hospitalization, as the U.S. embassy noted:
By all accounts, public and private, 81-year old King Bhumibol’s ongoing ailments which led to his hospitalization September 16 are not particularly serious. None of the insiders who would be genuinely concerned were his health in true danger seem worried — in contrast to December 2008…
Officially, King Bhumibol was admitted to Siriraj hospital on Saturday September 19, according the Royal Household Bureau, which started issuing daily bulletins on Sunday, September 20, the day that a well-wishers book was opened for signature, starting with PM Abhisit and Army Commander Anupong. The Ambassador was the first diplomat to sign the book, on September 21; palace officials on hand in the hospital were completely relaxed and indicated the King’s health issues were not serious. Army chief Anupong and Chief of Staff Prayuth, known to be very close to Queen Sirikit, told a small group of diplomats September 22 the same thing, without any sense of evident concern: the King was in good shape, the reasons for hospitalization not serious.
As the days passed, however, and Bhumibol’s physical health appeared to improve, it became clear that he had no intention of leaving hospital. He was to remain in Siriraj for almost four years.
The reasons for Bhumibol’s behaviour remain a mystery, but we can make some informed guesses. Firstly, the king is believed to have suffered bouts of severe depression all his life since his accidental killing of his brother King Ananda Mahidol in 1946. Several U.S. embassy contacts speculated that he was again deeply depressed:
There is clearly no way for anyone to analyze accurately the King’s state of mind, or draw certain conclusions between political developments, possible mental stress, and his physical ailments. However, one long-time expat observer of the Thai scene, present in Thailand since 1955, has repeatedly asserted to us over the past year that the King shows classic signs of depression – “and why wouldn’t he, seeing where his Kingdom has ended up after 62 years, as his life comes to an end” – and claims that such mental anguish likely does affect his physical condition/failing health.
Suthep Thaugsuban, the deputy prime minister, made the same point:
Tapping his forehead, Suthep claimed that the King’s physical health was okay, but that the [real] worry was his state of mind, depressed at the state of affairs in his Kingdom at the end of his life.
Secondly, an aspect of Bhumibol’s hospitalization that was widely apparent to Thais but never publicly discussed was that it is an extremely bad omen for the king to be in hospital. For Thais who believe that the monarch is a microcosm of his kingdom, a hospitalized king means a disordered and sick country. Bhumibol is well aware of this symbolism. In the years since his glorious diamond jubilee in June 2006, he had been humiliated, marginalized and ignored. His wife was actively plotting to sabotage the succession and become regent when he died. By refusing to leave hospital, Bhumibol may well have been sending a message to the elite and indeed all his people — he was bitterly unhappy about what was happening in 21st century Thailand.
Third, he may have believed — rightly or wrongly — that he was at risk of being murdered. A sense of paranoia has always characterized his reign, and by 2009 there were actually plausible reasons why some members of the elite — and even his wife — might want him dead. Elections had to be held by 2011, and there was a strong possibility that Thaksin would once again win control of parliament. If the elite wanted to have its best hope of managing the succession and keeping Vajiralongkorn off the throne, it would be very convenient for Bhumibol to die before the next election.
Thaksin, meanwhile, continued to scheme behind the scenes. Ostensibly his main demands were a return of his frozen billions and a pardon that allowed him to return to Thailand a free man. He vowed repeatedly that he would quietly retire from politics. But the establishment knew that if Thaksin came back to the country, and his vast fortune was restored, there would be nothing to stop him reneging on his promises. He would be perfectly placed to ensure Vajiralongkorn became King Rama X, and the pair of them could proceed to dominate Thailand for decades. So the establishment refused to make a deal. A U.S. embassy cable discussed their implacable stance:
Privy Council Members and a palace official publicly and privately September 2-3 have dampened speculation about the potential for any pardon or “deal” for fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. The Thai media widely reported the September 2 comments of Privy Councilor Ampol Senanarong to a civil servant commission that Thaksin did not exhibit the qualities of a virtuous leader, and fugitives from justice could not file a petition seeking royal pardon. Privately, deputy Personal Private Secretary Krit Garnjana-Goonchorn and Privy Councilor GEN Pichit Kullavanijaya told us September 3, at a lunch at the Ambassador’s residence held in honor of Privy Council Chair GEN Prem Tinsulanonda, that while Thaksin was sending out continuous feelers to palace personnel, there was no chance for Thaksin to cut a deal and return to Thailand a free man. Meanwhile, former Deputy Prime Minister and close Thaksin ally Sompong Amornvivat told us that while Thaksin continued to profess optimism about an “imminent return,” Sompong personally did not see any viable channels through which this might occur.
While Thaksin himself told the Ambassador in July 2008 that he expected a deal could be cut that would lead to a pardon for him and a national unity government, much water has passed under the bridge in the intervening year plus to undermine his hopes and assumptions. Of most note are his October 2008 conviction and his April 2009 call for “revolution” during the height of the red-shirt rallies that degenerated into mob riots in Pattaya and Bangkok. Recent rumors about the renewed possibility of a pardon deal seem sourced to red shirts or Thaksin associates; few give credence to talk of a Democrat-Puea Thai alternate coalition, apart from being rhetorical pressure for Phumjai Thai to fall in line. While it is understandable why Thaksin would hope to cut a deal for a royal pardon, it is less clear why anyone associated with the Palace would support such a gambit just months after Thaksin openly called for revolution. Privy Councilors and other officials in direct service to the King appear to see Thaksin as an existential threat to the monarchy, an institution they have devoted their lives to serving and protecting. When asked whether Thaksin would ever return to Thailand, GEN Pichit quipped: “Eventually, but most likely in a coffin.” …
Three Privy Councilors have broken the soft taboo against speaking publicly on politically-related issues in recent years to speak out publicly against fugitive former PM Thaksin. Privy Council Chair GEN Prem is the most notable, and has drawn the wrath of red-shirt demonstrators, who rioted in front of his residence in May 2007 and demonstrated there again in April 2009. West Point grad GEN Pichit has several times over the past year accused Thaksin of massive money laundering through the Cayman Islands. On September 2, a lesser known Privy Councilor, Ampol Senanarong, a life-long Agriculture Ministry irrigation expert, waded into the anti-Thaksin fray, at a time when rumors of alleged possible Democrat-Puea Thai “grand coalition” arrangements and/or a pardon for Thaksin were on the rise.
Speaking on morals, ethics, and transparency at a seminar held at the Civil Servant Commission, Ampol directly addressed the issue of whether Thaksin were worthy of or eligible for a pardon. Citing the “dasavidha- rajadhaama,” or ten principles of a righteous ruler, Ampol contrasted the King’s virtuous behavior with Thaksin’s misrule as Prime Minister, claiming Thaksin exhibited none of the ten virtues. Ampol, who attended King Bhumibol’s two most recent audiences, including the August 21 one in which the King called for unity to prevent the country from falling into ruin, stated flatly that Thaksin was ineligible for a pardon. Ampol cited three examples, without naming the individuals involved, of convicts who had fled instead of serving their jail terms, and whose pardon requests were denied by the King on these grounds.
Ambassador held a September 3 lunch at the Residence in honor of GEN Prem, who turned 89 on August 26. Six Privy Councilors (Prem, GEN Surayud, ACM Sitthi, GEN Pichit, Sawad Wattanayagorn, and Atthaniti Disatha-amnaj), plus the King’s PPS Arsa Sarasin and the Deputy PPS, Ambassador Krit, attended.
Ambassador Krit, who served as Prem’s diplomatic liaison when Prem was PM from 1980-88 and was recalled from his Ambassadorial assignment in Washington early to assume the deputy PPS position in 2008, expressed regret that Ampol had spoken up so publicly September 2. He suggested that Prem had not authorized it and would have preferred not to stir further public controversy. Ampol had been present in King Bhumibol’s two most recent public audiences, Krit noted, and inevitably people would infer Ampol was speaking on the King’s behalf. However, Krit proceeded to be equally emphatic in ruling out any potential pardon or deal for Thaksin.
Acknowledging that Thaksin had sent “continuous feelers” to various people associated with the palace over the past year, Krit stated forthrightly that: “Arsa had shut down all such known channels.” Citing what he considered Thaksin’s incendiary and irreverent comments in April 2009 in the Financial Times and elsewhere, Krit opined that a deal with Thaksin would be “unimaginable.”
GEN Pichit was equally blunt to us. Accusing Thaksin of attempting to undermine the institution of monarchy and return to Thailand to serve as “President,” Pichit said: “we won’t let him.” When asked whether Thaksin had a chance of ever returning to Thailand, Pichit paused before adding: “Eventually, but most likely in a coffin” after dying abroad.
In a separate September 3 meeting, Thaksin ally and former Deputy Prime Minister Sompong Amornvivat told us that Thaksin continued to express optimism about his prospects for an imminent return to Thailand. Sompong reported that he meets with Thaksin frequently in Dubai — and will do so again in a few weeks — and that Thaksin often ends their encounters by stating confidently: “I will see you in Bangkok soon.” When we asked whether this confidence was well founded, Sompong said that he was not aware of any mechanism by which Thaksin could return to Bangkok any time soon, before adding that he personally did not share Thaksin’s optimism.
In September 2009, in an interview with the Thai Post, Sondhi Limthongkul dropped remarkably obvious hints that he would never support Vajiralongkorn as monarch:
Today, we fight so Thailand can have the monarchical institution. No matter who is the monarch, I’m happy as long as that person has the virtues of a king. I want to stress this this. As long as that person has the virtues of a king then Thailand must have the institution of the monarchy.
In November, another Yellow Shirt leader, Suriyasai Katasila, now secretary general of the linked New Politics Party (NPP), was even more explicit in comments to U.S. diplomats:
For a party that was publicly built at least in part on a foundation of loyalty to the institution of the monarchy, the NPP privately is surprisingly schizophrenic on the succession question. Suriyasai revealed to us that the PAD/NPP was split between those who unreservedly supported the institution, and those who merely supported the King personally. He counted himself in the latter group, indicating a lack of support for the presumed heir to the throne: Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. This begs the obvious question of what would happen to the party if – as expected – the Crown Prince inherited the keys to the Kingdom? Suriyasai told us that he personally believed the monarchy needed to be reformed, and even went so far as to characterize some elements of the royalist movement as “dangerous,” perhaps even more so than the red-shirt movement backing Thaksin.
His comments about the Yellow Shirts being divided were disingenuous. In fact, they are overwhelmingly opposed to Vajiralongkorn.
The same month, Thaksin was interviewed in Dubai by Times journalist Richard Lloyd Parry. He dismissed the argument that he had been a rival to the king in the hearts of Thailand’s people:
When you have a son, he loves the wife and he loves the mother. It’s a different kind of love. The people love me because they can touch me. They can use me to improve their well-being. But the King, they respect him very much like God. It’s a different kind of love. But the people are trying to make it the same love. That’s really the whole problem.
He explicitly accused Prem, the privy council, Sirikit’s ladies-in-waiting and other key establishment figures of manipulating the king and queen for their own ends:
The King is the most respected person. He’s become god in the feelings of the Thai people. Thais don’t obey one another. They need someone they really respect — that is the King. But the people who surround the King and the Queen, what I call the palace circle, they try to make influence…
That’s the problem in Thailand. The monarchy is not the problem. The monarchy is good for Thailand. Thailand needs to have a monarchy but it should not be abused or played by the palace circles.
Most controversially of all, he discussed the crown prince and the succession in detail:
Q: There will eventually be a change of monarch. What will that mean for Thai politics and Thai society?
Thailand’s been governed by this dynasty more than 200 years. There’s going to be a smooth transition but Thais need to reconcile their differences first, before the reign change. The reign change will be smooth.
Q: One day the Crown Prince will become King. How will his style be different from that of the current King?
It may be different, but I think it will go smoothly because he’s a constitutional monarch. The people around the Crown Prince will be new, and the palace circle will not be that big because he will be new. The Crown Prince, because he will be new, may not be as popular as His Majesty the King. However, he will have less problem because the palace circle will be smaller, because of being new in the reign.
Q: How would you describe the Crown Prince’s character?
He’s the newer generation, modern.
Q: What kind of personality does he have?
He has a very strong determination to do what he really wants to achieve. He has a strong determination.
Q: What does he want to achieve?
He’s not the King yet, he may not be shining. But after he becomes the King I’m confident he can be shining to perform Kingship, because he has observed His Majesty, his father, for many years. He learns a lot from His Majesty. It’s not his time yet. But when the time comes I think he will be able to perform.
Q: Sometimes even in a constitutional monarchy when a new monarch succeeds to the throne there is a new spirit in the country. Do you expect that will happen in Thailand?
I think His Royal Highness the Crown Prince — he has grown up abroad, he had education abroad and he’s young. I think he understands the modern world. For a constitutional monarch the world is changing. The monarchy is evolving according to the changing world anyway.
Q: How do you think the Thai monarchy needs to evolve in the next generation?
Being a constitutional monarch and understanding the changing world — that is enough to be a change.
The Thai establishment reacted with fury, and sought to have Lloyd Parry and The Times charged with lèse majesté.
In December 2009 and January 2010, Eric John made a series of New Year visits to some of Thailand’s most influential elder statesmen: privy council president Prem, who was 89 at the time , retired air chief marshal Siddhi Savetsila, who had just turned 90, and former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, who was a sprightly 78. All three men lied to the U.S. ambassador to conceal their active efforts to sabotage the succession, but all were scathing about Vajiralongkorn, and Siddhi even expressed hopes that the crown prince would die. Prem also inadvertently revealed the extent of his rift with Bhumibol, acknowledging when pressed by Eric John that he had not seen the king since his hospitalization. A secret cable recounted their comments:
All three had quite negative comments about Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. While asserting that the Crown Prince will become King, both Siddhi and Anand implied the country would be better off if other arrangements could be made. Siddhi expressed preference for Princess Sirindhorn; Anand suggested only the King would be in a position to change succession, and acknowledged a low likelihood of that happening…
On the two most difficult and sensitive issues of the day in Thailand — Thaksin and the monarchy — the Thai elite appear as unsure about the future as any other sector of society. The stakes are significant for all sides, and resolution of the political divide and royal succession could still be far over the horizon…
Regarding King Bhumibol’s health, Prem indicated that the King was exercising 30 minutes a day on a stationary bicycle at Siriraj Hospital and passing a medicine ball with a physical therapist to build up strength and regain weight. Prem acknowledged that he had not seen the King since the hospitalization, but that the Queen and Princess Sirindhorn saw the King daily. When Ambassador asked about the Crown Prince’s involvement, Prem repeated: the Queen and Sirindhorn visit him daily.
Prem acknowledged Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn probably maintained some sort of relationship with fugitive former PM Thaksin, “seeing him from time to time.” Prem, clearly no fan of either man, cautioned that Thaksin ran the risk of self-delusion if he thought that the Crown Prince would act as his friend/supporter in the future merely because of Thaksin’s monetary support; “he does not enjoy that sort of relationship.” When Ambassador asked where the Crown Prince was currently, in Thailand or Europe, Prem replied dismissively: “You know his social life, how he is.” (Note: a presumed reference to Vajiralongkorn’s preference to spend time based out of Munich with his main mistress, rather than in Thailand with his wife and son).
ACM Siddhi, in a similar vein, noted that the Crown Prince frequently slipped away from Thailand, and that information about his air hostess mistresses was widely available on websites; he lamented how his former aide, now Thai Ambassador to Germany, was forced to leave Berlin for Munich often to receive Vajiralongkorn. Siddhi raised Thaksin’s controversial November Times On-line interview, which Siddhi claimed cast the King in a bad light and attempted to praise the Crown Prince as broad-minded and educated abroad, hinting that Vajiralongkorn would be ready to welcome Thaksin back to Thailand once he became King.
Ambassador mentioned to Siddhi the Crown Prince’s more engaging approach in the early December King’s Birthday reception with Ambassadors, shaking each envoy’s hand and appearing more at ease than in the 2008 reception. Siddhi stated that succession would be a difficult transition time for Thailand. According to Palace Law, the Crown Prince would succeed his father, but added after a pause, almost hopefully: “if the Crown Prince were to die, anything could happen, and maybe Prathep (Sirindhorn) could succeed.”
Ambassador similarly raised the Crown Prince’s more confident demeanor with former PM Anand in late December, seeking Anand’s assessment of the dynamics in play as succession inevitably drew nearer. Anand’s response was similar to Siddhi’s, but more detailed and blunt. Anand said that he had always believed that the Crown Prince would succeed his father, according to law. However, there could be complicating factors — if Vajiralongkohn proved unable to stay out of politics, or avoid embarrassing financial transactions. After a pause, Anand added that the consensus view among many Thai was that the Crown Prince could not stop either, nor would he be able, at age 57, to rectify his behavior. After another pause, Anand added that someone really should raise the matter with the King, before adding with regret that there really was no one who could raise such a delicate topic (note: implied was the need for an alternative to Vajiralongkorn).
ACM Siddhi expressed his personal concern about the declining image of the royal family in Thailand, noting that something as simple as excessive motorcade-related traffic jams caused by minor royals was an unnecessary but enduring irritant. Personal Private Secretary Arsa Sarasin had raised this with the King about eight years ago, according to Siddhi, and the King had agreed, authorizing Arsa to talk to royal family members and to set up new rules limiting entourages and occasions when traffic would be stopped. Nothing had changed; Siddhi noted that he had been caught up in traffic for 45 minutes the previous week returning for a meeting with the Chinese Ambassador, due to a royal motorcade. Stories that the Crown Prince now ordered second story windows closed as his motorcade passed achieved nothing but additional popular resentment, Siddhi added sorrowfully…
On the two most difficult and sensitive issues of the day in Thailand — Thaksin and the monarchy — the Thai elite appear as unsure about the future as any other sector of society. The stakes are significant for all sides, and resolution of the political divide and royal succession could still be far over the horizon.
Events were moving inexorably towards another showdown.
In late 2009, rogue general Khattiya Sawasdipol, known by his nom du guerre “Seh Daeng” (“the red commander”) emerged as an influential member of Thaksin’s circle. He said he was assembling a force of 1,000 paramilitary rangers to protect the Red Shirts, and that the force would be present at a UDD rally on December 10. In comments to U.S. diplomats, Thaksin’s lawyer “Mickey” Zimmerman explicitly conceded that Thaksin was putting together an armed militia:
Seh Daeng’s re-emergence as a public cheerleader for a more vigorous red line is a potentially ominous development in the ongoing battle between Thaksin’s supporters and the government; lawyer “Mickey” called Khattiya a “warlord” who might be put in play in the possible chaos of a messy transition scenario. Seh Daeng visited Thaksin in both Cambodia and Dubai in recent weeks and was photographed participating in Thaksin’s meetings with Hun Sen in Siem Reap and red strategy sessions with UDD leaders in Dubai. His return to the red limelight after laying low for seven months would not have happened without Thaksin’s blessing. Given Khattiya’s troubling track record of accurately predicting acts of violence and implicitly taking credit with a wink and a nod, we are concerned that the next round of extended protests, most likely in January, could get ugly.
A later U.S. cable confirmed that a force of black-clad rangers had been present at the December 10 rally.
As promised, red-shirt agitator Maj. Gen. Khatthiya Sawasdiphol, aka Seh Daeng, was present, as were dozens of black-clad guards identified by Khattiya as thahan phraan (paramilitary rangers).
On January 21, Thai media reported that a week earlier, a M-79 grenade had been fired at the office of army commander Anupong, and another fired at the Ministry of Defense. Nobody was hurt. Seh Daeng denied involvement, saying that if he had been behind the attacks, ”Anupong would be dead.”
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court announced it would give its verdict on February 26 on whether more than $2 billion of Thaksin’s frozen assets should be seized or returned to him. Thaksin’s supporters began gearing up for what they billed as “the final battle”. But there was increasing dissent among the Red Shirt leadership, over two issues in particular. The first was dismay among some senior Red Shirts that Thaksin’s narrow personal interests were being given too much importance when formulating strategy. As the U.S. embassy remarked:
the timing and nature of the upcoming protest is being dictated by Thaksin, with an eye on the expected February 26 Supreme Court decision on his frozen assets.
Secondly, there were differences over the extent to which it was acceptable for the movement to use violence to help achieve its goals. One sign of this came in early February when Pallop Pinmanee, a sinister military figure and a man who had switched sides repeatedly during the political conflict, visited Thaksin in Dubai with three other hardline Red Shirts — Seh Daeng, Arisman Pongruangrong and Suphon Attawong, aka “Rambo Isaan”. On their return, Pallop and Seh Daeng announced that a pro-Thaksin “people’s army” would be created, led by political heavyweight and former army chief Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. Chavalit had been a protégé of Prem’s with delusions of grandeur and curiously muddled politics. His relationship with the privy council president was strained in 2009 when Chavalit briefly agreed to lead Thaksin’s new political vehicle, Pheu Thai, and then changed his mind, probably due to pressure from Prem. Now Chavalit backed down again, quickly disassociating himself from any plan for a people’s army. Jatuporn Prompan, one of the UDD core leaders, said the Red Shirts had not sanctioned the creation of a militia. Pallop then claimed he was renouncing the Red Shirts and would no longer be involved with the movement. As the U.S. embassy commented in a confidential cable:
As the February 26 court decision on Thaksin’s assets draws closer, there are growing indications the red-shirts are trying to influence the decision-making process through intimidation, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for trouble should the court decision go against Thaksin. We have long urged red-shirt leaders to distance themselves publicly from the actions and rhetoric of Khattiya, yet ultimately it is Thaksin who calls the shots, and he continues to summon various UDD leaders to meetings in conjunction with Khattiya and Panlop. Public pronouncements by Chavalit and UDD core leaders like Jatuporn saying they do not support Seh Daeng and/or Panlop and the violent measures those men espouse are helpful but ultimately beside the point. Thaksin’s willingness to be photographed with those who embrace violence suggests a willingness to condone their methods as longs as it suits his purposes.
On February 4, Eric John met veteran political godfather Banharn Silpa-archa, whose lack of principles and enthusiasm for bribery had earned him nicknames including “the slippery eel” and “Mr ATM”. Banharn saw little hope of the crisis being resolved:
Banharn told the Ambassador that while he considered former PM Thaksin a friend, he viewed him as utterly unpredictable. He speculated that Thaksin — with whom he had not spoken in a long time — was probably even more unpredictable than ever, now that the RTG had “backed him into a corner.” As with anyone in this situation, this made Thaksin potentially dangerous, and Banharn said he wished the RTG would adopt a more flexible and compromising approach vis a vis Thaksin. By sticking to the letter of the law and remaining so strident in its dealing with Thaksin, the RTG had eliminated any possibility for reconciliation. Now both parties had gone “beyond the point of no return.”
When the Ambassador asked Banharn for his prescription for dealing with this problem, Banharn conceded that there was no one with the requisite stature and reputation for impartiality to successfully negotiate between both sides. Thaksin and the RTG had both drawn a line in the sand on the question of Thaksin serving time in jail. In Banharn’s mind, any successful compromise would have to be predicated on the idea of putting this issue aside to start. In any case, Banharn emphasized that Thaksin’s periodic comments to the press stating that he was out of politics for good were laughable. Thaksin was a political animal and would always seek to find a way back into the game, a fact that helped explain why the RTG was so nervous.
On February 26, the Supreme Court made its ruling. In an apparent effort to defuse tensions and appear fair, even though the judiciary was overwhelmingly partisan and Yellow, the judges ruled that $1.4 billion of Thaksin’s fortune should be seized but he could keep around $900 million he had made before becoming prime minister.
If the supposed compromise was intended to placate Thaksin Shinawatra, it failed. He was incandescent. This was war.
Thaksin’s strategy was to stage the same deadly street theatre that has become traditional in Thai political conflicts, to undermine the government’s legitimacy and provoke the security forces into overreacting and killing enough Red Shirts to topple the Abhisit administration. But he would do it on a far bigger and grander scale, and to ensure the military took the bait, a secret militia mingling among the Red Shirts would use the tactics of urban insurgency to harass and attack soldiers. Seh Daeng was the public face of Thaksin’s militia, but this was misdirection: he and his force of rangers were given a mainly defensive role, to guard and fortify Red Shirt protest encampments and provide security during marches. They were named the “Red Shirt Guards” but they wore black ranger-style uniforms with red neckerchiefs. They did not generally attempt to conceal their presence. Part warlord and part clown, Seh Daeng openly swaggered around in full military uniform, always the centre of attention. Meanwhile, a hidden second militia of provocateurs, made up mostly of serving military personnel including paratroopers and navy SEALS, was Thaksin’s secret strike force.
Two more elements added to the combustible mix. First, the military was split. Just as in wider Thai society, a rift between Red and Yellow ran right through the military. Most of the top brass were staunchly pro-Sirikit. But among more junior officers and rank-and-file soldiers, there was significant sympathy for the Red Shirts. These troops were nicknamed “watermelon” soldiers — green on the outside, red on the inside. Military disunity went beyond Red versus Yellow, however. With Prem’s help, during the 21st century the most senior positions had become dominated by a single clique, from the Queen’s Guard, the 21st regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division or “Eastern Tigers” based in Prachinburi. This caused great bitterness in the traditionally dominant clique, the Bangkok-based “Clan of Angels”, the 1st Infantry Division or King’s Guard. Their rivalry and mutual resentment mirrored the relationship between Sirikit and Bhumibol.
Second, several rogue agents with unclear loyalties and expertise in black ops were also jostling for position in 21st century Thailand, including Newin Chidchob and his “blue” faction, and Pallop Pinmanee. This raised the possibility that a “third hand” could seek to provoke chaos or manipulate the mayhem for its own interests.
During mid-March 2010, more than 100,000 Red Shirts converged on Bangkok from northern and northeastern Thailand. Hysterical coverage from Thailand’s pro-establishment newspapers depicted them as a furious feral horde.
The protesters congregated and set up camp at Phan Fa Bridge in the historic districts around Rachadamnoen Avenue near Thailand’s parliament where many past political battles had been fought. During March, there was a good-natured, carnival atmosphere in the Red camp and at their rallies around the city when thousands of Bangkok residents came out to cheer them on. But as March progressed, several government and military buildings were targeted by M-79 grenade attacks. On March 28 and 29, negotiations were held between Abhisit and the Red leadership, broadcast live on Thai television. This was a welcome development, largely forgotten now in the light of the tragedy that followed. It brought a brief moment of much-needed transparency to Thai politics: instead of the elite seeking to decide the fate of the country via furtive backroom dealings, these negotiations could be watched by all, and Thais could judge for themselves who was being reasonable and sincere. But Thaksin had no interest in polite negotiation that made everybody look good. After a few days, to the dismay of moderate Red leaders, especially Wira Musikapong, Red hardliner Jatuporn Prompan broke off the talks. The order to do so came from Thaksin. He wanted confrontation.
On April 3, the Red Shirts occupied Ratchraprasong, a hectic traffic junction about two and a half miles east of the old royal quarter. If Ratchadamnoen represents the heart of old Bangkok, Ratchaprasong is the symbolic centre of the modern capital. As Benedict Anderson wrote in Withdrawal Symptoms :
As late as 1960, Bangkok could still be described as the “Venice of the East”, a somnolent old-style royal harbour-city dominated by canals, temples and palaces. Fifteen years later, many of the canals had been filled in to form roads and many of the temples had fallen into decay. The whole centre of gravity of the capital had moved eastwards, away from the royal compounds and Chinese ghettoes by the Chao Phraya river to a new cosmopolitan zone dominated visually and politically by vast office buildings, banks, hotels and shopping plazas.
The Red Shirts turned Ratchaprasong into a sprawling urban village of makeshift tents housing food stalls, dormitories, shops and clinics, surrounded by barricades made from tyres and sharpened bamboo poles. Bangkok has long had a massive Lao population from Thailand’s impoverished northeastern Isaan region: they are the underclass who work in the suburban factories and sweatshops, drive the buses and tuktuks and motorbikes and taxicabs, clean corporate offices and affluent homes, and service the sexual appetite of tens of thousands of customers in the massage parlours and sex bars of the capital’s industrialized prostitution industry. Bangkok’s more affluent residents used their services every day, but never paid them much attention, until suddenly they took control of two square miles of prime real estate in the middle of the modern city.
For Bangkok’s old establishment and increasingly prosperous and influential middle classes, it was an outrageous inversion of hierarchy, a violation of the fundamental rules that held their whole cosmos together. Ratchaprasong had become a zone of dangerous disorder, like the mass gathering of students in the grounds of Thammasat University in 1976, a very public challenge not only to the traditional ascendancy of the elite but also to the caste system in which the middle classes had carved out a privileged position. It provoked enormous anger among those who felt their elevated place in society was under threat. It was an assault on the very foundations of order and harmony.
On April 7, hardline Red Shirt leader Arisman Pongruangrong incited protesters to smash their way into parliament hunting for Suthep, and seized the weapons of one of his military police protection team. Suthep and other members of the government escaped into a neighbouring compound via a ladder, and were later evacuated by helicopter. In response, the government declared a state of emergency and the following day, a crackdown began – the military forced the Red Shirt television channel off the air, leading to clashes around the Thaicom satellite station in Pathum Thani to the north of the capital.
On April 10, on Suthep’s orders, the military launched an operation to clear the protesters out of their camps, at Phan Fa bridge where around 5,000 Red Shirts had gathered, and at Ratchaprasong. Soldiers moving towards Phan Fa were halted at the Makkawan Bridge in the early afternoon by Red Shirt Guards and ordinary protesters. Soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and used a water cannon. The crowd fought back with iron bars, clubs and stones. Army helicopters dropped more tear gas, and were fired on by unknown shooters among the protesters. Around 4 p.m. soldiers fired live ammunition towards protesters. But the military failed to get past the Makkawan Bridge blockade, and by around 5:00 p.m. the fighting subsided without the Red Shirts losing ground. At Ratchaprasong, the security forces also failed to dislodge the protesters.
A few hours after dark, violence erupted again, in the Dinso Road area. The military commander on the ground was Colonel Romklao Thuwatham of the Queen’s Guard, an officer who was a favourite of Sirikit’s circle and had been heavily involved in the violent suppression of the Red Shirt protests during Songkran the previous year. His deputy was Lieutenant Colonel Kriengsak Nanda-photidej, half-brother of Sirikit’s former lover. By 8:45 p.m., the atmosphere in Dinso Road was confrontational but relatively good-humoured. A military “psy-ops” truck played piano music to try to calm the crowd. Red Shirts, laughing and dancing, brought their own sound trucks forward to drown out the military’s music. At 8:46 p.m., soldiers fired tear gas from an armoured personnel carrier. Because of the wind direction, it immediately blew back into army lines, forcing soldiers without gas masks to retreat. A shot rang out somewhere near the front line, suddenly turning the mood darker. Red Shirts threw a hail of plastic bottles at soldiers standing on APCs. But the situation was far from out of control. Soldiers gesticulated to the Red Shirt crowd to complain when a few glass bottles were thrown at them among all the plastic ones. The confrontation was theatrical, sticking within boundaries, with no real harm being done. Soldiers advanced, firing in the air, but smiling. Some of their bullets grazed the four spires of the Democracy Monument.
At 8:52 p.m., at his command post between two APCs at the southern end of Dinso Road facing Democracy Monument, Colonel Romklao Thuwatham was assassinated in a targeted grenade attack that also killed three other nearby soldiers. Several more suffered shrapnel wounds in their legs. Although widely reported to have been an M-79 fired from a distance, the grenade was most probably thrown or rolled by somebody nearby. Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto filmed the grenade blast and the panicked retreat of terrified Thai soldiers afterwards. The psy-ops piano music can be heard still wafting in the background:
Moments later, a second grenade targeted Lieutenant Colonel Kriengsak Nanda-photidej, mortally wounding him. He lost consciousness immediately, and died some days later in hospital. The 200 soldiers in Dinso Road had lost both their commanding officers within the space of a sudden, shocking 30 seconds. As the army perimeter facing Democracy Monument disintegrated, Red Shirts surged into Dinso Road, some grabbing the helmets and weapons of the dead and wounded soldiers. Troops tried to deal with and evacuate their wounded colleagues and the atmosphere of confrontation was replaced by a sense of chaos and confusion. One Red Shirt, Wasan Puthong, began waving a flag at the Sattriwittaya school pedestrian crossing. A shot rang out and the top of his head was blown off, spilling his brain onto the road. Hiro Muramoto walked over to film his body. At this point, at least one soldier further up Dinso Road fired a volley of high-velocity 5.56mm standard NATO-issue rounds at the Red Shirts and journalists standing at the pedestrian crossing. Hiro and several others were killed.
It is unhelpful to try to make moral judgments about the events in and around Dinso Road on April 10 based on a paradigm of Red Shirts versus soldiers. The appropriate ethical distinction is between those who were actively trying to kill people and those who were not. The overwhelming majority of Red Shirts and soldiers did not intend for anybody to die that night.
The death toll from the violence on April 10 was 25 people — 20 civilians and five soldiers.
The Red Shirt leadership, including hardliners close to Thaksin like Jatuporn, were taken by surprise by the events on Dinso Road. They had not been aware it was going to happen. It remains unknown whether Thaksin was aware in advance. The grenades were not thrown by Red Shirt Guards, or even by Thaksin’s secret militia of provocateurs. This was a military-on-military attack, almost certainly carried out by a uniformed soldier with links to the King’s Guard who infiltrated the ranks of the Queen’s Guard on Dinso Road and targeted the two commanders. It was intended as a brutal warning to Queen Sirikit and her allies in the top military leadership. It was a clear sign that the military was dangerously divided. This caused profound concern to Anupong in particular, a man whose own loyalties were divided — he was very close to the queen but also retained links to Thaksin from cadet school days. He feared that to continue the military crackdown on the Red Shirts would break the army apart and even lead to civil war.
After the April 10 violence, the Red Shirts abandoned the battle-scarred Rachadamnoen area but consolidated their hold on the Ratchaprasong intersection. Red Shirt Guards defended and fortified the encampment, clearly with the knowledge and permission of the Red leadership. Meanwhile, Thaksin’s secret force of “Black Shirt” provocateurs set up camp in Lumphini Park, and launched harassing attacks on soldiers and police after dark each night.
As Human Rights Watch reported in its 2011 investigation report Descent Into Chaos:
Human Rights Watch’s investigations found that the attacks did not originate with Red Shirt Guards, but with a secretive armed element within the UDD whom protesters and media called the “Black Shirts” or “Men in Black”— though not all were dressed in black.
Members of these armed groups were captured on photographs and film armed with various military weapons, including AK-47 and M16 assault rifles, as well as M79 grenade launchers, during their clashes with government security forces.
The militia cleverly used the tactics of urban insurgency, mounting hit-and-run harassing attacks from within groups of peaceful civilian protesters and then melting away. Most wore army-style uniforms or dressed like civilian protesters. They mostly struck after dark, and they were remarkably competent. This caused genuine fear and confusion among regular troops, most of whom never saw the MIB even when under fire from them.
Meanwhile, more revelations about the royals were spilling out into the public domain. During April 2010, Australia’s ABC broadcast a documentary that openly addressed fears about the succession and the terrible reputation of Vajiralongkorn. Due to fears about how the authorities would react, ABC temporarily closed its bureau in Bangkok, and stressed that the documentary had been made without the knowledge of any of its Thai staff. Among the highlights of the programme was a scene in which a visibly uncomfortable Thanong Khanthong attempts to defend his newspaper’s failure to report on the crown prince’s antics.
On April 19, Sukhumbhand Paribatra flew to Brunei to represent the government in face-to-face talks with Thaksin. Little progress was made. On his return to Thailand, Sukhumbhand also began negotiations with Red Shirt leaders, but a day later Abhisit appeared to change his mind, and ordered a halt to the talks.
On April 22, M-79 grenades fired mortar-style from Lumphini Park by members of Thaksin’s secret militia hit the Sala Daeng skytrain station and members of a pro-government faction who had rallied on Silom Road, killing one person and wounding scores. On April 28, in chaotic clashes on a highway in northern Bangkok, soldiers fired live rounds at charging protesters; one soldier was killed, shot by accident by his own side.
Hardline elements of the establishment linked to Sirikit’s circle pressured Anupong and Abhisit to take a more hawkish approach towards the Red Shirts, but both resisted. Anupong wasn’t sure the military would remain cohesive if soldiers were asked to fire on their fellow Thais. Abhisit wasn’t sure he could trust Anupong. Both men were relatively moderate by the extreme standards of the Thai establishment. And so, in early May, in a televised address, Abhisit offered a “peace roadmap”, proposing elections on November 14 and reforms to address social injustice among other concessions if the protesters ended their occupation.
It was a remarkable victory for the protesters at Ratchaprasong, and for common sense. As a result, it was unacceptable to hardliners on both sides. Neither Thaksin nor Sirikit’s circle wanted to see a peaceful solution that required them to make concessions. The hawkish generals linked to the queen and Prem were disgusted by Abhisit’s “cowardice” and many ultra-royalists, include Yellow media figures like Thanong Khanthong, denounced his weakness. Meanwhile, after clarifying a few points of Abhisit’s offer, the Red Shirt leadership tentatively accepted his terms. But thanks to the direct intervention of Thaksin Shinawatra in phone calls to Jatuporn Prompan and Seh Daeng, the Red leadership then began setting new conditions, including the arrest of Suthep Thaugsuban. This was designed to sabotage the truce by making demands that would isolate Abhisit and enrage the hawks on the Yellow Side, and it worked.
On May 8, a drive-by shooting in the Silom area killed a policemen. On May 12, Abhisit withdrew his proposed concessions, saying the reds had failed to grasp the opportunity of a peaceful resolution. Anupong was sidelined, with the hawkish Prayuth Chan-ocha, a favourite of Sirikit, taking over operational responsibility for ending the Red Shirt protests. Water and power supplies to the Red camp were shut off. Meanwhile, Thaksin’s sabotage of the peace deal had split the Red leadership. Seh Daeng denounced Wira Musikapong and Nattawut Saikua. Wira left the Red camp. The moderates on both sides had been defeated by the hardliners.
During May 13, soldiers fired indiscriminately at onlookers and protesters on Rama IV Road and Bon Kai on several occasions. In the evening, Seh Daeng was shot in the head by a sniper as he spoke to a New York Times journalist in the Red encampment; he died in hospital a few days later. From May 14, violence spiralled as soldiers tightened their grip on areas around the Red encampment; frequent gunfire and explosions rang out in several areas of downtown Bangkok and plumes of smoke from burning barricades darkened the sky. As Human Rights Watch reported:
Beginning on May 14, Thai security forces faced demonstrators who were better organized and resorted more quickly to violent tactics. Groups of mainly young men now openly attacked the army at the barricades, especially in Bon Kai and Din Daeng, using flaming tires, petrol bombs, slingshot-fired metal balls, and powerful homemade explosives and other weapons. Most of the young men who joined the fight at the barricades seemed to have little in common with the UDD protesters at the camp. On numerous occasions, Black Shirt militants appeared at the barricades to join the fight, firing assault weapons and M79 grenade launchers at soldiers.
Meanwhile, the military announced new rules of engagement that effectively enabled soldiers to shoot at anybody suspected of being a “terrorist”. As Human Rights Watch noted:
Human Rights Watch’s investigations found that army snipers in buildings overlooking the protest sites, as well as soldiers on the defensive barricades on the ground, frequently fired on protesters who were either unarmed or posed no imminent threat of death or serious injury to the soldiers or others. Many of those whom soldiers targeted apparently included anyone who tried to enter the “no-go” zone between the UDD barricades and army lines, or who threw rocks, petrol bombs, or burning tires towards the soldiers—from distances too great to be a serious threat to the soldiers’ lines.
While Thai authorities have not released comprehensive forensic details of the wounds sustained by those killed between May 14 and May 18, the incidents that Human Rights Watch reviewed show unarmed protesters appeared to have been killed with single shots to the head, indicating possible use of snipers and high-powered scopes…
Video footage and eyewitness accounts show the army frequently fired into crowds of unarmed protesters, often wounding and killing several.
On May 19, around dawn, troops breached the barricades of the red encampment and scattered the protesters. Anthony Davis, an analyst for Jane’s Intelligence Review who witnessed the assault, told Human Rights Watch:
The whole operation was staggering in its incompetence. You had scared young conscripts blazing away at the tents in Lumphini Park without any fire control. There wasn’t the command and control that you would expect during such an operation. There were two main operations, the movement up the road and the operation to clear the park. They were totally uncoordinated. When I was with the troops in the park along the fence, they were opening fire at people in the park, including on the other military unit that was inside the park. You had incipient “friendly fire” incidents. The park was used essentially as a free-fire zone, the soldiers moved and took shots along Wireless and Rama IV Road.
Most of the Red Shirt leadership surrendered to police. In the chaotic hours that followed, dozens of buildings were targeted by arson attacks, including the Central World mall which was destroyed by fire. Beside the mall, gunfire killed six people inside the grounds of Wat Pathum Wanaram, a temple which had been designated as a safe haven and where hundreds of people were sheltering.
A wealth of eyewitness testimony, as well as photographic and video evidence has established beyond any reasonable doubt that soldiers from the 3rd Special Warfare regiment based in Lopburi, positioned on the elevated skytrain railway tracks overlooking the temple, fired into the grounds of Wat Pathum Wanaram and were responsible for the six deaths. The troops on the skytrain tracks were commanded by Major Nimit Weerawong of the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Special Force Regiment, and those who fired the fatal shots were under the direct command of his subordinate Sergeant Major Somyot Ruamchampa.
The combined testimony of dozens of witnesses including Red Shirts sheltering in the temple, paramedics treating the wounded, and at least three foreign journalists at Wat Pathum — Andrew Buncombe of the Independent, Mark McKinnon of Canada’s Globe and Mail and Australian photojournalist Steve Tickner — describes how panicked civilians came under fire from camouflaged men who could be seen on the elevated railway. An investigation by Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation which was leaked to me in December 2010 concluded that at least three of the dead were killed by special forces soldiers on the Skytrain track and contains plentiful evidence that the soldiers killed all six – the victims were all killed by high-velocity bullets and fragments of the distinctive green-tipped M855 bullet used by the special forces troops were found in four of the six corpses. The report also contains the testimony of several named special forces soldiers who admitted firing from the Skytrain tracks although they denied deliberately targeting civilians.
The killings at the temple were so inflammatory that it appeared they were a deliberate provocation. Yet the soldiers involved insist they were under fire from armed provocateurs in front of the temple wall. They were exhausted, panicky and fighting a mostly unseen enemy, and night was falling. The most credible explanation for the killings at Wat Pathum Wanaram is that the soldiers fired indiscriminate bursts at actual or imagined “black shirt” assailants in front of the temple, and their shots skewed high, as tends to happen when firing from an elevated position. The soldiers on the Skytrain tracks ended up spraying a lot of bullets over the temple wall and into the compound. It was probably tragic incompetence.
The final death toll from two months of unrest was at least 91, with more than 1,800 wounded.
When it was all over, nobody had won. The undeniable legitimacy of the demands and grievances of the tens of thousands of Red Shirt protesters who had sacrificed so much was undermined by Thaksin’s use of a secret militia to provoke confrontation. The total denial from Thaksin’s camp — including his international legal team led by Robert Amsterdam — that the “black shirt” militia had played any role in the violence, or indeed that it had ever even existed, was simply not credible. But the lies from the other side — in particular, Abhisit Vejjajiva, Suthep Thaugsuban, General Prayuth Chan-ocha and preening army spokesman Colonel Sansern “Kai Oo” Kaewkamnerd — were even more outrageous. Incredibly they tried to claim that despite firing up to 117,923 bullets including 2,500 sniper rounds, the Thai army did not kill or injure a single person. Every single death or injury, the military claims, was the work of the shadowy “men in black”.
“I can categorically deny that the army has killed or hurt any Red Shirts or protesters, including the Japanese journalist,” military spokesman Colonel Sansern insisted. “Killing those persons would bring us no benefit whatsoever.” Suthep Thaugsuban added insult to injury by claiming that some of those who died maybe “ran into bullets“.
The establishment did its best to underplay the civilian casualties and exaggerate the damage and shock caused by the May 19 arson attacks, even though these were plainly not the work of ordinary Red Shirt protesters. In June, the government and foreign ministry circulated a biased and delusional “Frequently Asked Questions” document to journalists and diplomats. Among its extraordinary claims were:
- The Thai monarchy is above politics. As a constitutional monarch, His Majesty the King has not taken sides or involves himself in political matters or conflict…
- In recent years, however, the monarchy has been dragged into the political conflict by different political groups. Calls for the King to intervene this time are also politically motivated, designed to draw the monarchy into the political fray. This is something that has to be prevented and stopped…
- The issue of royal succession is clear, both with regard to the Heir to the Throne and rules and procedures as to what will happen should the need arise. Relevant provisions in the current Constitution also lay out the specific roles of the Privy Council, National Assembly and Cabinet.
- Nevertheless, the succession is certainly a difficult issue for Thais to discuss, given what His Majesty has done for more than 60 years for the well-being of all Thai people who regard him as a father figure. It is thus normal for people to be apprehensive.
- Discussing the monarchy is not taboo. What is known as lèse-majesté law in Thailand has not been an obstacle to discussions, particularly academic ones, about the monarchy, including how the monarchical institution itself has continuously adapted to the changing environment over the past 700 years of its existence in the Kingdom…
- For the present Government, there is only one standard and all are equal before the law. It recognises frustration of some people about the pace of the cases against the PAD. But the fact is the judicial system in Thailand is independent and separate from the executive system. The Government could not interfere.
The events of April and May 2010 were catastrophic for the monarchy. Mass anti-monarchist sentiment that had begun to emerge after the 2006 coup and surged due to the events of late 2008 became even more prevalent. Defying efforts to crack down on the movement, Red Shirts held a massive rally at Ratchaprasong on September 19, 2010 — the fourth anniversary of the coup — at which anger and disgust at the monarchy exploded into the open. A slogan began to be shouted among one group of protesters at the intersection and spread through the crowd until hundreds were shouting it over and over again. It was a denunciation, using a Thai insult that literally means “monitor lizard”, a particularly reviled animal; the closest English-language equivalent is probably “bastard”:
The bastard ordered the killing. The bastard ordered the killing.
“The bastard” was King Bhumibol. Protesters also openly scrawled anti-monarchist graffiti on the the billboards bearing banal slogans that had been erected around Central World.
This was an unprecedented development, a bombshell that showed beyond doubt that Thailand had changed forever. It was ignored by the overwhelming majority of Thai and foreign media, but a report by Pravit Rojanaphruk bravely reported the chant:
Many angry red shirts repeatedly shouted “Abhisit, get out!” and “B****** ordered the killing” in reference to the 91 deaths that occurred between April and May.
Pravit also discussed the heretical graffiti, in an article entitled: “It may be time to take off the blindfold“.
In Red Shirt rallies later in the year, the chant was modified to include Queen Sirikit:
The bastard ordered the killing. The bitch ordered the shooting.
In December 2010, one of the most incendiary of all the WikiLeaks cables, 10BANGKOK192 from the previous January, was made public. It was the cable that quoted Prem, Anand and Siddhi contemptuously castigating Vajiralongkorn. “Doubts over suitability of Thailand’s playboy prince,” was the headline in Britain’s Daily Telegraph. Vajiralongkorn was already well aware that the three establishment elder statesmen were actively working against him, but the fact it was now totally out in the open — and all over the world’s media — raised the stakes even higher.
In early 2011, the Thai military and establishment watched in horror as the “Arab spring” unfolded and the power of popular mass movements aided by social media to topple long-established regimes became painfully apparent to them.
Efforts by the royal family to repair the damage to its image only made things worse. In April 2011, Princess Chulaborn granted an interview to “Woody” Milintachinda, a bumptious young establishment talk-show host. Amid unintentionally comic scenes in which Woody grovelled on the floor, wept with love for the monarchy, and ate biscuits intended for Chulabhorn’s pet dog, the princess once again ignored the deaths of 2010 and focused on the damage to buildings:
I know that what happened last year, when the country was burnt, brought great sorrow to Their Majesties the King and Queen. HM the King had been able to relearn to walk, and then he collapsed. He had a fever, had to be put on a saline drip and was confined to bed. HM the Queen was also very sad. She said that it was even sadder than when our country, Ayutthaya, was burnt by the Burmese because this time it was done by the Thais ourselves.
A sinister incident involving Chulabhorn and Vajiralongkorn further tarnished the sacred aura of the monarchy. The princess’s consort, Chaichon Locharernkul, a respected professor of medicine, vanished some time in late 2010 or early 2011. Much about the episode remains murky, but it appears that infidelity had been discovered and the crown prince was enraged by the news. Chaichon fled Bangkok in fear of his life, spending some time as a monk at the temple of the revered Luangta Maha Bua, whose death on January 30, 2011, at the age of 97 has even been linked to the saga in unconfirmed whispered rumours. Chaichon has never been seen in public since. Sources close to his family insist that he is still alive, living as a monk at a remote monastery. But they may have been intimidated into hiding the truth. Other very senior Thai sources say Chaichon has been murdered. The truth remains to be discovered, but Chaichon’s abrupt disappearance in a country that claims to be a democracy where the rule of law is respected, in the 21st century, was an ominous reminder to Thailand’s anti-Vajiralongkorn elite of the dangers they would face if the crown prince became King Rama X.
Meanwhile, Abhisit and his Democrat Party had to do something even more distasteful to them than allying with venal Buri Ram godfather Newin Chidchob — they had to hold elections and convince the people of Thailand to vote for them. They stuck with their cynical plan of allowing Newin’s Bhumjai Thai party to tackle Thaksin’s Pheu Thai head-on in its northern and northeastern strongholds, a clear signal that they had learned nothing from the past decade and still considered poorer Thai voters to be uneducated cretins whose loyalty could be bought with a few hundred baht. The full might of the revived military ISOC structure was devoted to the task of backing the electoral hopes of the Democrats and their Bhumjai Thai cronies. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, an almost comically inadequate figure totally unable to comprehend the complexities of 21st century Thailand, weighed in with clumsy instructions to voters to “elect good people… good and polite ones who intend to work for the nation”.
Proving once again that they were no fools, the Thai electorate overwhelmingly voted for the Pheu Thai party nominally led by one of Thaksin’s younger sisters, Yingluck. With a turnout of 75 percent, Pheu Thai won 265 seats, an overall majority. Once again, the fact that the establishment had made heavy handed attempts to sabotage Pheu Thai’s election prospects made their victory all the more remarkable. The Democrats again trailed in a distant second with 159 seats. Despite pouring a vast amount of money (looted from Thai taxpayers) into vote-buying, Newin’s Bhumjai Party was decisively routed, and won only 34 seats. A campaign by the Yellow Shirts to persuade Thais to vote for nobody also bombed.
Abhisit and Newin had been humiliated at the polls, and their punishment was not over. In July 2011, after they had comprehensively lost the election but before they had handed over the reins of government, they were confronted with another crisis involving the crown prince that — for once — was not really his fault. His personal Boeing 737 was impounded at Munich airport by liquidators trying to recover debts owed to collapsed German construction conglomerate Walter Bau AG. The plane was seized due to a financial claim against the Thai state — and specifically the Department of Highways — and did not involve a personal debt owed by the crown prince. However, liquidators for the German firm impounded the plane in an aggressive move to embarrass Thailand into paying up.
Like the majority of the traditional Thai establishment, most leading members of the Democrat Party were virulently anti-Vajiralongkorn, but this required them to go out of their way to pretend to be loyal to the crown prince. But the fumbling efforts of the Democrats to deal with the situation went from bad to worse. They appeared unable to comprehend that, unlike Thailand, Germany had an independent-minded judiciary that could not be told what to do by the government. Foreign minister Kasit Piromya, a clearly unbalanced character, was sent to Germany as a troubleshooter, which was about as sensible as tackling a blaze with a firehose full of gasoline. The government attempted to insist that the 737 was Vajiralongkorn’s personal property, which astonished many Thais. Vajiralongkorn ordered a second “personal” 737 to be flown to Munich and parked it alongside the impounded one, which hardly helped.
In August there was more embarrassment for Vajiralongkorn — his four estranged sons from his second marriage, who by now were grown men in the United States, sent a plaintive and provocative public letter reminding Thais of their existence:
This year marks the fifteenth year that we have been living abroad. Over the years, we have received many kind words of encouragement and well wishes over the Internet and elsewhere from the people of Thailand; both from within Thailand and around the world.
We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude for your kind regards, and we are thankful that so many of you have not forgotten us. We have realized that some people were curious or had questions regarding our whereabouts over the years. To eliminate confusion and false rumors, we have decided to take this opportunity to disclose our situation.
When we were younger, we did not understand the drastic change in our lives, nor could we comprehend why we must live our lives outside of our beloved country. Our mother would remind us that we have to follow the orders of the Royal Family, and to show our gratitude and respect. Our situation, at times, was not at all easy. However, we did not stand idle. Instead we learned to push ourselves to our highest potential, and to behave in a manner that would not bring shame upon the Royal Family.
Juthavachara received a bachelor’s degree in avionics and maintenance and a master’s degree in aeronautical science. After working in the aviation industry, he is now attending law school in pursuit of a Juris Doctor degree. Vacharaesorn, after receiving his bachelor’s degree in political science, a Juris Doctor, and a Master of Law (LLM), is now a practicing attorney. Chakriwat, received his bachelor’s degree in psychobiology with chemistry minor, he is currently attending medical school, and will soon begin his clinical rotations. Vatchrawee double-majored in International Business and Finance, and has a Master of Business Administration. He is now attending law school in pursuit of a Juris Doctor degree.
We are also aware of the many rumors being circulated regarding Chakriwat’s health. The truth is Chakriwat has been battling Neurofibromatosis (type II) since he was thirteen years old. The disease causes tumors to appear along his nervous system, and surgery or radiation treatment is required every year or so to remove or otherwise treat these tumors. Due to numerous radiation treatments he has received, there has been some damage to his acoustic nerve, and he became deaf in one ear. He will receive another surgery in August of this year. Despite having to undergo these exhausting procedures on a regular basis,Chakriwat is determined to complete his medical training.
Many people continue to speculate regarding our situation or to spread false and malicious rumors about us. Rather than addressing these issues in the open, and risk offending the institution, we have chosen to remain silent. We merely wanted to use this correspondence as an opportunity to thank the many Thais who still care about us and remember us, and to state clearly that, every day, we wish to return to Thailand. For fifteen years, we have never set foot in our country, and we miss it far too much. Until we are permitted to return, however, we will remain loyal to the Royal Family, and pray for the future of our country.
We remain faithfully yours,
Juthavachara, Vacharaesorn, Chakriwat, Vatchrawee
The reason for the letter was that a problem had emerged in the establishment’s scheme of bypassing Vajiralongkorn as the next monarch by having Prince Dipangkorn become Rama X with Sirikit as regent. The little boy was now six years old and it had become clear that something was seriously wrong with him. A U.S. cable in 2009 noted that he:
appears to suffer from both physical and mental developmental delay issues and reportedly has regular seizures.
It seemed likely the young prince could never be king. But there were no other legitimate male heirs in the Mahidol line of the Chakri dynasty. Much of the elite had long hoped that Sirindhorn would one day become monarch, but this was not a long-term solution to the dynastic crisis facing the Chakri monarchy — Sirindhorn was childless, had never married, and was now 56 years old. Moreover, while the elite thought they might be able to force Vajiralongkorn to agree to stand aside and allow one of his own children to become monarch through a combination of threats to reveal his HIV and promises to let him access the immense royal fortune, they knew he would never accept Sirindhorn on the throne and would do everything he could to prevent it happening. Realistically, to have any hope of getting away with a succession surprise, the elite had to put one of Vajiralongkorn’s children on the throne. Some favoured his eldest daughter Princess Bajrakitiyabha, a relatively modern woman born in 1978 who had a law PhD from Cornell, and who had the “purest” bloodline of all Vajiralongkorn’s children — her mother was Queen Sirikit’s niece Soamsawali. But many conservatives were uncomfortable about the prospect of a female monarch, especially one who lacked Sirindhorn’s popularity and was regarded as close to the crown prince. They saw the Vivacharawongse brothers as a more acceptable alternative. And so members of the elite made discreet approaches to them in the United States. Vajiralongkorn’s rejected sons were being brought into play in the succession struggle.
Yingluck’s election victory changed the dynamics of the conflict once again. Thaksin was back on top. If King Bhumibol died, Thaksin would be able to use parliament to block any attempt by the privy council to tinker with the succession. Reeling from the collapse in the monarchy’s prestige, and now no longer in control of parliament, the traditional establishment faced a desperate situation.
Moreover, Thaksin believed his sister’s thumping electoral mandate gave him the leverage he needed to get his corruption conviction overturned, reclaim his stolen billions, and return to Thailand a free man. The establishment regarded this as an existential threat. They believed — correctly — that if Thaksin was able to come back to Thailand and become prime minister once again, or a very visible powerbroker pretending to have renounced politics, their battle would be lost. The Thaksin juggernaut would crush them. Even in exile, he was proving a formidable opponent. If he came home, the game was up.
It was widely assumed that the military would step in at the first opportunity they got, to seize power and remove Yingluck’s government from office. But in fact, for all Prayuth’s tough talk, by mid-2011 the Thai military was in a position of severe strategic weakness. Firstly, the top brass knew that the army was dangerously split — a huge proportion of junior officers and ordinary soldiers sympathized with or actively supported Thaksin, and would not tolerate another open attack on his political prospects or another crackdown on the Red Shirts. If Prayuth were to attempt it, his army might disintegrate beneath him. Secondly, the army leadership was also chastened by the Arab Spring, which appeared to show that in the 21st century social media era, the tweet was mightier than the sword, and popular protest movements could trump military might. If the conflict of April/May 2010 had taken place just a year later, it would probably have had a very different outcome, as the world’s traditional and new media would have interpreted it as another of the dramatic Facebook-fuelled revolutions toppling authoritarian regimes around the globe. Thirdly, the military’s already very fragile legitimacy as a political player in Thailand had been severely undermined by popular anger about the Bangkok massacre the previous year. Finally, even fanatics like Prayuth were pragmatists at heart. The Thai military’s main aim was always to preserve the power and prestige of the Thai military. They had never fought a battle they didn’t think they could win, and they weren’t inclined to start now.
Prayuth found himself uncomfortably sandwiched between two women. Sirikit, still dreaming her fever dreams of reigning as regent and convinced she was destined to save Thailand from the enemies who wished to destroy it, as Queen Suriyothai had done when she rode into battle on an elephant, badgered him to take a tougher line. Yingluck, who had been derided by the elite as a political neophyte who would quickly unravel under pressure, actually drew strength from her inexperience and inoffensiveness. She was a pleasant and attractive woman doing her best in a difficult position, and the establishment found it impossible to demonize her. Most of the country’s elder statesmen couldn’t even bring themselves to hate her, and felt some degree of paternal protectiveness towards her. Caught in the middle, Prayuth’s frequent gaffes and ill-tempered outbursts testified to his discomfort.
According to a June 2011 article by Shawn Crispin in the Asia Times, Thaksin had struck a deal with the military and monarchy in secret talks in Brunei in February between his ally Wattana Muangsook, Queen Sirikit’s lady-in-waiting Jarungjit Thikara and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, in which they agreed to allow Pheu Thai to govern if it won the election:
According to a source familiar with the talks, the military has agreed to allow Puea Thai to form a new elected government unopposed in exchange for a vow from Thaksin not to pursue political revenge or legal prosecutions of top military officials behind the 2006 coup and last year’s crackdown, and to refrain broadly from intervening in military affairs, including the annual reshuffle that determines the army’s leadership. Army Commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a palace favorite and member of the elite Queen’s Guard, is eligible to serve three more years in his position.
Thaksin’s representative has also been pressed at the talks to rein in the anti-monarchy elements in his camp, including ranking members of his aligned United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group and Puea Thai party, according to the sources. Many royalists believe the UDD’s overseas chapters are mainly responsible for the flood of anti-monarchy material that in recent years have been posted anonymously to the Internet.
Crispin’s speculation was only partially correct. Thaksin was indeed trying to make peace with the military and monarchy, but the Brunei talks were focused on seeking reconciliation with the palace, not the army. Prawit Wongsuwan was there as a representative of Bhumibol — in the last few years he has become a key member of the king’s inner circle, Rama IX’s fixer, as Prem and then Anand had been before him. Thaksin used the talks to try to reassure Bhumibol and Sirikit’s representatives that he had no intention of undermining monarchial prestige, and this was largely true. He remained a royalist at heart. Separately, he sought to reassure the military he would not interfere with its budget or promotions process. But there was never a deal, even an informal one, with either institution.
Thaksin proceeded to try to bulldoze his way back to Thailand. Realising that the self-exiled tycoon was overwhelmingly likely to be the eventual victor in Thailand’s political conflict, establishment figures who had not irretrievably committed themselves to the other side by actively working against Vajiralongkorn began switching teams. Thaksin encouraged their defection by making generous promises about the positions he would give them once he made his triumphant return to the country. Even Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the weak and corrupt former general who had been Prem’s front man for the coup, was induced to ally himself with Thaksin. The establishment’s relatively united front against Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn was crumbling.
True to his world, Thaksin instructed Pheu Thai not to meddle with the military, and the authorities continued to vigorously enforce the draconian lèse majesté law and Computer Crimes Act. Ampon Tangnoppakul, a 62-year-old grandfather, was sentenced to a staggering 20 years in prison on November 23, 2011, for allegedly sending four SMS messages containing abuse about the monarchy to an aide of Abhisit Vejjajiva during the dark days of May 2010:
- First SMS. May 9, 2010. ขึ้นป้ายด่วน อีราชนีชั่วมันไม่ยอมเอาเพชรไดรมอนด์ไปคืนซาอุฯ ราชวงศ์หัวควยมันพังแน่ [Put it on billboards urgently, the evil queen refuses to return the diamond to Saudi, this dickhead dynasty will surely collapse.]
- 2nd SMS, May 11, 2010. อีราชีนีชั่ว อีหีเหล็กมึงแน่จริงมึงส่งทหารเหี้ยๆ มาปราบพวกกูซิวะ โคตรอีดอกทอง ชั่วทั้งตระกูล [The evil queen, the iron cunt, if you are brave enough, send your damn army to crack down on us, you master of whores, family of the bad people.]
- 3rd SMS, May 12, 2010. สมเด็จพระเจ้าอยู่หัวหัวควย อีราชีนีหีเหล็ก ไอ้อีสองตัวนี้มันบงการฆ่าประชาชน ต้องเอาส้นตีนเหยียบหน้ามัน [His Majesty dickhead king, the iron cunt queen, both of them ordered the killing of people. We will stamp on their faces with our heels.]
- 4th SMS, May 22, 2010. ช่วยบอกไอ้สมเด็จพระเจ้าอยู่หัวหัวควยกับอีราชินีหีเหล็ก และลูกหลานมันทุกๆ คนต้องตาย [Please tell his majesty dickhead King, the iron cunt queen and all of their children, you'll all die.]
The evidence against Ampon was exceptionally weak. The prosecution was unable to explain how he could have obtained the mobile phone number of Abhisit’s secretary. Also, the phone number from which the messages were sent was not the same as Ampon’s number, but the prosecution alleged that the messages were sent from a phone with the same IMEI code as Ampon’s. The defence called Ampon’s relatives to testify that he respected the king and queen: one 11-year-old granddaughter told the court that Ampon had taken her to Siriraj Hospital in 2009 to sign a visitors’ book wishing good health to the king. Ampon’s lawyers and also shared evidence with the court showing how easy it was to clone IMEI numbers. Anyone with a little technical skill could have sent the text messages while concealing their real source, using a fake IMEI number which turned out to be Ampon’s. But incredibly, although the judges conceded that the prosecution had failed to prove beyond doubt that Ampon had sent the offensive text messages, they convicted him anyway because he was unable to prove beyond doubt that he had not. The court declared:
Since the contents of the said messages are an insult and expression of malice aforethought towards Their Majesties the King and Queen, are defaming them in a manner likely to negatively affect their grace and bring them into hatred and contempt … and are of false nature in contradiction to the fact already learnt by the people throughout the nation that Their Majesties are full of mercy … the defendant is thus guilty as charged.
The sentence shocked most Thais and drew international condemnation.
On December 8, U.S. citizen Joe Gordon was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for lèse majesté for posting a partial Thai translation of Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles online. He had been denied bail multiple times while in detention, forcing him to eventually plead guilty in the hope of getting a quick trial and a royal pardon. Thais who had hoped for saner enforcement of the lèse majesté law under the Yingluck administration felt betrayed.
Catastrophic floods that inundated large swathes of the country, including parts of Bangkok, in the final months of 2011 demonstrated the deterioration of Bhumibol’s aura. The weak and demoralised opposition tried to exploit the natural disaster to attack Yingluck, but the response of the her administration was no more inept than that of past Thai governments when responding to a crisis. Incompetence and corruption were systemic problems in Thai politics, by no means unique to Pheu Thai. Instead, it was the monarchy that suffered the most ideological damage. A key element of Bhumibol’s myth during his reign was his claimed mystical ability to master Thailand’s water resources, and his alleged brilliance in devising anti-flooding measures. The message that many Thais (correctly) drew from the severity of the 2011 floods was that Bhumibol’s vaunted hydrological genius was just another lie. As Michael Montesano observed:
The floods have triggered a political and ideological contest concerning the role of the Thai monarchy…
Smith Dharmasoraoja, a former director general of the Department of Meteorology, has spoken in recent days of the flooding crisis as a reflection of the country’s flawed approach to water management. There is a growing understanding in Thailand that such long-term factors as the degradation of watersheds and water catchment areas, urban sprawl and industrialization and an inflexible water bureaucracy with little idea of how best to manage its dams explain the current disaster far more than do heavy rains in recent months.
Concern that these factors will come to be associated with King Bhumibol’s own legacy of interest in and influence over the management of water resources is growing among observers of Thai affairs. Many worry that the ideological strife to which that association might lead could prove almost as destructive to the country as the floods themselves.
In early 2012, Thaksin’s plan for getting himself home entered a decisive phase. He believed his strategy of placating the military and the establishment would persuade them to agree to his return. In an interview with Prachachat newspaper in March 2012, his lawyer Noppadon Pattama said:
They may see Thaksin or the Pheu Thai Party as a threat to the existence of the conservatives. But Thaksin has no policy to change the power structure of the country. So we want them to rest assured.
Asked how Thaksin was reassuring them, Noppadon said:
By showing that we are not a threat to the current status of their side. We are not doing anything which affects the main institution of the country. We do not show any overwhelming ambition to change the Defence Act, to interfere with the military reshuffle, or to amend Section 112 of the Criminal Code.
It was true — Thaksin had no intention of changing the basic power structures of the country. He intended to instal himself at the top of the existing structure, as a prime minister who could dominate the country for decades, alongside Vajiralongkorn as king. But this was exactly what the traditional establishment saw as an existential threat. Those who regarded it as inevitable did their best to ingratiate themselves with Thaksin, but many could not bring themselves to accept such an outcome, or were in the patronage networks of men like Prem and Anand who were implacable enemies of Vajiralongkorn. The diehards were fragmented, steadily losing support, and under siege, but they remained influential in elite circles and they were determined to fight to the end. That meant preventing Thaksin Shinawatra coming home.
Thaksin’s plan to secure his homecoming involved parliament setting up the House Committee on National Reconciliation, a supposedly impartial body despite the fact a majority of its members were from Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party and its head was his foe-turned-friend Sonthi Boonyaratglin. During a parliamentary debate in March, Sonthi was asked directly whether Prem Tinsulanonda had orchestrated the 2006 coup. His reply clearly indicated that this was true:
I don’t think I can answer. For some questions, you can’t answer even if you are dead. When the time comes it will reveal itself.
In early April, the House Committee announced its recommendations for healing the country’s divisions. Scripted by Thaksin, at the core of the “reconciliation” plan were two highly controversial proposals. The first — a broad amnesty for those involved in the violence in 2010, and even back to 2006 — outraged the Red Shirts. The second — a voiding of all corruption charges brought against Thaksin and his administration by the now defunct Assets Examination Committee set up by the military junta that mounted the coup — outraged everybody else. The Democrat Party alleged — with some degree of accuracy, for once — that the talk of reconciliation was just a smokescreen to allow Thaksin to pursue his own narrow self-interest.
Thaksin believed the first proposal sweetened the deal enough for the establishment to accept it. He flitted around Thaksin’s borders, showing up in Laos and then Cambodia, giving the impression he was circling ever closer to Thailand and would soon be home. At a rally in Cambodia on April 14, attended by thousands of Red Shirts, he declared:
I can smell the air of my motherland. This year I’m confident it’s a good year. It’s an auspicious year as the Prince will turn 60 and the Queen will turn 80. There are a lot of indications that I’m going to be back with my fellow brothers and sisters.
He thought he had won. To drive the point home, he burst into a rendition of My Way. Characteristically, his timing was terrible, and he kept getting ahead of the tune:
Thaksin’s behaviour was making many of his supporters deeply uncomfortable. Red Shirt prisoners arrested during 2010 were still in jail. The lèse majesté law was as oppressive as ever. Many believed that injustice and double standards would never be overcome in Thailand until members of the elite were held accountable for their actions. After a visit to a Red Shirt party to celebrate Songkran in Pathum Thani province, Nick Nostitz recounted the feelings of those he had spoken to:
A topic that came up often was the reconciliation process and the planned amnesty, first propagated by the KPI report, and then followed by the government. People there were very critical of the planned amnesty, and especially about Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, whom they viewed not as part of the Red Shirt movement, but as a politician they deeply distrusted. People stated that they want the truth first before thinking about an amnesty. They said also that the Pheua Thai Party is not bigger than the people, and has to listen to the people first.
One of the leaders on the stage said that their fight is not just for Thaksin, though they still love him, but for the future of their children, and that people shouldn’t have died for nothing. He said that Abhisit, Suthep and Yellow Shirt leaders should also be in prison, and that the “Amart” should stay where they belong and not interfere. Several of the local leaders said that the present reconciliation process and the idea of an amnesty could result in conflicts in the Red Shirt movement as some parts are for an amnesty, but others are strongly opposed.
Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a brilliant Thammasat University historian and one of the most incisive observers of contemporary Thai politics, said Red Shirts should ask themselves what was more important: bringing Thaksin home, or helping political prisoners? Thanks to his courageous and provocative Facebook comments and his sardonic wit, Somsak had become a social media hero for many progressive younger Thais, who looked to him not only for political insight but also for sensible moral guidance. His comments added to the unease about Thaksin’s tactics.
On May 19, 2012, thousands of Red Shirts rallied at Ratchaprasong to mark the crushing of their protest two years earlier. In comments via videolink that shocked many of those present — and angered Red Shirts across the country — Thaksin thanked them for their help and said they were no longer needed:
Today, we have reached the end of our path. It is like the people have rowed me in a boat to the bank. From now on it is about climbing a mountain. For this, I have to get into a car. The people do not need to carry the boat on their shoulders and send me up the mountain.
Prominent Red Shirt activist Sombat Boonngam-anong said the movement should carry on without their “egotistic” patron:
I want to tell my fellow Red Shirts loudly that we have to continue with our journey. The Dubai tycoon has left us and we have to live with it.
In his 2013 article Thailand in 2012: A Year of Truth, Reconciliation, and Continued Divide, Chairat Charoensin-o-larn wrote:
In his speech, Thaksin asked the Red Shirts to put unity before justice. In short, Thaksin’s amnesty was more important than the loss of Red Shirt lives during the May crackdown. This example of the true nature of the relationship between Thaksin and the Yingluck government should serve as a second eye opener (taa sawang) among those Red Shirts who fought wholeheartedly for Thaksin.
In Laos the previous month, Thaksin had promised his supporters he would soon find a “smooth way” to come home. But he had gravely underestimated the determination of the Yellow bloc to stop him. During May, another co-ordinated elite effort involving leading establishment royalists, the palace, the PAD, the Democrat Party and anti-Thaksin newspapers began to unfold. Bhumibol’s health had severely worsened during 2011, and it was unclear how aware he was of what was happening. But partly with the help of experimental stem cell treatment, he had improved a little by May 2012 and was slightly less cadaverous. The establishment took advantage of his befuddled state to persuade him to participate in a public appearance with Sirikit that would (falsely) signal they had put aside their differences, and give hope to the forces arrayed against Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn.
On May 25, Bhumibol was wheeled out of Siriraj and taken on his first day trip out of Bangkok since his hospitalization in September 2009, accompanied by Sirikit and Sirindhorn. Martial imagery permeated the stage-managed theatrics: Bhumibol was dressed in an army uniform and loaded into a VW van to be driven to Thung Makham Yong in Ayutthaya province, the battleground where Thai and Burmese troops had fought four centuries before — and where Queen Suriyothai had rode into battle on the back of an elephant and saved her husband’s life. To make the connection even more explicit, the royal party stopped on the way to pay respects to a statue of Suriyothai. It remains unknown whether Bhumibol was aware and assented to it, but he was being used by the palace and the establishment to send a message glorifying Sirikit and the military. Afterwards he was driven back to hospital.
“King makes historic return,” proclaimed The Bangkok Post the following day. But it wasn’t Bhumibol in the centre of the front-page photograph. It was Sirikit.
The following day, the PAD resumed mass Yellow Shirt rallies, to protest against the proposed reconciliation bills. Meanwhile, the Democrat Party deliberately disrupted the parliamentary sessions scheduled to consider the legislation. On May 30, Democrat MPs tried to physically drag parliament speaker Somsak Kiatsuranont from his lectern and removed his chair, after he called for a vote on giving the bills urgent status. Police eventually restored order. On May 31, after Pheu Thai legislators voted to give the bills fast-track consideration, Democrat MPs shouted abuse and hurled their papers at Somsak. Abhisit sought to defend his party’s actions by saying the national interest was more important than the Democrat Party maintaining a respectable image.
On June 1, the PAD blockaded parliament, forcing the first reading of the reconciliation bills to be adjourned. Later that day, in an extraordinary and unsupportable ruling, the Constitution Court ordered parliament to delay the third and final reading of a proposed constitutional amendment bill until it had decided whether attempts to alter the 2007 charter were in violation of a clause in the constitution outlawing any actions that undermined Thailand’s “democracy with the king as head of state”. The court was going far beyond its remit, not only in the broad sense that it was sabotaging legitimate parliamentary efforts to amend the constitution, but also more specifically because such matters were not supposed to be decided by the Constitution Court at all. The issue should have been the remit of the Office of the Attorney General.
Faced with this clearly coordinated campaign of mass street protests, Democrat Party obstructionism and partisan judicial interference — all apparently given the royal stamp of approval by the king and queen’s bizarre visit to Ayutthaya — Thaksin and Pheu Thai backed down, putting the reconciliation and constitutional amendment bills on hold.
Shocked and angry at the establishment’s refusal to let him climb the mountain to political supremacy, Thaksin scrambled to jump back in the Red Shirts’ boat. At a video phone-in to a mass Red Shirt rally at Muang Thong Thani in Nonthaburi on June 2, he apologised for his earlier “incomplete message” telling them to set aside their anger and support national reconciliation. Jim Taylor provided a partial translation of Thaksin’s remarks on New Mandala:
Today the country has no consistent rule of law for citizens to follow because those who are supposed to reinforce the law clearly lack virtue, consistency and basic honesty. They continue to use double standards, which is causing deep divisions which cannot be resolved. This social division will surely get worse. One would think that having a female PM who does not want to argue with anyone would create the conditions for peace in the country. However, it is not possible when this works against the will of certain powers. If this situation continues I have to ask people whether we should allow them to bring down the power invested in elected government. Peoples’ power is the highest power. Let’s monitor closely the situation. The parliament has to consider whether we should accept the power that does not have the right to exert influence on the parliamentary process. Each of us sacrificed blood expecting that we would have reconciliation in Thailand…
I have read Somsak Jeamteerasakul’s articles and have to thank him and admit that many things he has written are in fact correct. Much cannot be talked about, but I would like to thank Somsak for his concern and well wishes. Today we have to help bring democracy back to Thailand, even though some of the politicians are just emplaced through electoral networks, but we have to go through this in order to achieve full democracy.
On June 22, Constitution Court president Wasan Soypisudh told reporters he believed the proposed constitutional amendments were intended to overthrow the monarchy. Besides being patently ridiculous, this statement was a blatant breach of his professional ethics. On July 13, the court gave its ruling. Instead of claiming that changing the charter was an attack on the monarchy, it found other ways to sabotage Thaksin’s plans, with a ridiculous judgment that because the 2007 constitution was approved by a referendum, another referendum would be needed before amendments could be made.
On July 7, Bhumibol was wheeled out of Siriraj once again, in a naval uniform this time. He and Sirikit were taken by boat to inspect various irrigation projects. Perhaps Bhumibol or palace courtiers believed it could help restore faith in the king’s mystical ability to harness Thailand’s water resources. The establishment was clearly trying to restore a more visible role for the king: plans were announced for a further day trip later in the month, to Ratchaburi. But within a week, Bhumibol suffered another health crisis and the trip was postponed indefinitely. The Royal Household Bureau, which routinely lies about the health of the king to downplay the seriousness of his ailments (miraculously, his health is always reported to be improving, never getting worse) said he had suffered bleeding in his brain but was already much better.
In fact, Bhumibol was gravely unwell. According to #196 of the Hi-S Tales, a series of regular news updates about the royal family posted online by an unknown author which have been uncannily accurate about the machinations and health of the royals and their innermost circle, Bhumibol had suffered a minor stroke and attempts to treat him led to a subarachnoid haemorrhage. It added that Sirikit was pressing Prem and the privy council to declare that the king was incapacitated, which would allow the queen to assume the role of regent — and bypass the need for parliament to approve. Sirindhorn, according to the report, was opposed to the plan, leading to a blazing row at Siriraj Hospital between mother and daughter, both cursing at each other.
On July 21, Sirikit collapsed in the grounds of Siriraj Hospital. As usual, the initial health bulletins from the Royal Household Bureau were upbeat, reporting that she was diagnosed with “a slight shortage of blood to the brain after feeling dizzy and stumbling slightly at Siriraj Hospital on July 21”. In fact, she had crumpled to the ground after suffering a severe stroke, and was unable to move or talk for several days afterwards. Not only did the palace hide the truth about the seriousness of her condition, it even suppressed the fact that she had fallen to the ground, presumably believing this could damage royal prestige. But behind the scenes, the establishment and military leadership were in a state of shock. The sky had fallen. It quickly became clear that Sirikit was severely incapacitated, and doctors said she would never make a full recovery. She was unable to walk and her speech was badly affected. There was no realistic prospect that she could ever resume a prominent role providing inspiration and leadership in the establishment’s struggle against Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn. It was inconceivable now that she could ever be regent. The whole plan had fallen apart.
Vajiralongkorn’s 60th birthday — his 5th cycle, a major milestone for Buddhists — was a week later on July 28. The desultory public celebrations demonstrated just how little public or establishment support there was for the crown prince. On August 12, the incapacitated Sirikit turned 80, with the severity of her health problems still kept secret from Thailand’s people. As Serhat Ünaldi observed in a superb article on New Mandala:
Thailand is changing… An analysis of the celebrations for HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn’s 5th cycle anniversary and HM Queen Sirikit’s 80th birthday reveals that the monarchy is no longer what it used to be — and that it probably never will be again.
First, to describe public attendance for the official celebrations in honour of the Crown Prince on 28 July 2012 at the royal field, Sanam Luang, as below expectations would be euphemistic. Frankly, the whole event was an embarrassment. And the fact that, on 12 August 2012, Her Majesty spent her birthday at Siriraj Hospital where she continued to be treated for a “shortage of blood in her brain” it is ever more unlikely that the Queen will function as a regent after the death of her husband to facilitate the transition process – a theory that never seemed particularly plausible anyway. If anything, the birthdays were a reminder that the end of the current Chakri reign draws closer by the day.
One of the most striking features of the royal anniversaries was the lack of effort by the monarchy’s propaganda machinery to effectively promote HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn ahead of the royal succession. What better opportunity to start getting things rolling than the man’s 60th birthday, or 5th cycle anniversary (one cycle comprises twelve years)? There’s a whole lot of work to do on Thai people’s perception of their next King. Yet looking back into history this is not an impossible task. HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej became King when the image of the monarchy was a far cry from what it is today. And what is the never convincingly resolved suspicion of (accidental) fratricide compared to the Crown Prince’s frivolous love adventures, diplomatic mishaps and petty crimes? True, the internet and a changed national and international political environment don’t make the work any easier but is it not about time, from the perspective of royalists, to manage the transition by using their proven ideological tools?
The decision makers seem to disagree. The absence of royal banners on newspaper websites ahead of the Prince’s birthday was just one indicator of the seeming lack of enthusiasm among the promoters of the monarchy. Where in the past readers of online news usually had to click on full-screen reminders of an upcoming royal celebration to access a homepage, the editorial boards had decided not to put those up for the Crown Prince. As for the media coverage itself, there was a marked imbalance between the numbers of lines dedicated to both birthday celebrations. A random comparison between the Thai language newspapers Daily News and Thai Rath reveals that Thai Rath gave the Crown Prince 83 lines the day after the celebrations at Sanam Luang compared to 143 lines for the Queen’s anniversary festivities. Daily News reported the Prince’s birthday over 103 lines versus 287 lines for his mother (the coverage for the Queen stretched across three pages).
Asked for his explanation for the lack of media support for the Crown Prince a journalist answered frankly that, first, the Crown Prince lacks his father’s standing. Second, an excessive promotion of Vajiralongkorn at a time when King Bhumibol is still alive would be indecent: “the heir apparent can never outshine the incumbent”. However, the journalist remarked on the increase of royal TV programs presenting scenes from Vajiralongkorn’s childhood, a time when he was still fairly innocent in the eye of loyal subjects. Whether these attempts to reconnect him with his roots as a male Chakri heir will increase his popularity is a question only time can answer.
For now, it is possible to put an exact number on the difference in significance between the Prince and the Queen, thanks to the release of commemorative banknotes ahead of both the birthday of the Crown Prince and his mother. The Queen is five times more unique than her son. Whereas ten million 100 Baht banknotes were issued for the heir apparent, the special 80 Baht notes printed in honour of the Queen numbered only two million. Also, whereas the 100 Baht notes were circulated in the regular financial system, the 80 Baht banknotes had to be bought for 120 Baht, the surplus reportedly going to royal charities. When I asked at a bank whether I could exchange a regular 100 Baht banknote for one with the Prince on the back I was met with a confused look. It seemed I was the first person to make such a request. Clearly, the Crown Prince is not considered on par with his parents in the media, nor among Thailand’s bankers.
And certainly not among the general public. It was fascinating to watch how little interest the great majority of people showed in the books that had been placed at various spots throughout Bangkok for well-wishers to sign. While waiting at the Siam Paragon shopping mall for a friend to show up I kept an eye on the setup that had just been erected to honour the Crown Prince – consisting of a book with blank pages on a table in front of a life-size picture of Vajiralongkorn and ceremonial objects. Over one hour not a single person stopped to sign the book. Only when the embarrassment became unbearable did one of the mall’s security officers move towards the book to set a good example by signing it. A few, but not many, passersby followed his lead. The commemorative books for the Queen, on the other hand, were much more popular and filled up relatively quickly with good wishes…
On the day of the Crown Prince’s birthday, 28 July 2012, none but the poorest members of Thai society showed up at Sanam Luang. Apart from government officers and employees who had been ordered to parade on the royal grounds which make up the southern part of the field, mostly men and women in unwashed clothes came for the free food and beverages offered to them. Members of the middle class, dressed up for a royal occasion – a familiar sight for anyone who has ever attended such events in the past –, were completely absent. As if realising the embarrassment, the security guards suddenly declared the tents that were set up for ordinary visitors a VIP area, asked the three dozen representatives of the lower strata of the people (prachachon) to leave their seats and eventually placed them in a corner opposite the tent where Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra would later take her seat before going on stage for a candle-lighting ceremony. The “VIP tents” remained largely vacant for the rest of the evening (for the Queen’s birthday celebrations the same tents were open to the general public because there was a middle-class public to fill them).
When Prime Minister Yingluck finally arrived the prachachon were disappointed yet another time when her black van parked in front of them and Yingluck got off the car on the other side, effectively shutting her off from the sight of the poor. She took her seat across the square, went on stage to lead the ceremony – which was overshadowed by the worst performance of the royal anthem this author has ever heard – and left.
The celebrations for the Queen were much more popular despite heavy rainfalls. It is, however, an exaggeration to state that Sanam Luang was “packed” on 12 August as the Bangkok Post would have it. Most of the photos disseminated in the media depicted government employees and marching bands that had been ordered to appear anyway. Despite the relatively strong attendance for the Queen’s anniversary festivities the number of people dwarfed when compared to the celebrations for King Bhumibol’s 80th birthday in 2007 which stretched from Sanam Luang along the entire Ratchadamnoen Avenue and even spilled over to the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. Whether the difference in size had anything to do with the respective governments that organised the celebrations – a military junta that excessively promoted the monarchy in 2007 vs. a democratically elected administration whose legitimacy is less dependent on its royalist credentials – is debatable. Maybe it’s just that the king had more fans in 2007 than the Queen has in 2012…
Yet, in light of the remarkable show of disinterest for the Crown Prince’s birthday celebrations and the tame propaganda surrounding them such a change of mind in favour of promoting him seems difficult to imagine at this point. All the same, some may read the birthday celebrations not as tame but as the slow but steady start to the Crown Prince’s public promotion. Is it really just respect for the ailing king that discourages a more outright promotion of his successor? Has the general caution in the wake of an elite settlement which seems to be underway in Thailand anything to do with this? Or could it be that some decision-makers have grasped that the country is in the process of moving beyond the monarchy as the central pillar of the socio-political order? After all, Prince Vajiralongkorn’s 60th birthday was also a reminder of the fact the he too is no longer a young man. Given his own health conditions it is doubtful that the Crown Prince will be able to keep the monarchy stable the same way his long-lived father has done for more than 60 decades. Therefore, the smartest solution would be for the Crown Prince to renounce the throne in one way or another (definitely in a way that does not put the legitimacy of the next king into doubt, which would preclude for example an all-too comfortably timed death as a solution) to allow royalists to press the reset button and call Vajiralonkorn’s four sons home from American exile and place one of them on the throne. As with American-born and Swiss-raised Bhumibol, a young King Juthavachara Mahidol would be a nobody at first and therefore would offer an opportunity to refashion the monarchy in a new mould.
Following Queen Sirikit’s debilitating stroke, the Thai establishment did indeed step up contacts with Vajiralongkorn’s estranged sons, the Vivacharawongse brothers. It seemed like their last hope.
Sirikit’s stroke not only ruled her out as a future regent, it also ended her active participation in Thai politics. The royalists had lost their champion as well as their succession plan. Many of them began to drift away from the Yellow cause, leaving an increasingly isolated group of zealots to continue the battle. Prayuth and his senior army comrades no longer had somebody in the palace to tell them what to do, and the military began to revert to its traditional pragmatism. The hardcore members of the royalist establishment still desperate to stop Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn could not count on army support any more. But they carried on fighting anyway. They didn’t have much choice.
Which brings us back to now.
History, Karl Marx mordantly observed, tends to repeat itself — “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Events in Thailand since Sirikit’s stroke in July 2012 have been dominated by the inept, fumbling efforts of a militant die-hard royalist rump to recreate the coordinated Yellow campaign of 2008 that brought down the People Power Party and made Abhisit prime minister. The dinosaurs are refusing to accept that they face imminent extinction.
Fragmented and feckless, they face a daunting challenge. The military leadership will not support a lost cause. Sondhi Limthongkul is — unsurprisingly — disinclined to offer much assistance, following Prawit Wongsuwan’s failed effort to have him assassinated. Yingluck Shinawatra and her government retain the support of the majority of Thais, and there is no mass discontent with Pheu Thai. Vajiralongkorn is quietly consolidating power, waiting for his moment to come.
Meanwhile, Thaksin remains focused purely on coming home as a free man, and continues to exploit the legitimate grievances and huge sacrifices of the Red Shirts to help achieve this. The royalist establishment continues to use cynical undemocratic methods and undermine the rule of law to try to stop Thaksin succeeding. Thailand’s feuding elite factions show no genuine interest in healing the kingdom’s divisions or addressing the problems facing the majority of the country’s people. As Chairat Charoensin-o-larn observed earlier this year:
The overall political situation in Thailand in 2012 went beyond the point of accommodation. Each side is waiting for the right moment to wage a total war to eradicate the other side in the conflict in order to set up a hegemony. In the process of hegemonic construction, truth and reconciliation became a means of achieving this end… The politics of truth and reconciliation had been dangerously played through the politics of fear and hatred.
In November 2012, a group of elderly hardliners with links to Prem Tinsulanonda, calling themselves Pitak Siam, made a desultory effort to bring down the government. The group was led by former general Boonlert Kaewprasit and former admiral Chai Suwannaphap, schoolmates of Prem’s loyal sidekick Surayud Chulanont from Class 1 at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School. Another leading member was retired admiral Phajun Tamprateep, Prem’s former personal secretary. Prasong Soonsiri, a perennial ultra-royalist schemer, was also closely involved.
The geriatric plotters publicly called for a military coup, and Boonlert said a five-year “freeze” of democracy was needed while corrupt politicians were weeded out and righteous men took charge. The group assembled a relatively small rabble of off-duty soldiers and thugs and announced they would march on Government House on November 24. Knowing that the group intended to follow the traditional plot of Thai street protest theatre and would attempt to provoke violence, the government invoked the Internal Security Act as a precaution.
Instead of denouncing a clearly unconstitutional and undemocratic effort to bring down an elected government, Abhisit coordinated the actions of the Democrat Party with them, calling a censure debate which would be held on November 25 to 27, followed by a no-confidence vote on November 28. The party’s satellite channel, Blue Sky TV, openly praised Pitak Siam, and royalist newspapers gave Boonlert sympathetic coverage, denouncing the government’s invocation of the ISA as a tyrannical overreaction.
The government had learned from past street battles, and adopted effective tactics in response, flooding the area around Government House with disciplined police dressed in riot gear and carrying shields. On the day of the protest, it was clear that the turnout had fallen drastically short of Pitak Siam’s hopes. Fewer than 20,000 protesters marched towards Government House. They were blocked by concrete and barbed-wire barricades at the Makkawan bridge and at the Mitsakwan intersection. Behind the barricades stood rows of riot police. Some of the provocateurs enlisted by Pitak Siam began dismantling the barricades and trying to pick a fight. They used various tactics, including throwing tear gas canisters and home-made explosives, pepper-spraying police in the face, firing slingshots, and driving a six-wheel truck into police lines. Dozens of police were hurt, but they remained disciplined. The police lines held, and there was no overreaction despite repeated provocation.
As this sinister pantomime was unfolding, Boonlert and his comrades were making repeated mobile phone calls to army commanders in Bangkok, claiming that peaceful protesters were being brutalized by police defending a dictatorial government, and demanding military intervention to restore order and prevent a massacre. No help was forthcoming. Towards dusk, a dejected Boonlert called a halt to the protest, claiming:
I did not want to see anyone die. I am already very sad to see people injured.
The whole episode was a pitiful failure for the royalists.
Thaksin’s attempts to cosy up to the establishment had got him nowhere. Since the carrot had failed, his next strategy was to use the stick. Carefully avoiding confrontation with the military, he targeted Democrat Party leaders Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban. He enlisted the help of Tharit Pengdit, a weak and unprincipled bureaucrat who headed of the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand’s equivalent of the FBI. Under the Abhisit administration, Tharit had been intimidated by Prayuth into whitewashing army involvement in civilian deaths during April and May 2010. Now, Thaksin and his political enforcer Chalerm Yubamrung intimidated Tharit into mounting a partisan legal offensive against Abhisit and Suthep. In December 2012, the DSI announced that Abhisit and Suthep would be charged with premeditated murder for their role in the death of Phan Khamkong, a 44-year-old taxi driver shot dead by a Thai soldier on the night of May 15, 2010.
Thaksin had no interest in supporting genuine accountability for the events of 2010, since he himself would be implicated if the full truth was ever known. His plan was to use murder charges to try to force Abhisit and Suthep into accepting a legal amnesty that would also clear his own corruption convictions. Thaksin also began gathering information that could be used against Abhisit’s ally Korn Chatikavanij, seen as a probably future leader of the Democrat Party. He hired the services of at least one international investigations company to look into Korn’s past business dealings.
Abhisit and Suthep responded with defiant theatrics intended to stake their claim on moral high ground that they had shamefully abandoned long before. They declared that unlike Thaksin, they respected the rule of law and would not flee into exile like cowards or seek amnesty. They would fight the charges and respect the decisions of the judiciary, even if this meant the death sentence. It was a good soundbite but it was meaningless. Both men were well aware that the prospects of them being executed are vanishingly remote.
As the government geared up for another attempt to bring Thaksin home, several competing amnesty proposals were floated from within the Thaksin camp, part of a deliberate strategy of misdirection. One of them, submitted to parliament in March by 42 Pheu Thai Party MPs headed by Worachai Hema from Samut Prakan, proposed a blanket amnesty for all political offences, excluding political leaders, from September 2006 to May 2011. Ostensibly it was primarily aimed at freeing hundreds of unjustly imprisoned Red Shirts, without absolving Abhisit and Suthep of accountability or assisting Thaksin. The UDD declared its support for the Worachai bill, rejecting a competing proposal from families of those killed in 2010.
On April 29, at a ministerial meeting in Mongolia for the Community of Democracies intergovernmental group, Yingluck made a speech explicitly accusing the royalist establishment of being enemies of democracy:
In 1997, Thailand had a new constitution that was created through the participation from the people. Because of this, we all thought a new era of democracy has finally arrived, an era without the cycle of coups d’état.
It was not to be. An elected government which won two elections with a majority was overthrown in 2006. Thailand lost track and the people spent almost a decade to regain their democratic freedom.
Many of you here know that the government I am talking about was the one with my brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, as the rightfully elected Prime Minister.
Many who don’t know me say that why complain? It is a normal process that governments come and go. And if I and my family were the only ones suffering, I might just let it be.
But it was not. Thailand suffered a setback and lost international credibility. Rule of law in the country was destroyed. Projects and programmes started by my brother’s government that came from the people’s wishes were removed. The people felt their rights and liberties were wrongly taken away.
Thai means free, and the people of Thailand fought back for their freedom. In May 2010, a crackdown on the protestors, the Red Shirts Movement, led to 91 deaths in the heart of the commercial district of Bangkok.
Many innocent people were shot dead by snipers, and the movement crushed with the leaders jailed or fled abroad. Even today, many political victims remain in jail.
However, the people pushed on, and finally the government then had to call for an election, which they thought could be manipulated. In the end, the will of people cannot be denied. I was elected with an absolute majority.
But the story is not over. It is clear that elements of anti-democratic regime still exist. The new constitution, drafted under the coup leaders led government, put in mechanisms to restrict democracy.
A good example of this is that half of the Thai Senate is elected, but the other half is appointed by a small group of people. In addition, the so called independent agencies have abused the power that should belong to the people, for the benefit of the few rather than to the Thai society at large.
It was a fairly accurate summary of Thai political history in the 21st century, and it enraged the traditional establishment. Obsessed with image and “face”, they found it unbearable to be accurately depicted as villains in a high-profile speech by the prime minister on the international stage. Opponents of Thaksin and Yingluck claimed the speech was unpatriotic — it was “un-Thai” to discuss the country’s dirty secrets in an international forum. Ultraroyalist Thai Rath cartoonist Somchai Katanyutanan commented on his Facebook page:
Please understand: whores are not evil. They just sell their bodies. But an evil bitch is going around selling her country.
The first reading of Worachai Hema’s reconciliation bill in parliament was scheduled for August 7. After that, it would have to go through a legislative process that would take several months before it became law. Behind the scenes, the remnants of the Yellow coalition of aristocrats, establishment poo yai, retired military men, upper-middle-class moralistic Bangkokians, Democrat Party politicians and royalist newspapers began preparing another co-ordinated assault on the Yingluck administration. They believed (correctly) that the Worachai bill was a smokescreen for an amnesty for Thaksin Shinawatra. They resolved to stop this, whatever the cost, and to bring down the government by the end of 2013.
The playbook was well established by now. Following the 2008 model, they intended to use disruption of parliamentary processes, street protests, judicial interventions, biased newspaper coverage and furtive scheming by figures considered close to the palace to create the false impression the government had lost control of the country and lost its legitimacy. Illustrating how depressingly out of touch they were with the aspirations of the vast majority of Thailand’s people, they still clung to the delusional belief that if they could somehow topple the government, they would then suspend democracy in Thailand for three to five years, engineering the creation of a “royally appointed” government of elder statesmen. During this time, they would weed out Thaksin loyalists from politics and the military, and launch a comprehensive indoctrination campaign that would convince ordinary voters of the error of their ways in supporting their false prophet living in exile abroad. It was a variant of the “New Politics” proposed by Sondhi Limthongkul and the “freeze” that Boonlert had called for.
The unspoken hope of the Yellow alliance is that King Bhumibol will die of old age during the suspension of democracy, and then a pliant parliament would approve an alternative monarch proposed by the privy council to prevent Vajiralongkorn becoming Rama X. If the elderly and ailing Bhumibol was still alive by the time they had to hold elections some time towards 2018, their efforts to rid Thailand of the scourge of “Thaksinism” would hopefully have succeeded, and parliament would remain cooperative. Insane as it may seem, this is their plan.
Anand Panyarachun, who has twice served as prime minister despite never being elected, is eager to make it a hat-trick and serve as royally appointed prime minister if Yingluck is deposed. But most of the establishment favours another candidate, Prawit Wongsuwan, who has become the latest favourite of the conservative Thai aristocracy.
Events far away in Egypt emboldened the Thai establishment. The lesson of the Arab Spring had appeared to be that trying to suspend democracy in the social media era would be suicidal. Popular resistance and international media attention would overcome any attempt to deny Thailand’s people their democratic rights, even if the military cooperated in enforcing the plan. But on July 3, after mass protests against the Islamist government orchestrated by the secular military, Egypt’s army seized power, arrested the prime minister and embarked on a brutal campaign to crush the Muslim Brotherhood mass movement. To date, thousands have been killed and the army remains in control. This fuelled the fever dreams of conservative Thai royalists and military hawks.
Two anti-Thaksin movements that emerged in May were part of the establishment’s efforts to conjure up the impression of mass non-partisan opposition to the Yingluck administration. Veteran extreme-right royalists Vasit Dejkunjorn and Kaewsun Atibodhi launched an initiative on May 4 that they called the “Thai Spring”, in an effort to emulate the online activism that brought down authoritarian governments in Tunisia and Egypt two years earlier. Yellow-aligned newspapers gave the quixotic venture extensive sympathetic coverage, but it quickly became apparent that the “Thai Spring” was basically just an Internet petition in support of an open letter to the Community of Democracies that gave a competing narrative to Yingluck’s speech the previous month. Ironies abounded. Vasit and Kaewsun were elderly zealots with no understanding either of 21st century Thailand or of online activism. Their outrage at Yingluck’s speech and their hapless efforts to set the record straight demonstrated that for all their hollow nationalist rhetoric, they cared deeply about how foreigners viewed Thailand. The text of the open letter was so ludicrous that was difficult to believe it was not self-parody. But Vasit and Kaewsun were not joking:
Ms. Yingluck’s assumption of office to continue and perpetuate her family’s dominance is no different from that of Mr. Kim Jong Il’s continuation of his family’s control over North Korea. Ms. Yingluck’s tenure is totally dependent on the wishes and orders of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Excellencies, although you saw the physical presence of Ms. Yingluck before you, her thoughts and utterances were all directed from afar by her manipulative and demanding brother.
Successes at past general elections were simply legalizing acts of authorization of this authoritarian family to gain power, to capture and subjugate the country. If your Excellencies were to be more judicious and scrutinizing you would have found out that the Shinawatra-owned Pheu Thai Party is full of stooges in the guise of Members of Parliament. They are no different from members of the Communist Party of North Korea.
The Thai media in general behave in a similarly subservient manner, being commissioned by the Shinawatra family to create personality cults and promote public adoration for themselves. They behave no differently from the North Korean media.
If you pay a visit to North Korea you will witness the omnipresence of portraits of the leader. In Thailand it is the same. These two likeminded families have thus been sending their followers and subordinates to infiltrate all strata of their respective societies…
Human history has ascertained clearly that the holding of general elections is not the only indication or proof of democracy. Dictators dressed up as democrats are many in this world of ours. We would like to assert therefore that the Shinawatra family’s rule is an amoral, ultra-capitalist authoritarian one in the cloak of democracy…
We are against the Shinawatra family because this family is leading Thailand into an abyss of darkness. It injects greed, misinformation, anger and hate into the hearts and minds of the people in order to divide Thai society, which is at every second in the state of distancing itself from democracy and a peaceful environment…
We, the millions of Thai citizens, do not seek your help; we can solve our own problems. This Open Letter is intended to present a factual account and clarification that this lady Prime Minister of Thailand is not a representative of Thai democracy, not a representative of the truth, and not a responsible representative of the Thai people at all.
The dinosaurs of Thailand’s establishment failed to realize the obvious fact that while it was true that a self-serving family had enriched itself immensely at the expense of the Thai people and fostered a North Korea-style personality cult with the help of subservient media and omnipresent portraits, it wasn’t the Shinawatra clan. And while they denounced Yingluck as a puppet of Thaksin, they appeared proud to consider themselves puppets of the palace — even though their plans to sabotage Vajiralongkorn’s succession prospects defied King Bhumibol’s wishes. Note also their claim that the Shinawatra family was “leading Thailand into an abyss of darkness”, another invocation of the dreaded กลียุค or dark age that ultra-royalists feared would follow Bhumibol’s death.
Later in May, an equally bizarre group emerged, “V For Thailand”, also known as the “white masks”. Appropriating the symbolism and mythology of “Occupy” protests around the world and the “Anonymous” hacktivist collective, in particular their use of the Guy Fawkes mask and their lack of formal leadership or hierarchy, the movement tried to portray itself as a spontaneous uprising of social-media-savvy ordinary citizens against a tyrannical and corrupt government. In fact, it was a staunchy reactionary royalist movement organised by Samran Viroj, formerly a core member of the PAD, and intended to mobilize middle-class and white-collar professional Bangkokians against Thaksin, as the Yellow Shirts had done in 2005 and 2006. Contrary to their V For Vendetta rebel swagger, the “white masks” believed in order, hierarchy, and respect for authority. They were not against power being in the hands of a small privileged elite, they just objected to the fact that a new elite allied to Thaksin was wrenching power from the hands of the old elite which they represented. They were not battling the privilege and power of the “one percent” — on the contrary, they were Thailand’s “one percent”, plus a significant chunk of the middle class which also feared the growing political clout of the poor.
Again, Yellow newspapers served as enthusiastic cheerleaders for the movement, systematically exaggerating its support and influence. Facebook photographs showing a small number of people wearing homemade masks in Hong Kong and Sydney were interpreted as demonstrating that the movement had “gone international“, and poorly attended rallies in Ratchaburi, Lampang and Surat Thani were held up as supposed proof that support for the “white masks” was sweeping the nation. “Dozens take part in upcountry white mask protests,” was one of the Bangkok Post‘s most unintentionally funny headlines in June. Thailand has a population of 67 million. The Bangkok Post‘s star columnist, Voranai Vanijaka, did his best to bolster the group’s propaganda with an article that declared:
The novelty, the likeability, of the Guy Fawkes movement is that – as far as we know – it was born entirely from like-minded citizens getting together in a common cause. No charismatic leader. No big bank account. No dubious connections. No declared allegiance to any cult of personality, as yet. Although some say they are just yellow-shirts trying to find a new gimmick. Regardless, only a couple of weeks after making their first appearance on social networks, there they were on Sunday, some 700 in the streets, in masks and in a show of unity and defiance, all started by a group of kids on Facebook, no less — with a rather cute one in a nurse’s uniform.
Meanwhile, hackers affiliated to the group hacked Yingluck Shinawatra’s official website and defaced it with the words: “I’m a slutty moron”.
Foreign journalists in Bangkok overwhelmingly failed to report what was really going on. The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand had become dominated by conservative old-timers with overt royalist sympathies, on very friendly terms with Anand Panyarachun. Leading club member Dominic Faulder was enlisted by Anand to produce a glossy hardback book extolling the palace, which was published in 2011 by Editions Didier Millet with the title King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work. Besides Faulder, the foreign hacks who contributed were Nicholas Grossman, Julian Gearing, Paul Wedel, Richard Ehrlich, Robert Horn, Joe Cummings and Robert Woodrow. It was an atrocious, dishonest book, a crude hagiography marketed as a definitive scholarly account of Bhumibol’s reign. Inevitably, it proved highly popular with establishment and middle-class Thais and sold extremely well. Editions Didier Millet also agreed to publish a vanity biography of Anand in 2014, authored by Faulder. It will undoubtedly be a grovelling fairytale similar to William Warren’s biography Prem Tinsulanonda: Soldier and Statesman, and it will undoubtedly sell very poorly, but it is Editions Didier Millet’s way of thanking Anand for signing the lucrative contract to publish the Bhumibol book with them.
Journalists inside and outside the FCCT clique were terrified of the lèse majesté law, and by 2013 the vast majority of them had given up making any effort to report on Thai politics accurately. They were so afraid that most refused to even criticize or challenge Article 112, and in January 2013 the FCCT disgracefully failed to stand up for Thai editor Somyot Pruksakasemsuk when he was jailed for more than a decade for two articles that he didn’t even write, the gravest blow to Thai media freedom in a generation. Foreign reporting on Thailand remains woefully superficial and misleading, and a ChannelNews Asia story by FCCT president Anasuya Sanyal in June 2013 typified the abysmal quality of most mainstream international coverage of the country. Sanyal uncritically swallowed all the lies of the “V For Thailand” group, obediently reporting that it was a new movement with diverse aims but primarily focused on corruption. This was sheer nonsense, of course, but the Yellow bloc consistently used incompetent foreign coverage of this nature to support its bogus claims to legitimacy. Sanyal’s report even mentioned the “slutty moron” attack on Yingluck’s website by hackers, even though it was unthinkable that ChannelNews Asia would ever mention a similar stunt that insulted Singapore’s leaders.
One intriguing aspect of the “V For Thailand” group was that, unlike past protest movements in Thailand which had almost invariably sought to ostentatiously proclaim their loyalty to the monarchy, the “white masks” initially attempted to conceal their royalist sympathies. Their use of Guy Fawkes masks, celebrating a man who had plotted to kill England’s king four centuries ago, was not an intentional part of this strategy, it was just an illustration of their ignorance. (A Facebook debate I had in May and June with Sakapan “Geng” Eamegdool, one of the backers of the movement, amply illustrated this point.) But at first they genuinely tried to play down their royalist sympathies, pretending they were a new group that brought together Thais from a broad range of backgrounds and political viewpoints, all united in their principled determination to free the country from the baleful rule of the corrupt Shinawatra clan. This attempted rebranding of anti-Thaksin activism was another dismal failure — most “white mask” protesters were unable to contain themselves and insisted on openly proclaiming their ultra-royalist views.
A third group to emerge as the August reading of Worachai Hema’s reconciliation bill approached was the “People Democratic Force to Overthrow Thaksinism”, or “Pefot” for short. This was a new incarnation of Pitak Siam, with the same cast of characters behind it, mainly retired military men with links to Prem. Pefot set up a camp at Sanam Luang, where they were joined by a fourth faction — a few dozen elderly men representing the long defunct Communist Party of Thailand. Their presence at the Pefot camp — loudly proclaiming their support for the monarchy — is explained by the fact that the father of Prem crony Surayud Chulanont had been a member of the party, and elderly communists were grateful to Prem for his forgiving attitude towards them when the CPT collapsed in the early 1980s. Like Pefot, they were Prem’s men.
The fifth faction to align itself with this unholy alliance was a brand new street protest group set up by the Democrat Party, the “Light Blue Shirts”, officially known as “Sai Loh Fah” or “the lightning rod”. Since the Democrats could not rely on Sondhi Limthongkul to obliging provide the numbers at political rallies, they attempted to create a mass movement of their own. Almost inevitably, it fell far short of their expectations.
The various groups of protesters attempted to focus on a few key themes they thought could win them wider support and conceal the fact that they were all just different factions of the anti-Thaksin-and-Vajiralongkorn movement. They insisted that the Yingluck administration was tyrannical, a “parliamentary dictatorship” dragging Thailand to ruin. This was news to the majority of Thais, who had voted for Pheu Thai and thought the government was doing a decent job, all things considered. They denounced the fact that Yingluck was a “puppet” of her brother, and while this was largely true, it was exactly why most people had voted for her in the first place, and it glossed over the inconvenient truth that behind all of the anti-government protest groups were embittered old men pulling the strings. They also insulted Yingluck for her alleged lack of intelligence, but this also backfired. The prime minister has degrees from Thai and U.S. universities, while Bhumibol, Sirikit and Vajiralongkorn don’t have a single degree between them.
Moreover, the protesters seemed incapable of getting their English-language slogans and propaganda right, which undermined their mockery of Yingluck’s proficiency in the language. None of the protest leaders appear to have deigned to get a native speaker to check their material, presumably thinking themselves far too clever to need any help writing grammatically correct English. The “People Democratic Force to Overthrow Thaksinism” couldn’t even manage to get its own name right in English, a rather glaring blunder that was also committed by one of the most popular anti-Shinawatra Facebook groups, “Dislike Yingluck for Concentration Citizen”. (A Facebook conversation I had with a Thai supporter of the group trying to explain its bizarre name went viral in May.) The hypocrisy of ultra-royalists mocking Yingluck’s educational credentials in pidgin English recalled an infamous banner hoisted aloft by an earlier incarnation of the anti-Shinawatra protest movement, the “multi-coloured shirts”, when they confronted pro-Thaksin protesters on Silom Road in April 2010, mocking the supposedly ignorant Red Shirts as “uneducate people”:
A significant problem facing the leaders of the Yellow bloc as they tried to rally the followers of the “network monarchy” was that Bhumibol and Sirikit were both absent from the public stage and isolated in large private suites in Siriraj Hospital. Bhumibol’s senility had been growing increasingly apparent for years, and despite the efforts of the Royal Household Bureau to hide the truth about Sirikit, it was widely known in royalist circles that she was still incapacitated following her stroke in July 2012. This made it difficult to exploit the monarchy to inspire support for the anti-government offensive, and it made it extremely difficult for leaders of the Yellow movement like Prem, Anand and Prawit to credibly pretend they were acting with royal authority and following instructions from the palace. So they arranged an extraordinary charade in an effort to convince their patronage networks, and the country as a whole, that Bhumibol and Sirikit were still united and still calling the shots.
In late July, palace courtiers announced that both the king and the queen had made a remarkable recovery from their respective ailments and no longer needed in-patient treatment at Siriraj. Sirkit’s thinning white hair was dyed jet black and a hairpiece was fitted to make her appear less dishevelled. On August 1, the royal couple were driven out of Siriraj in a VW van and conveyed to the royal summer palace in the seaside resort of Hua Hin. Both of them were clearly decrepit and disorientated, staring blankly out of the van’s windows as it drove past crowds of flag-waving Thais who had assembled outside Siriraj for the supposedly joyful event. Sirikit waved mechanically with her left hand, evidence that she remained paralysed on her right side. The queen was held upright in her seat by an attendant sitting behind her and another crouching at her feet, to prevent her keeling over in the vehicle. Doctors at Siriraj dishonestly told the media that both Bhumibol and Sirikit were able to walk unaided but had been taken from their hospital beds to the van in wheelchairs as a precautionary measure to preserve their strength.
It was another cynical pantomime, intended to create the illusion that Thailand’s elderly king and queen were fit and well, and in control of the royalist establishment. The most haunting images of the day were photographs showing Sirikit gazing uncomprehendingly out of the van’s window, her face frozen in an eerie rictus that was probably supposed to be a smile.
Pefot set up camp in Lumphini Park and prepared for the latest assault on the elected government, scheduled for August 7, when the reconciliation bill would have its first reading in parliament. The Democrat Party set up their own protest site at the Uruphong intersection, and in another priceless piece of unintended irony they named it “the stage of truth”. Once again, Yingluck invoked the Internal Security Act, and once again she was derided for doing do by Yellow newspapers and the Democrats. Meanwhile, Pefot circulated a letter to foreign embassies in Bangkok, which made various hysterical allegations, including wild statements that the Yingluck administration was “no different from the Nazi regime spearheaded by Hitler” and that “the Thaksin regime has destroyed the Thai monarchy”. It added:
We cannot accept … fake democracy, and corrupt and inefficient government.
It was a remarkable statement, given that this was exactly what the establishment had been responsible for during the previous three decades, particularly during the eight-year premiership of their mentor and patron, Prem Tinsulanonda. (The full letter can be viewed below. Click on the thumbnails to see a larger version. I apologize for the poor quality of the images.)
The coordinated ultra-royalist protests on August 7 were another embarrassing failure, as had been predicted by Chulalongkorn University’s Thitinan Pongsudhirak, one of the very best analysts of contemporary Thai politics, when he was interviewed by The Guardian newspaper a few days before:
The protest really is designed to unseat the government. But the anti-Thaksin coalition is not united, there is unlikely to be any intervention by the military or the judiciary, and there is not enough traction, not enough numbers, for them to really succeed.
Only a few thousand people turned up at the Pefot camp in Lumphini Park and the Democrat Party rallying point at Uruphong. Once again, disciplined ranks of riot police prevented protesters getting anywhere near parliament, despite a few desultory attempts by hardcore Pefot protesters to provoke violence. Abhisit and Suthep marched towards parliament from the Uruphong intersection accompanied by around 2,000 supporters. When they reached the police barricades at Rajavithi Road and were told only Abhisit and Suthep would be allowed to pass, since they were members of parliament, the two men quickly agreed and proceeded alone, abandoning their stunned followers who milled around for a while in confusion and then went home. Once he made his way to the parliament chamber, Abhisit led the Democrats in various time-wasting tactics, and he then tried to get deliberations on the reconciliation bill delayed, claiming that because the proposals had budgetary implications, they needed to be discussed by the chairmen of 35 parliamentary committees. Legislators shot down his proposed postponement by a majority of 301 to 160.
The following weeks and months followed the same pattern as the debacle of August 7. Pheu Thai pressed ahead with the reconciliation bill. The Democrats attempted one cynical delaying tactic after another to try to block it. Besides their procedural obstructionism — which included an ugly incident on August 21 when 57 members of the party stood up to heckle the parliamentary speaker, and one of them grabbed a policeman by the throat as he tried to restore order — the Democrats also incited violent anti-government protests in their strongholds in southern Thailand. The protesters claimed to be ordinary rubber farmers angry about the government’s failure to support the price at which they could sell the commodity, but actually most of them were paid thugs.
In a further depressing demonstration of the intellectual bankruptcy of the royalist establishment, the National Human Rights Commission issued an execrable report on the violence of April and May 2010. The NHRC was a partisan body packed with poo yai harbouring explicit royalist sympathies chaired by a highly unimpressive academic, Amara Pongsapich. The report was a clumsy attempt to exonerate Abhisit and the establishment of responsibility for human rights violations in 2010, instead putting most of the blame on the Red Shirts. It was not just biased, but also totally incompetent. The report was brilliantly eviscerated by a young Thai journalist, Prach Panchakunathorn, in articles clearly and damningly itemizing its biggest flaws. This kind of behaviour infuriated the elite, of course: in Thailand, young people are not supposed to question their elders. Amara declared that the NHRC “do not want to be bothered any more” by criticism of the report.
In early September, Shane Thaugsuban, a Democrat MP and brother of corrupt southern godfather Suthep, staged a furious one-man protest in parliament, flinging chairs around when his demands for discussion of the fake rubber crisis were rebuffed. A few days later, Abhisit Vejjajiva managed to find a way to lower the tone of Thai politics even further, joining in the misogynist royalist barracking of Yingluck with a speech in which he called her a “dumb bitch“. As Bangkok Pundit, one of the most well-informed and sensible foreign bloggers writing about Thailand, observed:
It has been clear for a few months that Abhisit has given up any hope on becoming PM again. The speeches he has been making on the Stage of Truth campaign led by the Democrats (semi-regular events held by the Democrats throughout the country) are a complete turn-around for the refined Eton and Oxford graduate image when he was Prime Minister. With each speech he pushes the boundaries more. No longer do we have surrogates making insults, it is Abhisit himself.
Kaewmala, another astute and essential online voice, aptly described Abhisit’s antics as symptomatic of “Thailand’s stupidity politics“.
In Bangkok, from time to time, the Pefot protesters in Lumphini Park tried to march on Government House and cause disruption. Each time, they were foiled by effective policing and the fecklessness of their leaders. Sometimes they used Nazi symbolism, which did not do anything to improve their image.
A group of protesters also set up camp around the Democrat Party stage at the Uruphong intersection. They claimed to be ordinary students enraged by Yingluck’s tyranny but, inevitably, it was just another lie. Their leader, Uthai Yodmanee, was a Democrat Party activist who had also been involved in the violent protests by fake rubber farmers in southern Thailand. As Khao Sod reported, one banner at the protest camp bore the slogan: “Underground al Qaeda is here.”
In the Pefot camp at Lumphini, protesters were preparing for the International Court of Justice ruling on Thailand’s border dispute with Cambodia over Preah Vihear temple, due on November 11. As the Thai establishment knows, it is inconceivable that the ICJ will rule in favour of Thailand. Preah Vihear belongs to Cambodia. As they have been doing since 2008, the ultra-royalists intend to exploit the issue to accuse Thaksin and his allies of betraying the country and giving away Thai territory for personal financial gain, in the hope of stirring up nationalist opposition to the government. The accusations are complete fiction, but all that matters to the royalist establishment is whether they can use anger over the ICJ ruling to undermine the Yingluck administration. Banners and T-shirts denouncing the ICJ have already been printed, and can be seen all around the camp in Lumphini Park.
According to a Pefot supporter interviewed in the camp by British journalist Mark Fenn, the protesters who can sometimes be seen in blackface in Lumphini are southerners who dress that way to represent the characters in a 19th century story written by Thailand’s King Chulalongkorn about a love triangle involving members of the Ngaw Pah tribe. The intended implication appears to be that this tribe, not the Khmer, are the true indigenous inhabitants of Cambodia.
On October 18, Thaksin’s plans for the Worachai Hema reconciliation bill became clear. A parliamentary vetting committee dominated by Pheu Thai MPs voted to voted to amend the bill in order to extend it to cover people accused of wrongdoing by any official body set up since the 2006 coup. The most prominent beneficiary of this change would of course be Thaksin himself, whose legal problems stem from the investigations of the Assets Examination Committee set up by the coup government to probe corruption allegations against him and his allies. But the bill would also give a blanket amnesty to all officials and military officers responsible for the crackdown in April and May 2010. The Red Shirts would be denied the justice they had been demanding.
Meanwhile, DSI boss Tharit Pengdit announced that instead of combining all the murder charges against Abhisit and Suthep over the 2010 crackdown into one case, they would face separate trials over each of the alleged incidents in which people were killed or wounded. There is no conceivable benefit for the victims’ families from this approach, but it would mire Abhisit and Suthep in an interminable Kafkaesque legal process that could last many years. It was another cynical attempt to force the Democrat Party to accept the revised reconciliation bill and allow Thaksin to come home a free man.
There was widespread dismay in the Red Shirt movement over the blatant betrayal. Instead of respecting the sacrifices the Red Shirts had made and seeking full accountability for April and May 2010, Thaksin intended to exploit the issue to serve his own narrow self-interest. The UDD said it opposed the changes to the bill, and Sombat Boonngam-anong’s Red Sunday movement returned to Ratchaprasong to protest. But the Pheu Thai administration urgently pushed ahead with the legislative process.
As events moved towards another showdown, Thais were reminded yet again of the centrality of the succession to the political crisis. In response to the death of the aged supreme patriarch, Vajiralongkorn’s four banished sons e-mailed a statement to media organisations including Thai E-News:
The most striking thing about the message was that the four brothers used their royal honourific titles, Mom Chao, and instead of the surname Vivacharawongse which they had been ordered to adopt, they used the Mahidol family name. It was a highly significant — and provocative — gesture. The brothers were staking their claim to be legitimate heirs to the Chakri throne. They had become part of the establishment’s plan to prevent Vajiralongkorn ever ruling as king.
As 2013 draws to a close, Thailand remains locked in a destabilizing conflict that is doing immense damage to the country and to the welfare of its people. The dark age, or กลียุค, which many Thais had feared would accompany the end of King Bhumibol’s reign is already upon us. Two implacable and unprincipled elite factions fixated on their own narrow self-interest are waging a fight to the death, trampling the aspirations of ordinary Thais underfoot. Both sides have sought to provoke killings and chaos as part of their strategy. Both sides have systematically undermined the rule of law and sought to co-opt institutions of state that should be impartial. Neither side appears to care how much collateral damage they cause. Watching from afar, it breaks my heart.
Thaksin and his allies have failed to understand that his opponents will do whatever it takes to try to block his return. This has nothing to do with principle, despite the posturing of the Democrat Party. It has always been standard practice for Thailand’s most powerful people to be forgiven for the crimes they have committed. The palace supported and enabled Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn’s return to Thailand in 1976 just three years after his army massacred students and civilians on the streets of Bangkok. Manoonkrit Roopkachorn was given a royal pardon while in exile just three years after launching the abortive April Fool’s Coup of 1985 during which he had openly defied the palace. The claims by the Thai establishment that they are unwaveringly committed to upholding the rule of law are hollow and dishonest.
The reason the traditional elite and the Democrat Party are so determined to keep Thaksin out of Thailand is that they believe his return would make a dark era of political domination by the former prime minister in alliance with the crown prince inevitable. The dread they feel about this outcome may be well-founded, but the disastrous tactics they have adopted to try to prevent it happening have caused a full-blown legitimacy crisis for Thailand’s monarchy and deep state. Ordinary people in Thailand are no longer prepared to accept being treated as the dust under the dust under King Bhumibol’s feet. They are disgusted and angry about the establishment’s repeated efforts to deny them their basic democratic rights. They will not stand for it any longer.
Yet another terribly damaging crisis is looming. The Yellow bloc will do its best to once again incite mayhem in Bangkok in coming days and weeks. The Democrat Party has totally abdicated its duty to be a responsible parliamentary opposition that holds the government to account via constitutional methods. Instead, they intend to continue to sabotage parliament’s ability to function, and then claim democracy in Thailand is no longer working. Four deputy Democrat leaders including Korn Chatikavanij resigned from their positions on October 30 to enable them to join illegal attempts to bring down the government without (they hope) jeopardising the legal status of their party. The Yellow movement also intends to create another damaging confrontation with Cambodia over Preah Vihear, to add to the chaos and rally nationalist Thais to their cause. They will attempt to mount more mass rallies in Bangkok to paralyse the city. And when they have ramped up chaos and tension to fever pitch, they intend to remove the government via a judicial coup by partisan judges. They will then seek to freeze democracy for years and instal a government probably headed by Prawit Wongsuwan with no democratic mandate.
This plan is pure insanity. If it fails, as it most probably will, the Yellow establishment will try even more desperate measures. Wild talk of kidnap and assassination, including the murder of Thaksin or Vajiralongkorn or both, has become increasingly commonplace in the ultra-royalist camp. A few bullets, they believe, could fix the situation once and for all.
If the plan succeeds, as it may, Thailand will be plunged into vicious internecine conflict far bloodier even than the darkest days of 1976 and 2010. A mass popular uprising in Bangkok, Isaan and Lanna is inevitable. There are two ways it could end. Events could follow the same script as Egypt in 2011, with mass resistance to authoritarian rule forcing democratic elections. Or they could follow the script of Egypt in 2013, in which the deep state enforces order and unity through military dictatorship and savage massacres of those who dissent.
The chances are that Thaksin will win the struggle and Vajiralongkorn will become King Rama X. If this happens, their opponents will finally understand the suicidal stupidity of the strategy they have adopted since 2005. The appropriate way to prepare for the rule of a populist strongman like Thaksin and a monarch like Vajiralongkorn, as some members of the establishment appeared to grasp in the 1990s, was to strengthen Thai democracy and the state institutions that act as checks and balances to executive power, entrench the rule of law, and allow freedom of speech. Instead, they have done exactly the reverse. If Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn prove to be the kind of rulers the Yellows fear they will be, then the tables will suddenly turn on those who conspired to eviscerate Thai democracy, turn the judiciary and state institutions into partisan tools of the powerful, and use the lèse majesté law to silence dissent. The authoritarian twisted Thailand they have created will remain, but they will no longer be its masters.
It can sometimes seem as if Thailand is too polarized and broken to ever come back from the brink. But it can. The elite — Yellow and Red — have irretrievably lost their legitimacy, but the aspirations of ordinary Thais on opposing sides are remarkably congruent. They want a fair society. They want the rule of law to be respected. They want their political leaders to respond to their needs. They want peace and prosperity. They want their voices to he heard.
A positive and credible way forward has already been formulated. The fearless proposals of the Khana Nitirat, a group of seven Thammasat University law lecturers led by Worachet Pakeerat, provide a compelling blueprint for turning Thailand into a better place, as the People’s Party that ended the absolute monarchy in 1932 intended, before things went terribly astray. The core proposals include nullifying all that was accomplished by the 2006 coup, reforming the lèse majesté law and the judiciary, and drafting a new constitution that — unlike all the others since 1932 — is genuinely fair and built to last. These are proposals that the overwhelming majority of Thais can surely rally around.
The Nitirat proposals would enable Thaksin Shinawatra to return home a free man. But he — and all of the elite — would be subject to the rule of law, and accountable for crimes they have committed.
As implied by the central importance the Nitirat group places on reforming Article 112, Thailand’s elite also need to end their insane efforts to suppress truth and replace it with self-serving myths and fairy tales. Democracy and the rule of law can only flourish in a climate where freedom of speech is sacred and truth is able to trump lies. As David Streckfuss wrote in an article published in The Bangkok Post:
Thai society, like most, has seen plenty of violence gone unanswered. The culture of impunity has flourished in Thailand, emboldening military leaders to crack down on resisters and carry out coup after coup, giving themselves legal immunity by passing amnesties for their actions.
No military ofﬁcial was ever tried for successfully overthrowing a government. No Thai leader, military or otherwise, has ever gone before the court charged with killing protesters.
In 1973, the ruling junta was allowed to leave the country. In 1978, an amnesty was passed that absolved both leaders and protesters of any wrongdoing in the bloody massacre of 1976.
After the military crackdown on protesters in May 1992, a report on the incident issued years later was rendered useless on grounds of defamation and established nothing other than protesters had been killed. The record of these events was lost to time, all in the name of repairing a divided society. As it turned out, it did seem that Thai society was willing to forgive and forget.
Forgetting, though, exacts its own price. When the truth of events is obscured time and again, the very value of truth itself is degraded. People tell themselves they got by once again without dealing with the truth. They are lulled into a false sense of conﬁdence that they don’t need the truth to get by…
The blanket amnesty threatens once again to banish truth from Thailand. The obligations of history are lost to the present and future.
Thai society has a chance to make such reckoning with history. It should not miss it.
This article is part of my modest contribution to try to achieve some understanding of what really happened during Thailand’s past dark decade. But my work is only of any value because Thais far wiser and more knowledgeable than me remain muzzled and unable to speak freely. One day, I hope, they will be able to tell the full history of Thailand’s กลียุค, and by doing so, enable the country to transcend it and thrive.