When it finally came, King Bhumibol’s tragic fall from grace was swift and savage.
Thailand celebrated Rama IX’s Diamond Jubilee in June 2006. It was 60 years since the 18-year old Bhumibol had accidentally killed his brother and become king of Siam. Now the elderly monarch was revered by most Thais and admired around the world as a visionary leader who had fused ancient tradition and modern statecraft to forge a stable democratic nation. Five days of royal pageantry marked the occasion, amid an outpouring of adoration from Thailand’s people and an impressive show of respect from the shrinking ranks of royal families around the world. Thirteen reigning monarchs attended the celebrations in person, and 12 others sent royal representatives; only two monarchies were missing. All over the country, Thais dressed in yellow to honour Bhumibol, and wore orange wristbands with the slogan “Long Live the King.”
On Friday June 9, a million people crowded into Bangkok’s Royal Plaza to see Bhumibol give a public address — only his third in six decades — from a palace balcony. Millions more watched intently on television. The 78-year-old monarch looked alert, robust and sprightly. Later that day, at the auspicious time of 19:19, hundreds of thousands of Thais who had gathered around the brightly illuminated buildings of the Grand Palace lit candles in his honour. On Monday June 12, the assembled monarchs were treated to the unforgettable sight of a royal barge procession: 2,082 liveried oarsman rowed 52 sleek vessels up the Chao Phraya river to Wat Arun, the temple of the dawn. Bhumibol sat aboard his personal swan-headed vessel Suphannahongse, representing the mythical bird ridden by the Hindu god Brahma. In a confidential cable, U.S. ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce described the 60th anniversary celebrations:
The multi-day gala offered dramatic and often times moving evidence of the nation’s respect and adoration for its monarch…
Twenty-five representatives of royal families from around the world joined with a who’s who of Thai politics and high society in commemorating the occasion in a series of Buddhist ceremonies, a public address by the King, fireworks, a royal barge procession on the river, and finally, a gala dinner at the palace.
While the Thai people’s respect and reverence for the 78 year old monarch is often cited, the weekend’s celebration was a rare occasion to see — and feel — the depths of this sentiment in person.
In his six decades on the throne, Bhumibol had weathered many storms, always emerging with his reputation and prestige enhanced. Nobody else in Thai history had ever been so widely beloved and overwhelmingly popular as King Rama IX at the start of the 21st century. It seemed inconceivable that anything could go wrong now.
But over the four years that followed, the reckless behaviour of Thailand’s royalist elite brought the palace, and the country, to the brink of catastrophe.
The enormity of the tectonic shifts that were transforming Thailand became stunningly clear one Sunday afternoon, on September 19, 2010. More than ten thousand Thais had massed at the Ratchaprasong intersection, the symbolic centre of modern Bangkok. They were dressed in red, and they were full of anger and grief. It was four years to the day since royalist generals had seized power in a coup that snuffed out the precious embers of political progress so many Thais had risked their lives for in the Black May battles of 1992, and four months to the day since the military had crushed another mass pro-democracy rally in downtown Bangkok, storming the fortified encampment occupied by thousands of Red Shirt protesters who had blockaded the Ratchaprasong intersection for weeks to demand new elections. At least 91 people had been killed in the violence of April and May. Now the Red Shirts had returned to Ratchaprasong, to mourn their fallen comrades and protest against a government they regarded as illegitimate and murderous. Many of those in the crowd that thronged Ratchaprasong that day were quite clear who they blamed for the killings, and for the systematic injustice and repeated abrogation of democracy in Thailand. They blamed Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Towards the end of the rally, shortly before dusk, as the organizers tried to convince the angry protesters to disperse, a new chant rose up from the crowd. It began among those Thais right at the heart of the protest, in the centre of the intersection beneath the Skytrain tracks, and spread through the crowd until hundreds, perhaps thousands, 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.
It was an extraordinary moment, utterly unthinkable until it suddenly happened. In the most public of places, right in the centre of the capital, hundreds of Thais were openly calling their king a murderous bastard.
Further evidence that everything had changed for the Chakri dynasty was the unprecedented anti-monarchist graffiti graffiti scrawled by protesters that day on the makeshift metal enclosure around the gutted shell of the Zen department store, part of the Central World megaplex that had been set ablaze during a wave of arson attacks after the crushing of the Red Shirt protest on May 19. The authorities had been trying to erase memories of the bloodshed and pretend everything was back to normal. The ruins of the Zen store were hidden behind corrugated metal walls emblazoned with slogans that were supposed to be reassuring. One repeated, over and over, a single phrase:
EVERYTHING WILL BE OK. EVERYTHING WILL BE OK. EVERYTHING WILL BE OK.
Another giant bannerproclaimed:
REBUILDING ZEN, LOVING THAILAND May this Rebuilding bring Peace and Prosperity to Thailand. We must Reconcile as we are One Country, One Family and One People.
On September 19, the protesters wrote their own slogans on the wall: crude, angry denunciations of Bhumibol and Sirikit and what they had done to Thailand. Within a day, the authorities had painted over the graffiti, removing any trace of the heresies that had been written there. But they could not paper over the widening cracks appearing in Thailand’s official royalist ideology that threatened to bring the whole edifice crashing down. The fairytale world of the monarchists had suffered a seismic shock.
Bhumibol was four miles away when it happened, marking his own unhappy anniversary. Exactly one year before he had been admitted to Siriraj Hospital during a health scare and he had remained resident there ever since, unable or unwilling to leave. The glorious Diamond Jubilee celebrations just a few years before seemed like ancient history, a bygone era that was lost forever. It was a savage reversal of fortune for Bhumibol: his reputation and popularity had seemed utterly invincible, but now everything was in doubt. Increasingly decrepit, possibly paralyzed by depression, isolated in hospital, Bhumibol seemed to have no understanding of what was happening in his kingdom, and no idea what to do about the crisis facing the monarchy. He had nothing to offer besides silence.
How had everything gone so wrong so quickly? Bhumibol’s life’s work was supposed to be complete: the “People’s Constitution” of 1997 had been widely lauded as the crowning glory of his reign, laying the foundations for good governance in Thailand without the need for the king to keep intervening. King Rama IX was supposed to be enjoying semi-retirement by the seaside. Instead, Thailand was in crisis and the monarchy was at the centre of a political conflict that had rent the country asunder.
Every good fairy tale has to have a villain. And Thailand’s royalists have always needed a nemesis, so that Bhumibol’s profound goodness can be contrasted with the baleful forces of darkness that the palace is supposedly keeping at bay. They have no doubt who to blame for the unprecedented crisis facing the monarchy. He is a 62-year-old ethnic Chinese tycoon who made billions of dollars in the 1990s from lucrative telecommunications deals and went on to become the most successful elected Thai politician in history. His name is Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin stormed to power with a thumping victory in the polls in January 2001, the first parliamentary elections held under the new constitution. His core message to Thailand was compellingly simple and brilliantly effective. He had become dazzlingly, dizzyingly rich over the previous couple of decades. And he promised to use his expertise to make Thailand successful and prosperous too.
Thaksin told the Thai people a gripping rags-to-riches tale of his life: he said he was a “simple peasant” who had built a business empire, launched satellites into the sky and earned an immense fortune through brains, guts and hard work. He portrayed himself as a dreamer who rose from humble origins thanks to his business savvy, an image encapsulated in the title he chose for his autobiography, Eyes on the Stars, Feet on the Ground. He often described how his early education was at a small temple school beside the market in the rural northern Thai town of Sankamphaeng. Classes were in a wooden sala in the temple grounds, and the teacher was the man who washed the monks’ alms bowls. In a speech in Manila in 2003 he declared:
Through my modest family background… I learned the hardship of poverty in the rural areas. I learned the importance of earning rewards by working hard.
In discussions in his villa in Dubai in 2010 with U.S. journalist Tom Plate for the book Conversations with Thaksin, he described his origins as “lower middle” class and claimed that his formative years growing up in the country gave him a crucial understanding of the lives, problems and aspirations of the poor.
Because I grew up in the rural countryside, I know. I used to talk to them when I was a young boy. My father hired the garden workers, and they came, they worked, they dug the soil, and then at lunch time they cooked their own meal, and then they did the work. I watched the way they ate. They didn’t go to market — they would catch the frog in the fields and cook it. They didn’t have anything; they just had rice. How can they live?
I understand. I saw this.
Thaksin’s immense wealth seemed to speak for itself: he seemed to have discovered the key to getting very rich very quickly. His speeches were full of business buzzwords and grand plans. And unlike most wealthy elite Thais, who treated the poor with barely disguised contempt, Thaksin reached out to ordinary people and promised to help them. As he told Plate:
I am a self-made billionaire but I grew up in a rural area where I was fully experienced in the reality of poor lives. Since then many decades have passed and yet they still live the same. I want to help them.
Thaksin also made the apparently reasonable argument that he was already so rich he had no reason to use political power corruptly to get even richer. He had all the money anyone could ever need. He often insisted he was making a huge sacrifice by agreeing to be prime minister. It distracted him from focusing on his business empire and multiplying his billions. It opened him up to public criticism and attack. It caused him all kinds of problems and inconveniences. But, for the good of the country, he had resolved to put the interests of Thailand ahead of the interests of himself and his family. He would help his people, selflessly and tirelessly.
Thaksin’s self-proclaimed entrepreneurial genius was another myth. During his years in the police he devoted the majority of his time and energy to launching business ventures on the side. Most of them, however, were total failures. As Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker recount in their biography Thaksin:
He and Pojaman opened a silk shop at the Trocadero Hotel. But sales were abysmal and they had to close the shop within a month, Next he drew on his experience helping his father’s cinemas. He bought the rights for distributing some Thai films in the provinces. After an initial success (with the hit film Ban sai thong), this business also languished. In 1979 he bought up an old cinema house in central Bangkok. When this failed, he tore down the cinema and converted it into apartments. This also failed. Pursued by angry clients and creditors, he had to downsize the project and then sell it off at a loss. By this time he was 200 million baht in debt.
Struggling, Thaksin decided to get into the computer business, and in 1981 he started a business leasing IBMs to government offices. His first major breakthrough came in 1986 when he won a hefty contract to supply IBM equipment to the police. Perhaps not coincidentally, he was also the police officer responsible for assessing what computer equipment the police required. He was on both sides of the deal: he drew up the plan detailing what the police needed, and then he won the contract to supply it to them.
In 1987, Thaksin left the police to concentrate full-time on business. He was approaching 40. His achievements had been far from stellar. He was still mired in debt. As he says in his autobiography, he was looking for “something big to clean up all the old mess”. It was the desperate dream of a failing gambler, praying for a miracle on the roulette wheel to put everything right. Most gamblers just keep on losing, their lives tumbling deeper into trouble. But a very few get the stunning stroke of luck they yearn for, hitting the jackpot and becoming suddenly richer than they could ever have imagined. Thaksin Shinawatra was one of them.
It was a time when vast fortunes could be made in Thailand. A remarkable boom in growth and investment took off in the late 1980s. Over the ten years from 1985/6, the economy more than doubled in size, and the urban middle class more than tripled. Industrialization and urbanization were transforming the country at breakneck speed, and there was an urgent need for new and better infrastructure, in transport and telecommunications in particular. Thailand’s road network remained rudimentary, Bangkok traffic was a mess, and the phone system was primitive. In 1992, Thailand country had only three telephones per hundred people, compared with 10 in Malaysia and 63 in Japan. The state was ready to invest billions of dollars to upgrade national telecommunications.
The problem for aspiring businessmen like Thaksin was that the Thai state already had lucrative symbiotic relationships with an elite group of established tycoons. This was the norm in southeast Asia, where there had long been a pattern of political leaders handing out monopoly contracts to selected businessmen, almost invariably ethnic Chinese. During much of the 19th century, as Siam’s absolutist Chakri rulers cemented and extended their control, many ethnic Chinese became rich through “tax farming”, an arrangement in which they bid for the right to collect some taxes — such as on opium, alcohol, gambling and lotteries — in an area of the country for an agreed fee. Everything they collected above the fee was their profit. This was how the Shinawatra clan had initially earned its riches: Thaksin’s great-grandfather Seng Sae Khu, a Hakka Chinese probably from Guangdong, became a successful tax farmer after migrating to Thailand in the 1860s. A century later, the Thai state still did business much the same way: lucrative projects and monopoly concessions were awarded via longstanding networks of tycoons, top generals, high-level bureaucrats, and shady provincial godfathers. Those who secured contracts were, of course, expected to reward their benefactors handsomely.
For an upstart businessman like Thaksin, trying to make it big in Bangkok with the help of contacts from provincial politics and the lower officer ranks of the police, it was an uphill struggle. The plum deals all went to more powerful tycoons with established networks. But when Prem Tinsulanonda stepped down as prime minister in 1988, the game suddenly changed. A new cadre of elected politicians had control of awarding contracts worth billions of dollars to Thai businessmen for the construction of the infrastructure needed to sustain the country’s dramatic economic boom and rapid urbanization. The government signed dozens of massive new concessions, maximizing the opportunities for rent-seeking by dividing projects among an ill-defined tangle of competing agencies and regulatory bodies. Thailand had — and continues to have — an exceptionally inefficient governance structure, allowing those running the country to maximize the amount of wealth they could extract for themselves at the expense of the broader population. During the administration of Chatichai Choonhavan, several mass transport projects for Bangkok were launched with no attempt at coordination or drawing up the most cursory master plan. The legacy of this approach is the continued gridlock that afflicts the capital, and the hundreds of decaying concrete pillars of the abandoned Hopewell project that scar the skyline of northern Bangkok. The situation was similar in telecoms, with military bureaucrats in the National Security Council seeing the sector as their turf, and two state agencies, the Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT) and the Telephone Organization of Thailand (TOT), competing with each other to earn the most for their officials through handing out monopoly deals, with consumers picking up the cost. Their rivalry and overlapping, unclear mandates retarded technological progress in Thailand, even well into the 21st century: the country was among the last in the region to introduce 3G technology.
For Thaksin, it was the chance of a lifetime, and he grabbed it. The old patronage networks that he had been finding it so difficult to break into were suddenly being redrawn, and new relationships were being formed. Everything was in flux. As businessmen scrambled to forge links with the new decision makers, Thaksin proved among the most adept at identifying and schmoozing the right people. He won seven of 22 telecoms and cable concessions awarded by the Chatichai government between 1988 and 1991, by far the biggest share, despite the fact that he was a relatively unknown and not particularly successful businessman while many of his rivals were established conglomerates with a long track record in the business. His concessions were in oligopolistic markets and many came with guaranteed competitive advantages over several years. In the space of only a three years, Thaksin’s fortunes had improved beyond his wildest dreams. As Pasuk and Baker point out:
Between 1988 and 1991, Thaksin had been transformed from owner of a struggling computer leasing business into a major entrepreneur in government concessions, with a special relationship with TOT and the new politicians.
The concessions were just the first stage of the moneymaking bonanza. From the late 1980s, Thailand’s shallow, narrow and illiquid stock market suddenly started to take off, thanks to a massive influx of speculative capital from foreign and domestic investors keen to grab a piece of Thailand’s “economic miracle” of double-digit GDP growth. The benchmark index was at 613 points at the end of 1990; just three years later it had leapt to 1,683. After securing his telecoms deals, Thaksin listed various subsidiaries of Shinawatra Group on the stock market. For investors looking for a way to surf the Thai economic boom, buying shares in telecoms firms holding monopoly multi-year concessions was a no-brainer. They piled in, share prices of telecoms companies went stratospheric, and Thaksin multiplied his wealth many times over.
He was well on his way to becoming a billionaire when potential disaster struck: the military coup that deposed Chatichai in 1991 upended the patronage networks in the telecoms industry all over again. The military quickly started looking for ways to squeeze money out of the concessions, and Thaksin had to lobby mightily to hold onto his contracts. He managed to get the support of some key generals: in December 1993, when his first satellite was finally launched, Thaksin proclaimed “I could not have this day without Big Jod”, meaning Supreme Commander General Sunthorn Kongsompong, front man of the junta. In 1999, two years after Sunthorn’s death, a longstanding feud between his wife and his main mistress flared up again in a legal battle over his estate. Thais were stunned when court documents revealed Sunthorn had left assets valued at up to six billion baht. The late general’s friends insisted his alleged wealth must be exaggerated: “He didn’t eat shark’s fin or abalone. And he only drank cheap whisky,” claimed Suchinda. A more likely explanation was that the general had been richly rewarded for helping Thaksin to hold on to his state concessions.
During the 1990s, Thailand had a succession of weak and short-lived civilian administrations. Each time a new coalition was briefly in the ascendancy, the holders of telecoms and transport concessions faced another shakedown as politicians tried to extract more cash from the deals to enrich themselves. As Ukrist Pathmanand wrote in The Thaksinization of Thailand, a book he co-authored with Duncan McCargo:
Even after having been granted their concessions, telecommunications companies continued to negotiate with politicians… This ongoing re-negotiation of details posed a constant threat to the interests of rival telecom groups. The instability of Thai politics from 1988 to 1997 caused a number of problems in the telecommunications business: not only did the government change eight times within nine years, but each of these coalition governments comprised numerous parties…
These changes illustrated the bargaining relationships between telecom groups and individual ministers, bargaining that undermined the integrity of the original decisions on the allocation of concessions. Changes of minister led to both costs and opportunities for telecom companies seeking to protect and expand their concessions…
When the government changed hands, each group also had to change its alliances. Apart from politicians and parties, these telecommunications companies also had to seek connections with military leaders, who continued to play very significant roles due to the lack of political stability, as well as sustaining good relationships with senior executives of those government enterprises in charge of the communications sector.
The major telecoms groups sought to buy the loyalty of politicians and officials, and aligned themselves with political parties they trusted to promote their interests. Thaksin decided to go further and enter politics himself. He joined the Palang Dharma, or “moral force”, party founded by Chamlong Srimuang. In 1994 Thaksin served briefly as foreign minister, and in 1995 Chamlong handed him the leadership of Palang Dharma. The party was supposed to stand for honest governance but after winning 23 seats in general elections in July 1995, Thaksin helped broker a seven-party coalition deal and joined the administration of the notoriously corrupt Banharn Silpa-archa as a deputy prime minister. He promised to solve Bangkok’s perennial traffic problems within six months, but never came close to doing so. He was more successful in another area: he managed to get his mobile phone concession extended to 25 years from 20.
Thaksin also hit the headlines when he gave a Daimler as a gift to one of his fellow deputy prime ministers, Air Chief Marshal Somboon Rahong of the Chart Thai party. Instead of keeping quiet about it, Somboon proudly drove the Daimler to parliament and told reporters who had given it to him. It was hardly the kind of behaviour voters wanted to see from the moral force party. Palang Dharma was propping up a corrupt and inept administration, and Thaksin was handing out luxury cars to his cronies. Thaksin and Palang Dharma were punished mercilessly at the polls in November 1996. Realizing that his position was bleak, Thaksin didn’t even bother to stand for election. Palang Dharma won only a single seat. The party had been destroyed, and it was largely Thaksin’s fault. As McCargo & Ukrist wrote in The Thaksinization of Thailand:
Thaksin left the scene, apparently unfazed at having personally wrecked a medium-sized political party in just over a year.
But while his first foray into politics was a disaster, Thaksin’s Shin Group business empire was going from strength to strength. When Thailand was ravaged by the 1997 economic crisis, Thaksin was one of the few tycoons to emerge even stronger. Rival telecoms conglomerates were heavily leveraged and had to resort to fire sales of assets to stay afloat, but Shin Group had hedged most of its foreign currency exposure and picked up market share from its struggling competitors. There were persistent rumours that Thaksin had been tipped off in advance about the devaluation of the baht. As Tom Wingfield says in Democratization and economic crisis in Thailand:
Thaksin was one of the few entrepreneurs to benefit from the flotation of the baht in July 1997. He had hedged nearly 70 percent of his group’s foreign currency exposure prior to the baht devaluation, leading the Democrat Party to suggest that he may have been tipped off by the then Finance Minister, Thanong Bidaya, who he is known to have had a close relationship with. After leaving the government, Thanong was appointed to Shin Corp’s internal audit committee, further fueling speculation about collusion. The price of Shinawatra’s telecom shares also rose dramatically just prior to the baht flotation.
In August 1997, Thaksin had a third brief spell in government: he was made a deputy prime minister by the floundering coalition led by Chavalit Yongchaiyudh as it struggled to cope with the financial meltdown. By November, the government had collapsed.
Thaksin had failed to make much impact on politics. It was time for a change of strategy. He didn’t want a minor role in governments dominated by more established politicians, and he didn’t want to take orders from others. He wanted to be the boss. In July 1998, Thaksin launched his own political vehicle: the Thai Rak Thai party. The name was an explicit appeal to Thai nationalism: it means “Thais love Thais”. From the start, Thaksin promoted the party by contrasting his modern and dynamic management skills with the sclerotic style of rival politicians. McCargo and Ukrist describe how central his business success was to his rhetoric:
He pledged to run Thailand according to business principles, thinking and acting in a new way that was quick, decisive and effective. In other words, he would function as Thailand’s Chief Executive Officer, or CEO. This rhetoric was highly attractive to many who were dissatisfied with the country’s bureaucratic political and administrative culture…
But Thaksin’s self-proclaimed business wizardry was a myth: the billions he had earned had nothing to do with entrepreneurial genius or brilliant management. He made his fortune from massive concessions awarded by the state with inbuilt competitive advantages in fast-growing oligopolistic industries: they assured him a colossal income for years or even decades to come as long as he could hold onto them. They were effectively a license to print money, with limited risk. Anybody with enough management ability to manage a roadside food stall or a beauty salon could have become a billionaire if they had been given these concessions.
This does not mean it was easy for Thaksin to strike it rich: competition was ferocious to obtain the concession deals and then hang on to them, fending off politicians and bureaucrats trying to make the terms less favourable and rival firms attempting to get a piece of the action. But it was not economic competition, where the most efficient and innovative business managers tend to triumph. It was competition in the political sphere. Thaksin had to persuade politicians and bureaucrats to award the concessions to him rather than the other tycoons clamouring to get them, and every time the government changed he had to convince the new officials in charge to let him keep his sweetheart deals. He had to be continually cosseting, cajoling, flattering, bribing and bartering. He also needed a lot of luck: much depended on being in the right place at the right time, on chance political developments happening to favour him rather than rivals. As Pasuk and Baker observe in Thaksin:
Concessions are not simple one-time grants. The overall telecoms industry is not governed by any set of regulations or real master plan. Rather, the industry is based on a series of deals hatched between a handful of state agencies looking for new revenue opportunities on the one side, and a handful of businessmen looking for profits on the other. As one TOT executive said about the era when the concessions were created: “All we were thinking about at that time was how to sidestep the law.” Deals can always be adjusted, extended, or reinterpreted. Any change or any new deal may affect the profit-making opportunities of other deals. Management of a telecom business means continual management of the political context.
Earning billions of dollars in the space of just a few years is a totally abnormal economic phenomenon. It does not indicate prodigious management acumen: it is a symptom of gross inefficiency in the system. The huge oligopoly profits that were channelled to Thaksin and the government cronies who helped him were effectively being looted from Thailand’s people. The uncompetitive industry structure and lack of a level playing field meant that consumers had to overpay for the services they used, and this cash was going to the tycoons who ran the top telecoms firms and to their friends in the cabinet and the bureaucracy. Because he played the system well and had some very lucky breaks at just the right moment, an unremarkable businessman with a string of failed ventures behind him was able to grow rich beyond his wildest dreams with breathtaking speed.
Thaksin’s insistence that he was so wealthy that he would have no need to enrich himself through corruption is equally bogus. He has repeatedly claimed that entering politics was a virtuous sacrifice, solemnly stating in Eyes on the Stars, Feet on the Ground that:
I believe politics is a huge burden. Every Thai should make the sacrifice to participate. And someone like me should make the biggest sacrifice to participate in politics since I have the knowledge, the economic standing, and the management experience.
But for tycoons like Thaksin with major government concessions, there is no dividing line between business and politics. To succeed in business he needed to influence politics, and the more political power he achieved, the more he could use it to benefit his business empire. When it came to petty corruption, of course, Thaksin had no need to angle for bribes. He was a billionaire: he was somebody who bribed others. Thaksin hoped to profit on a much more spectacular scale. He would exploit his political clout to safeguard his concessions, channel new business to his conglomerate, and push to open lucrative new markets abroad. As Duncan McCargo argues in his paper Toxic Thaksin? in the journal Representation in September 2011:
Thaksin’s … immense wealth was based on inside connections — key to securing lucrative state concessions and licences — and access to information.
Entering politics gave Thaksin more connections and information to boost his business empire. His posturing about selfless sacrifice was transparently fake.
But whatever his faults, Thaksin brought long overdue political change to Thailand. His main motivation may have been personal power and enrichment, but he recognized that to gain the glory he desired for himself he needed to win the support and respect of his people. He did something revolutionary for Thailand: he took voters seriously.
The Thai Rak Thai party was an intriguing mashup of influences, ideas and core personnel from across the political spectrum. Socially conservative former Palang Dharma disciples rubbed shoulders with wealthy Bangkok business magnates and former student radicals who had fled into the jungle in the 1970s to join the communist insurgents. Thaksin had significant backing from leading business conglomerates, and won widespread support from small business owners and employees thanks to his promises to stand up to the IMF and put Thai companies first. Crucially, Thai Rak Thai also went to the trouble of formulating policies that would appeal to another crucial voting bloc — Thailand’s millions of rural poor. Nobody had ever bothered to do this before: the conventional wisdom among Bangkok’s establishment was that rural voters were uneducated and unsophisticated and the way to win their votes was through local personality politics and bribery. It never occurred to them to draw up a set of coherent policies that might actually benefit the 51 percent of the population employed in agriculture. Pasuk and Baker note how unprecedented this approach was:
In his electoral campaign, Thaksin made a direct appeal to the rural voter with a policy platform. No previous political leader had done anything similar.
Thaksin made genuine attempts to build a mass infrastructure for Thai Rak Thai and to attract support using methods that were innovative, at least in Thailand. It built an extremely strong local network, with an incredible eight million members signed up by the time of 2001 general election. It used modern marketing methods supported by a hefty advertising budget to establish awareness of the TRT brand, message and policy platform. Most other parties didn’t even have a brand, message or policy platform. Thaksin was, without doubt, bringing long overdue political change to Thailand. And the Thai Rak Thai slogan reflected that: “Think new, act new, for every Thai.”
But Thaksin made ample use of old-style Thai politicking techniques too, in particular the practice of bribing floating factions of MPs to join his camp. Thaksin brought one of the most successful political godfathers of the previous decade, Snoh Thienthong, into Thai Rak Thai. Snoh was a trucking tycoon from eastern Thailand who became the lynchpin of a large faction of MPs-for-hire and hawked them from party to party during the 1990s. A 2005 U.S. embassy cable describes him, with impressive understatement, as “a veteran politician and financier, who earned an unsavory reputation”. Around the same time as he brought his faction into TRT, Snoh also did a business deal with Thaksin, selling him the Alpine golf course and luxury housing estate in Pathum Thani. It was built on land that had been bequeathed to a temple in the will of an elderly woman; while Snoh was deputy interior minister the ministry disallowed the transfer, saying the temple could not pay the necessary fee, allowing Snoh to buy the land at a knock-down price. He built a golf course and luxury villas on it and then sold it to Thaksin. It was a particularly blatant and ugly case of theft by a powerful politician and the scandal hung over both of them for years.
The arrival of Snoh’s bloc of legislators into TRT set off a flood of other political defections: it was obvious to all ambitious politicians that Thaksin’s party was the place to be. Around 100 members of parliament from other parties jumped ship to join Thaksin as the polls approached. In the elections on January 6, 2001, Thai Rak Thai received more than 11.6 million votes, or 41 percent; the Democrats limped home a distant second with 7.6 million votes, 27 percent. It was the most sweeping victory by any party in Thai electoral history: Thai Rak Thai won 248 seats, just two short of an absolute majority.
It was a stunning result. And after taking office, Thaksin did something else unprecedented in Thai politics: he actually started to deliver what he had promised. His administration promptly and efficiently began implementing the policies that he had pledged in his election campaign. For Thai voters, weary of years of broken political promises, this was another welcome sign of change. Thaksin’s approval ratings soared even higher. Pasuk and Baker emphasize just how revolutionary Thaksin’s leadership was:
In February 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra, one of Thailand’s richest businessmen, became prime minister and appointed a Cabinet studded with other leading business figures. This was new. Although businessmen had dominated Thailand’s parliament as electoral politics developed over the previous two decades, big business figures had remained slightly aloof. Thaksin had won the election on a platform of measures appealing directly to the rural mass. This too was new. Previous elections had been won by local influence. Party platforms had not been taken seriously… Thaksin’s party had won just short of an absolute majority. In no previous election since 1979 had any party reached one third. Over the coming year, Thaksin implemented all the major elements of his electoral platform. This was very new indeed.
But despite his spectacular popularity and electoral success, Thaksin’s political future was in jeopardy. Before his election victory, the National Counter Corruption Commission had ruled that Thaksin had concealed some of his assets in declarations made in 1997 when he was a deputy prime minister. It was against the rules for ministers to own companies that had state concessions, and so Thaksin had transferred Shin Corp shares to household staff including his maid and his chauffeur. Under the new constitution, the penalty for asset concealment was a five-year ban from politics. A ruling by the Constitutional Court on whether to uphold the accusations was due in mid-2001.
This was a formidable test of Thai democracy and the 1997 constitution. Thaksin claimed that he had made an “honest mistake”, saying he was so rich that he had trouble keeping track of all his wealth. This argument was clearly inadequate: it did not explain why he had transferred vast blocs of shares to his household staff. There was no serious doubt that he was guilty of the charges. But he was already the most popular prime minister Thailand had ever had, and he had just won a resounding victory at the polls. Would the judges have the nerve to enforce the rules and ban him from politics?
In the end, the checks and balances put in place to make Thai politicians more honest and accountable failed at the first major hurdle they encountered. Just days before the verdict, a majority of the 15 judges on the panel were set to find Thaksin guilty. But last minute secret interventions by some of Thailand’s most powerful figures and key members of the network monarchy forced some judges to change their stance. In a confused and insupportable decision in early August, Thaksin was cleared by a knife-edge margin of eight to seven.
The Bangkok Post reported on August 4 that:
A court source said two judges in the majority had made a last-minute change at the request of a person who has considerable clout, just one day before the court cast its formal vote. ‘I was forced to swallow my blood while writing this,’ the source quoted one of the judges as saying.
But it was a small minority of Thais who had misgivings about what had happened. Most were relieved that Thaksin was still their prime minister. He was still widely regarded as the best hope for Thailand’s future.
One person who never shared in the adulation of Thaksin Shinawatra was King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The king had always felt an instinctive contempt towards civilian politicians. He regarded them as his inferiors, and believed they were totally greedy, arrogant, stupid and corrupt. And Thaksin seemed particularly dangerous, because unlike most politicians of the past, he was popular and respected among millions of Thais. People looked to Thaksin to save the country and improve their lives. That was supposed to be the king’s job.
Bhumibol made his views very clear in his December 2001 birthday speech. As the New York Times reported:
For a man who hates criticism, this was about as unpleasant as it gets. People at the scene said his face grew red as he sat at humble attention.
The man in the spotlight was Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a forceful leader who has spent considerable energy trying to silence criticism from politicians, academics and the news media.
The man who was making him squirm was no less than the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, 74, a figure who carries enormous moral weight in Thailand despite the constitutional limits on his political role.
The king was speaking last week to an audience of the nation’s most powerful people, gathered at his palace for his annual birthday address, and he was using words like arrogance, double standards and national catastrophe.
”I can see the prime minister has a grim look on his face,” he said at one point, drawing nervous laughter from his audience, magnificent in their white uniforms, medals and sashes.
”He might be upset because he has always said he was happy,” the king went on. ”Perhaps it is happiness on the outside but unhappiness within. He might have no idea what to do because there seems to be no progress with anything.”
He did not stop there. ”So many people have noticed that the country is in a state of disaster instead of prosperity,” he said. ”Everything is getting worse and worse.”
Early in 2002, another reason for Bhumibol’s displeasure emerged. The Far Eastern Economic Review included a short, gossipy item in its Intelligence column on January 10, 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 reacted with fury. The Far Eastern Economic Review‘s two foreign correspondents in Thailand, Rodney Tasker and Shawn Crispin, were accused of lèse majesté (but not charged) and threatened with expulsion. Thaksin had already shown himself to be highly intolerant of media criticism (in April 2001 he threatened in televised remarks to Thai journalists to come to the Reuters office and beat me up because of an article I had written) and as his premiership progressed he did his best to crush dissenting voices.
With increasing ruthlessness Thaksin continued a an assault on the checks and balances on executive power put in place by the 1997 constitution. In his view, he had the overwhelming support of the people, so why should unelected bureaucrats constrain him? One by one, the institutions designed to curb the power of the prime minister were compromised and rendered toothless. The Senate, Thailand’s upper house, was supposed to be an assembly of wise and experienced elders with party political affiliation. It played a key role in selecting the members of other institutions designed to keep elected politicians in check. But Thaksin soon had a large number of senators in his pocket, allowing him to steadily co-opt all the institutions that were supposed to keep him in check.
Thaksin was becoming an increasingly dominant figure. His opinion poll ratings were going from strength to strength. He spoke directly to Thailand’s people with a weekly radio broadcast, bypassing the media he regarded as mainly hostile. He intervened in areas that the military regarded as its territory. In 2003, he named his cousin Chaisit as army chief, the most powerful military position in Thailand, infuriating other top generals and Prem Tinsulanonda, who had long regarded it his own prerogative to oversee promotions in the armed forces. He also abolished the military-run anti-insurgency command structure in southern Thailand, where a low-level separatist Muslim insurgency had long smouldered, putting the police in charge instead. The army’s role in the south had for decades been a key source of military prestige and also funding, both official and illicit. Thaksin was deliberately trying to impose his authority on the armed forces and undermine their political power. It caused immense resentment in the military, already disgruntled at its collapse in influence and prestige following the Black May violence of 1992.
Prem was particularly appalled. The old general’s frequent claims to have no interest in power was as hollow as Thaksin’s: as Duncan McCargo has argued, since the 1980s Prem had functioned as the key manager of Bhumibol’s network monarchy:
The octogenarian ex-cavalry general is a taciturn bachelor possessed of a peerless list of mobile phone numbers; he continues to exert considerable influence over ofﬁcial appointments. No one can refuse to take Prem’s calls, and few dare to deny his requests, since he is generally assumed to be asking on behalf of the King. But Thailand’s ‘network monarchy’ (my own coinage) extends far beyond Prem, the Privy Council, the military and the bureaucratic elite. It embraces the business sector, academics, journalists and social activists, some of whom have direct connections with the Palace, and some of whom are simply self-appointed guardians of royal interests.
Thaksin was neutralizing Prem’s power and replacing the royalist network with his own. McCargo explicitly discussed this struggle in Network monarchy and legitimacy crises in Thailand:
Thaksin set about systematically to dismantle the political networks loyal to Prem in a wide range of sectors, aiming to replace them with his own supporters, associates and relatives. Thaksin was seeking to subvert network monarchy, and to replace it with… a network based on insider dealing and structural corruption.
McCargo notes that Prem was widely believed to have played a key role in securing Thaksin’s acquittal by the Constitutional Court in 2001. Prem believed this would put Thaksin in his debt. Thaksin, however, had other ideas:
Thaksin had no intention of following these gentlemanly rules of the game. With the assets declaration case out of the way, Thaksin proceeded to freeze Prem out of key decisions, demonstrating his determination to create a new supernetwork, centred entirely on himself, and characterized by a more hierarchical structure.
In a revealing confidential cable in July 2006, U.S. ambassador Ralph Boyce recounted a conversation with Prem. Boyce was always sympathetic to the royalists and wary of Thaksin, and Prem revealed his bitterness about the lack of respect shown by Thaksin:
Prem said that, over Thaksin’s first five years as prime minister, he had not met much with Prem; Thaksin thought he knew everything already.
But Thaksin’s disregard for Prem, and his efforts to override the network of royalist “good men”, did not imply that he was hostile to Bhumibol and the monarchy. Thaksin just did not see why, in the 21st century, he should remain beholden to elderly men like Prem, clinging to outmoded power structures that belonged to an earlier era. He had an unprecedented electoral mandate. He was used to giving orders, not taking them. He believed that as a hugely popular prime minister, he was in charge of running Thailand: nobody else.
Prem thought differently, of course, and his growing resentment of Thaksin was to prove disastrous for Bhumibol and the future of the monarchy in Thailand.
Thaksin had little respect for Prem, but he still made an effort to behave in accordance with the expressed wishes of the palace. In an interview with the Far Eastern Economic Review in April 2002, he denied he had any problem with the royal family, saying his opponents were just trying to smear him: ”Someone is trying to make me clash ideologically with the people through the monarchy. That is very bad. I am wholeheartedly for the king and Thailand.” His opponents were using these tactics, he said, because: “They can’t topple me using the parliamentary system. They can’t do it, because of the people’s mandate and my strong leadership.”
Bhumibol’s December 2002 birthday speech focused heavily on the dangers of drugs. In particular, abuse of methamphetamines was rife in Thailand, and it was destroying lives and whole communities. It was the third time in a week that Bhumibol had spoken out about drug abuse: he had made similar comments to newly promoted generals a few days before his birthday, and again during the annual trooping of the colour. Bhumibol’s birthday speech explicitly called for a “war on drugs”.
Thaksin obliged. The “war on drugs” officially began on February 1, 2003. In the months that followed, hundreds of Thais suspected of involvement in the drugs trade, mostly small-scale dealers and mid-level operatives, were murdered. The police claimed that most of those killed were caught up in conflicts between criminal gangs, but it is widely accepted that the vast majority of deaths were extra-judicial killings perpetrated by the police. Human Rights Watch estimates more than 2,000 fatalities; the U.S. embassy put the death toll at 1,300. As Human Rights Watch reported, the killings began immediately after the drug war was officially launched:
In the first three-month phase of the crackdown that began on February 1, 2003, the Royal Thai Police reported that some 2,275 alleged drug criminals had been killed. Most were shot with handguns. The government initially claimed that fifty-one had been killed by police in self-defense and the rest in battles among dealers…
According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the first murders took place hours before the official start of the war on drugs. Late on January 31, 2003, Boonchuay Unthong and Yupin Unthong were shot and killed as they returned home with their son, Jirasak, eight years old, from a local fair in Ban Rai, Damnoen Saduak district, Ratchaburi. Witnesses described seeing a man on the back of a motorcycle, wearing a ski mask, shoot Yupin, who was riding on the back of the family motorcycle. Boonchuay exhorted Jirasak to run away. Jirasak hid behind a fence and watched as the gunmen walked up to Boonchuay and executed him with a shot to the head. Convicted for a drug offense, Boonchuay had recently been released after eighteen months in prison. It was subsequently discovered that Yupin and he had been placed on a government blacklist.
The first day of the campaign, February 1, saw four killings. By February 5, six people had been shot dead, and a week later the death toll stood at eighty-seven. Fifteen days into the campaign, the Interior Ministry announced that 596 people had been shot dead since February 1, eight of them by police “in self-defense.” The deaths of alleged drug dealers, both those killed by police and those killed by others, were included in a February 17 report of the Ministry of the Interior informing the government about the progress of the campaign. The government actively publicized the deaths on state controlled television and radio as well as in newspapers, claiming that drug dealers were killing their peers to prevent them from leaking information to authorities.
The police’s unwillingness to investigate these deaths, combined with the unusually high number of drug-related homicides compared to years past, cast doubt on the credibility of the government’s story. Medical professionals complained that they were not being allowed to perform autopsies and that bullets were being removed from victims…
Several years later, after the royalist elite had firmly turned against Thaksin, they often cited the war on drugs as evidence he was corrupt and criminal. But at the time, the campaign was exceptionally popular: most Thais from all levels of society supported the policy, including Bhumibol himself. In his (typically rambling and opaque) birthday speech in December 2003, he also insisted most of the deaths were from gangland wars among drug dealers, and said the toll was a lesser evil than the many deaths caused by drug abuse.
In 2004, Sirikit also intervened explicitly in sensitive political issues. The conflict in southern Thailand was worsening, and two incidents in particular provoked widespread international condemnation. On April 28, insurgents launched a wave of attacks on police across southern Thailand, and 32 gunmen took refuge in the Krue Se mosque in Pattani province. The senior military commander on the scene, Pallop Pinmanee, disregarded instructions to seek a peaceful resolution to the standoff and ordered Thai forces to storm the mosque. All 32 insurgents inside were killed; the evidence suggested many had been executed after being captured. In October, scuffles broke out during a protest in the village of Tak Bai to protest the arrest of six local men. The police called in the army and hundreds of Muslim men were arrested. Their hands were bound and many were beaten by police and soldiers. They were then loaded into trucks to be driven to detention at an army camp. Stacked on top of each other in the trucks, dozens suffocated. The official death toll was 85. Both these incidents sparked fury among Thai Muslims in the south and led to violent reprisals by insurgents.
With the situation deteriorating, Sirikit gave a speech at Chitralada Palace in November calling for Thai Buddhists to be given help to defend themselves against Muslim insurgents. McCargo describes her intervention:
The monarchy had long taken a special interest in the area – the Queen normally spent several weeks each year at their palace in Narathiwat – and was horriﬁed by the turn of events. On 13 October, two ofﬁcials in a palace car were murdered in Narathiwat, apparently while buying fruit for the Queen herself. Addressing over 1000 people at Chitrlada Palace in November, the Queen said she felt compelled to break her silence following a two-month visit to the South, her longest in many years. She denounced Muslims ‘she had never known’ as the brutal killers of many government ofﬁcials and ordinary citizens. She called upon the 300,000 Thai Buddhists in the region to stand ﬁrm and not leave the area. Thais could defend themselves by learning to shoot, added the Queen
The U.S. embassy noted that Sirkit’s “emotional remarks… suggested that direct action needed to be taken to protect the local Buddhist population”. Some of Bhumibol’s circle were appalled by the time of the queen’s intervention. Privy councillor Surayud Chulanont explicitly told U.S. ambassador Ralph Boyce that the speech had been unhelpful:
Commenting on HM Queen Sirikit’s speech in November 2004 where she spoke about the plight of Buddhist villagers in the South, Surayud said that he had suggested to the Queen before the speech not to go into too much detail about the South. I told Surayud that the Queen’s remarks seemed to reflect general views of most Thai people about Thai Muslims in the South. Surayud agreed, adding that her comments had not been helpful. Furthermore, Surayud surmised that the King’s silence on matters in the South in his December 5 birthday speech was one result of the Queen’s remarks. The King had different views on the South than did the Queen, but was not about to make that publicly evident.
Despite the misgivings among Bhumibol’s allies about Sirikit’s strident tone, she made another speech on the subject in April 2005, as a confidential U.S. cable recounts:
On April 23 Queen Sirikit gave a stern, at times passionate, 40-minute speech from the Chitralada Royal Palace in Bangkok on the violence in southern Thailand. Her remarks, broadcast simultaneously nationwide by all of Thailand’s television stations, were delivered in front of nearly 1,200 members of the Village Scouts and members of other voluntary civil defense organizations from across the country.
In her remarks, the Queen said that Thais should not “sit idly by” while violence escalated. She called for Thais to unite in a common effort against those responsible for southern violence, saying that citizens shouldn’t expect the government alone to solve the problem. She stressed that she was not asking for Thai citizens to take up arms, but was calling for all Thais to work with the government and serve as “eyes and ears” for security forces. The Queen, echoing recent statements by Prime Minister Thaksin and other RTG officials, suggested non-violent methods be used to restore peace in the South.
The government’s response was, predictably, complimentary of the Queen, with officials promising to heed her advice. Prime Minister Thaksin praised the Queen’s remarks, saying that Thais, “should take the Queen’s words to heart, and cooperate with Thai authorities by passing on useful information.” Interior Minister Chitchai said the Queens remarks “will be the light to guide our work.” Other officials echoed the praise, while urging southerners to provide information about militants.
As Boyce commented in the same cable, Sirikit’s comments risked inflaming the situation rather than calming anger in the south:
It has been extremely rare for a member of the Royal Family to speak publicly about an ongoing situation in the country. Historically, the Queen’s formal public speeches have been limited to her birthday, yet this is the second time in less than six months that the Queen has made formal remarks about the situation in the South. More unusually, the Palace did not announce ahead of time that the Queen would deliver the remarks or that the audience would be televised.
The Queen’s remarks — which we would characterize as reserved, but resolute – were quite different in tone from her highly emotional November 16, 2004 speech… where she indicated that direct self-defense measures were required to protect Buddhist Thais living in the South. This time she did not single out the embattled Buddhist population, but instead focused on all the innocent victims of the “brutish” militants, and the potentially devastating economic impact of the violence.
While the tone for the Queen’s speech was different, her immediate audience for her remarks was the same — the Village Scouts. The Scouts are a nationalist organization, originally organized by the government in the 1970s as a means to mobilize the rural population against the communist insurgency. The Scouts, with over 6.7 million members nationwide, organized a large rally in support of the Government following the Queen’s November remarks. Some local observers have expressed concern that the Scouts — who have a history of violence towards those seen as opposing the government — could aggravate the situation in the south by encouraging nationalist sentiment among the Thai populace, while further alienating southern Muslims. By keeping the Scouts in the picture, the Queen runs the risk of doing just that.
The most striking line of the speech seemed to be delivered directly to the Scouts; “I still remember the pledge of allegiance that all of you have uttered before His Majesty the King and myself that you will be loyal to the Nation, the Religion, and the Monarchy, and will defend the country.” To Thai ears “the Religion” means one thing, Buddhism. While not explicitly doing so, the Queen could be interpreted by some as again having issued a call to action – to defend Buddhists.
The queen’s support of a hardline response to southern violence was in line with Thaksin’s own instincts. But Bhumibol’s network urged a more conciliatory approach, with Prem himself intervening at the end of February 2005 to urge Thaksin to follow the king’s philosophy of seeking to resolve the situation peacefully and cautiously. Within days, Thaksin set up a national reconciliation commission for the south under Anand Panyarachun, long one of Bhumibol’s favourites.
Surayud, meanwhile, was despatched to the south with Sirikit later in 2005, to try to keep her under control and persuade her to take a less confrontational approach. He briefed U.S. diplomats on the trip in November:
On November 10, Privy Counselor Surayud… briefed the Ambassador and DAS John on the situation in the South. Surayad had returned the day before from six weeks with Queen Sirikit in Narathiwat. He suggested that, although some progress was being made in reaching out to Muslim clerics and elders in the troubled region, Muslim youths continued to be disaffected and posed ripe targets for agitators. Surayud admitted that the Queen had shown a lack of understanding about the South in the past. Now, however, after spending more time interacting with residents in the region, he believes she now understands that the violence is being pushed by only a fringe of Muslim society. Surayud said that the Queen was in the south to promote agricultural and local handicraft projects and that, during the course of these promotions, she had many opportunities to meet with local residents, especially housewives, to hear their concerns. In conversations with southern leaders and ordinary citizens, the Queen and Surayud urged prominent clerics and political figures to lead by example, to speak out against violence, and to organize local self-defense groups in cooperation with the security forces.
For a privy councillor to speak about Sirikit in such terms, even in private, was striking. It illustrated the deep gulf that remained between Bhumibol and his estranged wife.
Thaksin Shinawatra became the first elected prime minister in Thai history to complete a full four-year term in office. In February 2005 he scored two more historic achievements: Thai Rak Thai won an extraordinary general election landslide, making Thaksin 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 opponents.
Smaller parties were crushed. Most gave up the struggle and merged with Thai Rak Thai, swallowed up by Thaksin’s juggernaut. Thailand was moving towards a two-party system, but the main opposition Democrat Party was left far behind after a dismal election performance. Following his record election victory, Thaksin felt emboldened to further tighten his grip on power and eliminate potential threats.
Within his cabinet, even senior ministers were treated as little more than lackeys. U.S. ambassador Boyce told Thaksin during a dinner in May 2005 that “major decision-making obviously centered on him. Even his most trusted ministers appeared unwilling to embark in new directions without his specific instruction”.
With many members of the Senate under his influence thanks to judicious bribery, the upper house had effectively become a rubber stamp for Thaksin’s schemes. This in turn enabled him to undermine other key institutional safeguards. In November 2005, he got his revenge on the National Counter Corruption Commission. The entire NCCC leadership of nine commissioners was being replaced, and the Senate was tasked with selecting the new appointees. Seven of their choices were cronies of Thaksin, as a U.S. cable reported:
Seven of the nine candidates selected have very close and obvious ties to the Prime Minister or the TRT. They include:
— A Deputy Secretary General to the PM, who is also the relative of the PM’s wife; — A Chairman of the Defense Ministry,s Advisory Board; — A Deputy Chief of the National Intelligence Office; — A former police academy classmate of the PM; — A Provincial Administrator that defended the PM and TRT after the Tak Bai incident; — A former professor of the PM and advisor to the PM’s office; — A Supreme Court judge that has previously backed the TRT, and who is also the brother of a TRT MP and the party’s legal advisor.
The unashamed obviousness of the move, as well as the degree of overkill, were typical of Thaksin. Subtlety and guile were never his strong points: he just streamrollered all perceived obstacles out of the way with brute force and blithe disregard for principles.
Two months earlier, Thaksin had used similar tactics to pack the National Broadcasting Commission with his allies too, as part of a sustained assault by the prime minister on critical and independent media coverage of his government. Thaksin hated criticism, often becoming visibly enraged by articles he didn’t like. Over lunch with Ralph Boyce in August 2005, he made the outrageous claim that he was being targeted by some unscrupulous media who resented his unshakeable integrity:
Thaksin complained vociferously about how he is targeted by the Bangkok elite and the media. He said there were two major problems in Thai society, the press and the courts. “In the old days, reporters and editors were paid off by crooked politicians and gamblers. Previous PMs were more subservient to the press too, frequently doing them favors.” He explained that his unwillingness to do so was the reason he is attacked in the Thai media.
Journalists not regarded as sufficiently deferential were hounded, and Thaksin’s network put further pressure on the press by channelling advertizing orders only to media that were considered friendly, and by buying large stakes in two newspaper groups. Press freedom in Thailand was being steadily undermined.
Thaksin Shinawatra was more powerful and more popular than any elected prime minister in Thai history. In March 2005, U.S. ambassador Boyce wrote a long diplomatic cable to Washington analyzing “THE THAKSINIZATION OF THAILAND“:
Dominating the scene as no previous civilian leader has ever done, Thaksin’s influence is everywhere. The Bangkok elite, which embraced him as the next new thing four years ago, has grown scornful of him, but he actually revels in thumbing his nose at the capital’s chattering classes. Himself a self-made man from the provinces (according to his myth makers), he has successfully tapped into the aspirations of Thailand’s millions. And unlike previous regimes that rode into power by buying the loyalties of the rural areas, Thaksin has also won over the millions of Bangkok residents who are not from the traditional elite — the mom and pop shopkeepers, the taxi drivers, the food stall vendors, department store salespeople and the day laborers…
Thaksin has significantly altered the Thai political scene, possibly forever (or at least as long as he is around).
The most momentous transformation unleashed by Thaksin was that he helped Thailand’s millions of rural and urban poor to find their voice at last. They had long been wearily resigned to the antics of a supercilious elite who competed to buy their votes at election time and ignored them otherwise. But as James Stent, a longtime resident of Thailand with decades of experience working in the country’s financial sector, wrote in his essay Thoughts on Thailand’s Turmoil, Thaksin “brought the majority of Thai people into politics, so that the old clique-filled world of political games that was played among the elite no longer goes unchallenged”. In particular, as Stent notes, Thaksin showed the rural population of Thailand that they were more powerful and influential than they knew:
Thaksin astutely recognized that the majority of voters were resident in the countryside, and that they had, over the preceding decades of steady economic development, become a sleeping but nonetheless restless giant that was just waiting to be awakened. Once awakened, that rural electorate has not returned to sleep.
This was the most significant development in Thai politics for decades. Thailand’s poor were increasingly connected to the world, increasingly aware of the injustices and double standards of Thai society, increasingly disinclined to passively accept a sclerotic and outdated feudal system in which their role was to uncomplainingly remain at the bottom of the heap. Thaksin told them their aspirations were valid and listened to their concerns. He opened up a world of possibilities in a nation long stifled by tradition and hierarchy.
Obviously he was far from being a selfless champion of the dispossessed. Thaksin’s authoritarian instincts, his seemingly insatiable greed, his hunger for absolute power and his determination to crush those who stood in his way were undoubtedly damaging to the development of genuine democracy in Thailand. The stranglehold on power Thaksin had achieved by 2005 was unhealthy in many ways. But it required the continued support of Thailand’s people via the ballot box. It was by no means a death blow to democracy.
In October 2005 the U.S. embassy analyzed the state of Thai democracy in a cable to Washington. Although Boyce was no fan of Thaksin, he did not see any massive threat to Thailand’s democratic development. On the contrary, he saw a country that had made huge progress:
Thailand is the most democratic country in the neighborhood, with a lively press and fiercely competed elections. Thailand’s remarkable political development, after a long period of military rule, progressed in tandem with its impressive economic development, which gave its citizens greater access to education and mass media, reinforcing the transition to democracy.
The cable noted the risks inherent in Thaksin’s political dominance, and quite correctly emphasized the need for opposition parties and civil society to raise their game in order to challenge him:
Thaksin is the strongest Prime Minister in Thai history — the only one, in fact, to serve out his full term and be re-elected. One of the goals of the 1997 Constitution was to build a more stable parliamentary system and stronger political parties by making it more difficult for MPs to jockey for political advantage by changing party affiliation. Thaksin has cleverly used these provisions to increase the cohesion and clout of TRT and expand his personal power. Thaksin also built his personal stature with populist programs, like cheap credit and cheap medical care, that won the enthusiastic support of the poorer voters, especially in the rural areas. Thailand’s opposition parties and NGOs have never come up against anything quite like Thaksin, and they are playing political catch-up. Thailand remains a democracy, but one in which the balance among the political and social forces is unhealthy.
Thaksin’s overwhelming election victory in 2005 showed what could be achieved by a leader who took voters seriously and who made a genuine effort to reach out to the millions of Thais long marginalized and ignored by the political elite. This was democracy in action. Thaksin had convinced record numbers of voters to put their faith in him. It was up to his opponents to convince Thailand’s people that they offered a better alternative.
By 2005, several disparate groups were troubled by Thaksin’s spectacular success. Progressive Thais who genuinely wanted to see their country mature into a pluralistic democracy were alarmed and unsettled by the ascendancy he had achieved, and by the illiberal authoritarian tendencies that he embodied. They were troubled by the excesses of the “War on Drugs”, by his belligerent intolerance of criticism, and by his blatant sabotage of constitutional checks and balances. They saw Thaksin as a threat to democracy. And they were absolutely right. Thaksin Shinawatra was never a democrat.
As Australian scholar Michael K. Connors argues in Article of Faith: The Failure of Royal Liberalism in Thailand, his superb analysis of the anti-Thaksin movement:
Thaksin’s rise to power through the ballot box should not be allowed to disguise his fundamentally anti-democratic politics. The elected Thaksin regime (2001-06) was authoritarian in inclination even if the formal institutions of democracy were in place. Despite Thaksin’s arguably pro-poor policies, the depth and quality of Thailand’s democracy was greatly diminished under his rule.
The royalists were equally alarmed by Thaksin’s dominance, but not because he posed a danger to genuine democracy. It was because he posed a danger to their continued extra-constitutional influence. As Nick Nostitz, one of the best foreign journalists working in Thailand, wrote in volume one of his planned trilogy Red vs Yellow:
Thaksin, in his rise and during his consolidation of power, ruffled many feathers. His rule profoundly changed the political consciousness of large previously disinterested sectors of the Thai population. He was highly controversial, yet commanded stronger support among the population than any previous politician. He did not play by the rules. He became a threat to the established order.
The royalist concern was that Thaksin refused to play by the rules of “Thai-style democracy” and threatened the longstanding status quo in which traditional elites governed Thailand according to their own self-serving interpretation of what was good for society. Just as the palace was not a unified political entity, the ideology of Thai royalism encompassed multiple shades of opinion. Bhumibol and Sirikit disagreed strongly on the appropriate limits on royal intervention, and this was mirrored in the divisions between Thailand’s activist ultra-royalists and the more liberal monarchists who favoured a more careful approach. But while they disagreed on methods, they were united in their belief that decisions on governing Thailand should never be entrusted to the uneducated masses. Ruling the country was a job for the royal family and its allies. Ordinary people should never be allowed to forget their lowly place in the social hierarchy.
Thailand’s royalists had assumed that the 1997 constitution would allow the network of “good men” that had long run the country behind the scenes to continue pulling the strings. When it became clear that Thaksin was contemptuous of this unwritten gentleman’s agreement, they were appalled and afraid. The biggest loser from Thaksin’s ascendancy was Prem Tinsulanonda: Thaksin had no respect for the unconstitutional political influence that Prem seemed to believe was his divine right. But it was not just unreconstructed royalist dinosaurs like Prem who suffered a sudden collapse in power and prestige. The increasing dominance of a new power network centred on Thaksin undercut the traditional influence that even the more liberal royalist “good men” regarded as their unalienable birthright. Faced with the challenge that Thaksin posed, elite Thais who had always paid lip-service to the ideals of democracy and human rights began to show their true colours.
One of the uncomfortable truths about Thai politics is that even self-proclaimed progressives like Anand Panyarachun and Prawase Wasi are elitists who are hostile to the concept of popular sovereignty. The same goes for the Democrat Party and the leader it chose after the 2005 election debacle, Abhisit Vajjajiva. Abhisit believed he was on the side of democracy, and he managed to convince many international observers that he was sincere. A U.S. embassy cable in 2010 claimed Abhisit “generally has progressive instincts and says the right things about basic freedoms, social inequities, policy towards Burma, and how to address the troubled deep South”. But in fact, the ideology of men like Abhisit and Anand is fundamentally anti-democratic. Thai royalism is not a unified ideology, and in particular has been divided into two broad camps for decades, mirroring the rift between Sirikit’s circle and Bhumibol’s: those favouring authoritarian rule with the military enforcing respect for the monarch and safeguarding Thailand’s traditional hierarchy, and those who argued for enlightened civilian rule by educated royalists who would govern more subtly according to royal wishes. Michael K. Connors calls the latter philosophy “royal liberalism“:
The principal point is that Thai liberalism, in so far as its advocates write about it, is held to emerge in constitutional struggles against authoritarianism, rather than emerging in bourgeois struggles against an absolute monarchy. Whatever its contested role, the perception is very strong that the monarchy is the font of liberalism…
Over time, Thai liberal democracy has come to mean governments which rule by the consent of the people when they are able to make the right choices, where power is divided among the executive, legislature and judiciary, and the king plays a guardianship role, and holds ultimate sovereignty. Fundamentally, liberalism in Thailand has been a disciplinary ideology that promotes the production of a citizen-body committed to elite constructions of nation, king and religion.
The royal liberals talked the language of democracy. They often sounded eminently reasonable and moderate, in contrast with Thaksin’s frequent shrill and intemperate outbursts. And they were disciples of King Bhumibol, who was widely revered as the monarch who brought democracy to Thailand. But their democratic credentials were as bogus as Bhumibol’s. They were deeply hostile to the idea of popular sovereignty, of allowing ordinary people to decide how Thailand should be governed.
The 1997 constitution had appeared to be a decisive victory for the brand of royalism espoused by the liberals: the military was disgraced, Bhumibol was too old and too out of touch to rule too directly, and so Thailand’s “good men” would govern on his behalf. The problem was that most of the country’s royalist elder statesmen were almost as geriatric as Bhumibol was, and their grasp on reality was as tenuous as his. They were relics of a dying world, with no comprehension of the changes transforming Thai society. Bhumibol’s Privy Council was supposed to be an advisory body made up of Thailand’s best and brightest; in fact, it was just a gerontocracy made up of 19 confused and querulous old men.
In the fairytale world of the royal liberals, everybody knew their place in the pecking order and humbly performed their duties, allowing the benevolent elites to rule the nation. They were obsessed with archaic and irrelevant notions of propriety and protocol. In the palatial homes of the elite royalists in walled Bangkok compounds, and in the executive offices of companies where the the network monarchists had comfortable seats on the board, servants and attendants still crawled on their hands and knees as a matter of course when serving those who lorded over them. This was how the royalists believed Thailand should be. Bhumibol and his disciples believed they alone had the wisdom and insight to understand their country. But they were blinkered old men who understood less with every passing year, and who did not even have the insight to realize how little they really knew.
Thailand’s Democrat Party was little different from its parliamentary rivals. It was mostly made up of cynical operators with no particular ideology, and its political survival depended on maintaining dominance in regions of southern Thailand where Democrat-aligned families had established a longstanding grip on power. But the Democrats had some politicians with a reputation for relative honesty and competence, and had become the favoured party of the royal liberals and of more progressive members of the urban middle class in Bangkok. Abhisit Vejjajiva was only 40 when he was chosen to be the party’s new leader, but aside from his youth he was a quintessential “good man”: upper-crust, patrician and elitist. He had been born in Britain as Mark Abhisit and educated at Eton and Oxford. Abhisit and Thaksin were polar opposites in terms of connecting with Thailand’s people. Thaksin was a natural communicator when it came to talking to ordinary people in Thai: he spoke to them as an equal, he was witty, he was blunt, and he was never condescending. But when speaking English to an international audience, he was unconvincing and slightly embarrassing. Abhisit, meanwhile, was smooth and articulate when speaking in English, but stilted and uncomfortable in Thai. He also had an incredible knack for being photographed looking uncomfortable and ridiculous during press events that were supposed to show him at ease among ordinary Thais. Most savvy modern politicians would run a mile when confronted with a hat made of condoms at an AIDS awareness event. Not Abhisit.
Thaksin’s electoral success was a clear signal to the Democrat Party and Thailand’s “good men” that they were losing the battle of ideas. They were failing to offer a credible and compelling vision of how Thailand should be governed that appealed to a majority of the population beyond privileges enclaves of Bangkok. They had long treated ordinary voters with contempt, and neglected to devise a sensible political strategy for combating Thaksin’s appeal. As Thaksin consolidated power after 2001, they remained in a state of denial. They proved utterly unable to rise to the challenge he posed. As Stent says:
In the elections of 2005, Thaksin’s party was returned to power with the largest mandate ever awarded by the electorate to a Thai political leader. The Democratic Party, effectively the only organized parliamentary opposition that remained, proved from the time of Thaksin’s election in 2001 unable to rethink its approach and image, or to present rural voters with any sort of credible alternative to Thaksin. The educated middle and upper classes of Bangkok were seething with resentment, but my own feeling at the time was that either they would have to put up some viable political alternative to Thaksin, or accept that they were going to have to live under the man for some time to come, as the inevitable price they paid for having failed to develop an inclusive national vision that reached out to and involved the poorer majority of voters who now had turned to Thaksin as their political idol.
But the Democrat Party and its royalist allies did not draw the obvious conclusion from their disastrous performance in the 2005 elections. They were unable or unwilling to acknowledge that their vision for Thailand was outdated and unconvincing. They concluded that their abject failure to win the support of voters was not a result of their own inadequacy and incompetence, but of the stupidity and ignorance of voters. They interpreted their failure to succeed via the ballot box as proof that Thailand was not ready for democracy. They retreated further and further into the very prejudices that had alienated most of Thailand’s people. And this pathetic, delusional, arrogant response to unequivocal evidence of their own shortcomings dragged Thailand deeper into crisis.
The belief that Thailand’s masses lacked the morals and education to make sensible democratic choices had long been a central theme of royalist ideology. The monarchists had always claimed that the Chakri kings were eager to give the people more democracy as soon as they were ready for it. To the royalists, proof that Thailand’s people were ready for true democracy would be their unquestioning support of whatever Bhumibol and his “good men” believed was good for the country. In fact, as Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue in their magisterial new work on politics and development Why Nations Fail, democracy is desirable precisely because it allows ordinary people to challenge the self-serving policies of the elite:
Of course, the decisions that democratic systems take will sometimes be misguided. But then again, so will the decisions taken by any other political system, any group, or any individual. Democratic politics will also lead to decisions and procedures that elites of all types dislike. Yet this is often not because the electorate’s ignorance or shortsightedness, but because their interests diverge from those of elites, and also because the educated elite doesn’t like giving up its monopoly on preaching what society should do.
Thai politics was poisoned by corruption and criminality at all levels. All major parties relied on the support of factions controlled by gangsters. Vote buying was endemic and once in office, parties routinely looted the country with impunity. The rot had clearly begun at the top: Thailand’s “good men” had failed over successive generations to clean up the system, and indeed most of them had profited personally from abusing their position. Even those who attempted to act with relative probity openly consorted with godfathers and crooks, with the excuse that this was simply how politics worked in Thailand. Instead of taking responsibility for tackling this parlous state of affairs, they absolved themselves of blame by claiming it was all the fault of the poor and dispossed, who sold their votes to unsavoury characters and so who were held to be responsible for all the failings of the powerful.
Thongchai Winichakul skewered the hypocrisy of this position in Toppling Democracy:
The blame usually falls on the less educated and poor voters, mostly in rural areas, who allegedly sell their votes in exchange for short-term and petty material benefits. They lack the proper understanding of democracy, it is said, and lack good morals because they are ignorant and uninformed due to their lack of education. They are held to be partly responsible for the failure of democracy. Most of the education campaigns against vote-buying target the rural population and the urban poor. They are held to be infected by the disease, while the urban educated middle class are less so or not infected at all. The latter are champions of democracy whose task is to clean up politics. Certainly, the discourse on vote-buying is not groundless, and there are people who care for nothing but petty material gains. But the discourse is a gross generalisation based on the urban middle-class bias against the provincial-based electoral majority.
There is no doubt that Thaksin Shinawatra was corrupt and dishonest. There is no doubt that he was scornful of human rights and constitutional checks and balances. But this was not why he was hated by his enemies among Thailand’s elite: the vast majority of them behaved no better than he did and were no more supportive of genuine democracy. Thaksin was hated because he played the game far better than his opponents. Unable to compete with his ability to win the backing of Thailand’s people via the ballot box, the royalists and the floundering elitists of the Democrat Party sought to demonize Thaksin and dimiss his millions of supporters as crude uneducated fools.
Had they taken the trouble to try to understand the views and aspirations of Thailand’s poor, the royalists would have discovered that most had no illusions about Thaksin. They were well aware that he was no saint. But he was the best alternative on offer. He was was straightforward, down-to-earth, approachable. He was blatantly self-serving, but he also understood that his political success depended on improving the lives of ordinary people. He displayed a level of political and administrative competence that contrasted starkly with the obvious ineptitude of most of Thailand’s elites. Far from being evidence of their unsophistication and venality, voting for Thaksin was a perfectly rational and sensible decision for millions of Thais. As Stent arges in Thoughts on Thailand’s Turmoil:
Bangkok friends retorted that Thaksin was elected only because of the power of his wealth, and that the voters were bribed. From my own experience in the village of Baan Ton Thi in Chiang Rai, I knew that Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was indeed alleged to have paid THB 500 to each villager to secure their votes, but in conversations with the villagers, it was apparent that these villagers genuinely liked what Thaksin was doing for them, and felt that he was the first Thai politician who talked to them about their own welfare, and who delivered on his promises. It is a measure of the power of Thaksin’s PR machine that among the villagers, all good things that were happening in the kingdom were attributed to Thaksin. 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.
The royalists were unable to countenance such sensible and pragmatic behaviour. If Thaksin was the democratic choice of most ordinary people, then they saw only one response. Democracy would have to be subverted and destroyed.
Throughout King Bhumibol’s reign, when factions of Thailand’s political and military elite have felt under threat or wanted to undermine their opponents, they have traditionally tended to drag the monarchy into the argument. Claiming to be defending the palace against dark conspiracies to destroy the monarchy has long been an effective way to smear enemies and acquire a spurious aura of admirable patriotism. Such behaviour began within hours of Bhumibol being named Rama IX following the death of his brother Ananda, when royalist began spreading rumours that Pridi Banomyong had masterminded the killing and sent provocateurs to the British and American embassies to make the same claim. The coup group that seized power in November 1947, while disdainful of Bhumibol and the monarchy, also justified its actions by pretending to be crushing a republican plot. And in the decades that followed it has become commonplace during struggles among the elite for baseless accusations of anti-monarchism to be crudely tossed around.
It was, of course, utterly cynical for Thais who professed to believe the palace was sacrosanct and above politics to pretend their profane power struggles were in fact a noble struggle to defend the monarchy. It was also profoundly damaging to the reputation of the royal family. But this never stopped successive factions of the Thai elite cloaking themselves in fake royalist fervour. Bhumibol rarely did anything to dissociate himself from such dishonest and hypocritical behaviour. On the contrary, he repeatedly allowed his acolytes to abuse the reputation of the palace in support of their political games.
Decisively defeated by Thaksin at the ballot box, and unequal to the challenge of overcoming him through democratic methods, Thailand’s royalists inevitably turned to the time-honoured strategy of depicting him as an enemy of the monarchy. They wheeled out the same old tired paranoid myths that had always proved so effective in Thailand’s modern history, and which Walailak University professor Marc Askew describes in his 2011 paper The Ineffable Rightness of Conspiracy as Thailand’s “Primary Conspiracy Theory”:
The increasingly hysterical claim since late 2005 that the “monarchy is in danger” from evil plotters is a vital dimension of hyper-royalist Thai popular nationalism and an institutionalized discourse embraced and deployed by key palace-aligned conservative actors (notably Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanon, the now dominant Queen’s Guard faction of the military and the Democrat Party)…
The Primary Conspiracy Theory has long lurked in Thai conservative discourse, both as a central anxiety and a political weapon, reflecting the revival (and re-sacralization) of the monarchy in post-1945 Thailand. At times of system strain, such as the Cold War period, and currently in the anxious closing years of the ninth reign, it has been openly deployed as a mechanism to silence dissent and critique.
The royalists drew on several dubious arguments to support their claim that Thaksin’s ascendancy threatened the survival of the monarchy and the very foundations of the Thai nation. One recurrent theme was that by offering rural people loans and financial assistance to improve their lives, Thaksin was disregarding Bhumibol’s philosophy of “sufficiency economy” which posited that the poor should seek to better themselves gradually and incrementally without resorting to untraditional “short cuts”. The royalists argued that Thaksin had duped the poor into forgetting their place in society and putting their faith in “get rich quick” schemes that would overturn Thailand’s fragile environmental and spiritual harmony. A second claim was that Thaksin himself was overturning the natural order of things, arrogantly trying to usurp the role of the king, trying to seize a leading role in Thai society that could only be rightfully occupied by the monarch. The cable by U.S. ambassador Boyce on ”THE THAKSINIZATION OF THAILAND” in March 2005 referred to these royalist arguments, but also pointed out that while Thaksin had outraged the geriatric royalists around Bhumibol, he still could probably count on the support of the king’s son and heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn:
For the moment… there is no other thing than the Thaksin thing.
Except maybe the King. In the age of Thaksin, the King has on several occasions made public his differences with Thaksin’s style and more importantly, his philosophy. As respected former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun puts it, Thaksinomics teaches that it is OK to be greedy and that money fixes everything. The King’s idea is somewhat different and has been neatly summarized in a short pamphlet called, “What is Sufficiency Economy?” This pamphlet draws on royal utterances over the past 25 years and essentially calls for a rural-based model of sustainable development. Of late, the pamphlet is being flogged by Privy Councillors, the head of the Crown Property Bureau, and noteworthy columnists as the antidote to Thaksinomics.
In addition, Bangkok observers have been aghast at what they perceive as Thaksin’s unwillingness to be appropriately obeisant to His Majesty. In the recent campaign, they claim, he swanned about upcountry as though he were the sovereign of the country. He is visibly impatient with the many royal ceremonies he has to sit through where he is not the center of attention. In this year’s Mahidol Awards, he fussed and fretted in his seat while the King spoke softly to the American and German doctors who were being honored.
But the King will not be around forever, and Thaksin long ago invested in Crown Prince futures. Nevertheless, the debate over Thailand’s direction has been joined, with the outcome still in question.
Distaste for Thaksin Shinawatra and his domineering style of government brought together an ideologically diverse range of opponents in Bangkok. Royalist liberals and authoritarian hardliners who had confronted each other in the Black May battles of 1992 set aside their differences, united in seeing Thaksin as the greatest threat to their interests. They were joined by middle class Thais and NGO activists who genuinely supported participatory politics and respect for human rights. All of them rallied under the banner of democracy, convinced that Thaksin threatened the values they held most sacred. Labour activists and progressive young Thais found common cause with royalist dinosaurs like Prem Tinsulanonda and his ancient Privy Council cronies, buying into the myth that Bhumibol and his “good men” had supported democracy all along. They sidestepped the inconvenient fact that a majority of voters had democratically expressed a preference for Thaksin by dismissing his supporters as crude and uneducated. In Political Contests in the Advent of Bangkok’s 19 September Putsch, his analysis of the 2005/6 period in Thailand, Michael Montesano writes that ”many of Thaksin’s opponents displayed a sociological ignorance that bordered on bigotry”:
So strong was the hatred that motivated their opposition to the premier’s very real abuses of power, his cynicism and his greed that it led otherwise savvy critics to dismiss his support among Thailand’s increasingly disadvantaged majority as the consequence of a lack of information among members of that majority. If only they understood, if only they did not just sell their votes, well, these people would not vote for TRT. Or so it was argued. The possibility that the pro-TRT poor did indeed understand the objective conditions that they themselves faced, that they saw in Thaksin’s party the most appropriate recipient of their vote, seemed not to dawn on the majority of the prime minister’s Bangkok enemies.
Further evidence of Bhumibol’s displeasure with Thaksin’s antics was his failure to endorse a replacement for Jaruvan Maintaka, a 60-year-old career bureaucrat who as Auditor General investigated investigations of corruption — in particular, irregularities in the procurement of scanners for Bangkok’s new airport — rather more doggedly than the prime minister was comfortable with, much to his undisguised irritation. Thaksin’s allies uncovered a technical irregularity in the way she had been selected, and judges ruled in 2004 that her appointment had been unconstitutional. But Jaruvan was having none of it. Despite her salary being stopped and a replacement named, she continued to insist that she was Thailand’s rightful Auditor General and she would stay in her post until King Bhumibol signalled otherwise. When the government forwarded the name of a replacement for Jaruvan to the palace for approval — usually a formality — the response was a prolonged silence that became increasingly uncomfortable for Thaksin. As a U.S. cable noted in September 2005:
Some 96 days after a candidate for new Auditor-General was submitted by the Senate for the King’s approval, the Palace remains mute, leaving the Thaksin Government in an awkward situation… The Palace’s silence has become deafening…
Chastened, the nomination of a replacement for Jaruvan was withdrawn in late September. Another U.S. cable reported this development:
The Thai public has shown an unusual amount of anger towards the Senate because the move to replace the current Auditor-General without the King’s endorsement has been seen as a challenge to the King’s authority. Although the King saves his direct involvement in political affairs for the most serious of issues, his silence on a proposal or a nominee almost always indicates his disapproval, and that he wants the parties to resolve it on their own. As more time continued to pass after this nomination was submitted to the King, the more it came to be seen as challenging the King to do something — not something customarily done in Thailand. By withdrawing the nomination, any perceived pressure for the King to make a statement on the matter —and thus any offense against the King — has ended. The King accepted the withdrawal for consideration to the post, but did not say anything more about the fate of the current Auditor-General…
Jaruvan told the American embassy in a meeting in November 2005 that she was convinced King Bhumibol supported her struggle. Her comments illustrate how the network monarchy worked: Jaruvan was a staunch royalist and on the basis of a few hints and a firm handshake, she had become convinced that she was acting in the interests of the king. Bhumibol was not explicitly controlling her — he had no need to:
Jaruwan truly believes she has the support of the King, and that if the Senate eventually does forward another nominee, he will withhold his endorsement, as he did with previous nominee Wisut. There is no greater ally to have in Thailand than the King, whose moral authority are unquestioned here. Jaruwan is convinced she has the King’s support for many reasons. First, at the time she was appointed to be Auditor-General in 2001, she claims the King firmly gripped her hand as he gave her a pin signifying her position, an act which many Thai would view as unusual and very significant. Second, Jaruwan says she has already provided the King with summaries of the incidents of graft, and that he expressed his gratitude for her efforts. Lastly, Jaruwan claims that she has quietly received an offer from the Palace to receive her salary for her entire five-year term, regardless of whether she returns to her post or not. (Comment: The King’s refusal to endorse the replacement for Jaruwan sent up by the Senate was a slap in the face for TRT, and we agree that he will most likely hold the line if another nominee is forwarded to him. However, it is unclear what more the King might be able to do to show support for Jaruwan, given constitutional limitations on his role.)
The episode illustrated one of the paradoxes of Bhumibol’s power: often the most effective thing he could do was to do nothing. By delaying his approval for government policies and appointments he disagreed with, he could send a powerful signal, without straying beyond the bounds of his constitutional role. Silence could often speak louder than words.
This was how the architects of the 1997 constitution had envisaged the system would work: institutional checks and balances underpinned by Bhumibol’s moral authority would keep elected politicians in their rightful place. The problem was that Thailand’s “good men” (and women) proved much less virtuous than the royalists had hoped. Public servants like Jaruvan who stood up to Thaksin were the exception rather than the norm: most were quite happy to accept the inducements he offered to go along with his schemes. And the members of the Thai elite who began challenging Thaksin most openly during 2005 were not members of Bhumibol’s royalist network: they were former allies of the prime minister who had turned against him out of spite because they felt their loyalty had not been adequately rewarded. Foremost among them were two opportunists angered by Thaksin’s perceived lack of respect and gratitude towards them: political godfather Snoh Thienthong and failing media magnate Sondhi Limthongkul.
Sondhi was a former journalist who had built an overextended media empire in Thailand that collapsed into bankruptcy when the 1997 financial crisis hit. He had long been a fervent supporter of Thaksin, declaring in 2003 that:
Thaksin is no saint, please do not be mistaken, but he is the best prime minister our country has ever had.
He fell out with Thaksin in 2004 after his friend Viroj Nualkhair, a financier who had saved Sondhi from bankruptcy after forgiving 1.6 billion baht in debt, was dismissed from Krung Thai Bank after the prime minister failed to intercede to save him. In 2005, Sondhi began using his Thailand Weekly television show to attack the prime minister. His criticism focused on two core themes: Thaksin’s corruption, and his alleged lack of respect towards the monarchy. Sondhi claimed Thaksin was a megalomaniac who was usurping the rightful role of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Snoh was an archetypal unprincipled old-school parliamentary operator who had long bankrolled a large faction of politicians that jumped from party to party throughout the 1990s, giving their support to whichever political leader offered the most lucrative inducements. Thaksin’s electoral success posed a serious challenge to Snoh’s power and influence: his Wang Nam Yen faction was no longer crucial for keeping the government afloat. And so it became a fifth-column in Thaksin’s administration. As a U.S. cable reported in May 2005:
Thaksin has had tense relations with Sanoh Thienthong from the period of his first administration (2001-5), when Sanoh regularly complained that he and his faction were being eclipsed by a rival faction headed by Thaksin’s sister Yaowapha Wongsawasdi and not receiving sufficient senior appointments in the Thaksin government. The complaints of ill-treatment became louder following onset of Thaksin’s second term earlier this year and selection of Thaksin’s new cabinet.
Sanoh has not attempted to conceal his unhappiness over what he considers the slighting treatment that he and his faction members and allies have received from Thaksin in the awarding of offices following February’s election…
A member of Snoh’s faction, Pramuan Ruchanaseree, published a book entitled Royal Powers in mid-2005, accusing Thaksin of hijacking the prerogatives of the king. Sondhi hammered on the same theme in his diatribes on Channel 9 television. Thaksin was well aware of the threat such accusations posed, and as usual when faced with criticism, he reacted in the worst possible way: in September, under pressure from the prime minister, Channel 9 took Sondhi’s weekly programme of the air. Just like the royalists, he failed to realize that in the 21st century, information and debate are increasingly hard to suppress. Sondhi broadcast his show instead by satellite and webcasts, and started holding huge rallies in Bangkok’s Lumpini park. Sondhi became a hero to the many middle and upper class Thais in Bangkok who were increasingly hostile to Thaksin. Thaksin’s clumsy response, launching multiple defamation lawsuits against his former friend, only boosted Sondhi’s popularity. By November, tens of thousands of Thais were turning up to rallies to listen to Sondhi, who was dressed in a T-shirt proclaiming “I will fight for the king”. The Yellow Shirt movement was born.
As Michael Connors says, Sondhi’s campaign was “an explicitly ideological mobilisation of the monarchy as a means to forge an anti-Thaksin coalition”. U.S. ambassador Boyce made the same point in a November 2005 cable, “THE KING AND HIM: THE OPPOSITION PLAYS THEIR KING“:
Evidence suggests that Prime Minister Thaksin is alienating an ever-growing segment of the political class. The antipathy that started with NGOs and journalists is spreading; by some accounts, it includes many in the military leadership and reaches even to the palace. At the same time, Thaksin’s populist policies are winning him acceptable numbers in the public opinion polls. His nationalist rhetoric on the South makes him look strong, (even if the government’s policies are ineffective.) In any case, his lock on the National Assembly — 375 out of 500 seats — hamstrings the organized political opposition, which cannot stop the PM’s legislative program. Thai Rak Thai’s (TRT) strong position in the allegedly non-partisan Senate means that the Senate-appointed agencies that should act as a break on the PM’s power are suborned before they are even established. What’s a Thaksin opponent to do?
The anti-Thaksin forces are reduced to hoping for help from two extremes — the street, and the palace. There is some irony here: the democratic opposition and civil society are pinning their short term hope on rather undemocratic solutions.
Not only was the strategy employed by Sondhi and his allies inherently undemocratic, it was also profoundly dangerous for the monarchy. They were pressuring Thailand’s people to make a choice between their democratically elected prime minister and their king.
By 2005, many elite royalists and perhaps even Bhumibol himself had come to believe that Thaksin’s popularity posed a dangerous threat to the prestige of the palace. Decades of propaganda had fostered the myth that Bhumibol was the source of everything good in Thailand. People were taught that improvements in their lives were the direct result of the king’s gracious benevolence, which was routinely contrasted with the scheming venality of politicians. Thaksin epitomized the greed and corruption of politics which the royalists had always railed against, and millions of Thais believed his policies brought them genuine benefits. The royalist elite was alarmed and aghast.
Not only had Thaksin supplanted the influence of the “good men” of the network monarchy by creating his own increasingly dominant patronage-driven power structure, but he was also adept at spinning a self-serving mythology that the royalists feared would eclipse their own propaganda venerating the supreme and sacred role of the king. They continually stressed the immense moral gulf between Bhumibol (and by implication, themselves) and crooked politicians like Thaksin. But it was not the differences between Bhumibol Adulyadej and Thaksin Shinawatra that were so terrifying to them: it was the similarities. Both men were immensely wealthy and influential members of the elite who adeptly portrayed themselves as allies of Thailand’s poor. The royalists believed there was only room for one exalted champion of the dispossessed in Thailand. Like Bhumibol, Thaksin had proved highly adept at political theatre. His “mobile cabinet meetings” in which Thaksin and his top lieutenants descended upon an underprivileged corner of the country amid blanket media coverage to dispense largesse were the same kind of stunt as Bhumibol’s symbolic forays into the back of beyond to promote his “royal projects”. Indeed, Thaksin’s 21st-century media-saturated theatrics made Bhumibol’s past rural jaunts with his handmade maps and pencils he had sharpened himself look rather amateurish and inadequate by comparison. The degree of royalist outrage is apparent from comments by Prem Tinsulanonda to U.S. ambassador Boyce in July 2006:
Prem remarked that from the outset of his time as Prime Minister, Thaksin had been personally unprepared for the fawning reception he gets, especially when he travels around the country. It had gone to his head, Prem said, and made him believe that “he’s number one.” But Thailand was not like America, Prem added. “We already have a number one.” Thaksin needed to learn that he was the manager of the shop, not the owner. The people upcountry liked Thaksin and voted for him, but they didn’t revere him.
The fear among the royalists was, contrary to Prem’s bluster, many upcountry people really did revere Thaksin, and that this posed an existential threat to the monarchy.
In fact, most ordinary Thais saw absolutely no contradiction between their support for Thaksin and their ingrained adoration of Bhumibol. As Australian National University anthropologist Andrew Walker explains in his 2011 paper Royal Succession and the Evolution of Thai Democracy, most ordinary Thais had a pragmatic world-view that could easily accomodate a role for both the prime minister and the king:
This is a world-view in which power comes in many forms, and in which modern commercialization and administrative expansion have resulted in a proliferation of pathways to power. In this world-view, the king is one source of power, but the popular Thai cosmos is full of all sorts of power and influence, and Thais are adept at hedging their bets in maintaining a diverse network of relationships with potential sources of prosperity and protection. This is not a zero-sum game. Despite much speculation to the contrary, for most Thais there was no inconsistency in supporting both Thaksin Shinawatra and the king. Thailand’s masses readily accept that two, or more, styles of leadership and benevolence can exist side by side. The contemporary challenge for rural politics is to draw these various types of power into local networks that can support safe and prosperous livelihoods.
Some members of Thailand’s elite have much more rigid views about power, and they are not particularly adept at grasping the nuances of Thai popular culture. Whereas the villagers in northern Thailand pursue human security through cultivating connections with power in many different forms, the official Thai position is that the king’s symbolic potency lies at the centre of national security. This selective and elite narrative of security asserts that the king is the pre-eminent paradigm of virtuous and disinterested power, rather than accepting that he represents one of the many ways in which leadership can be expressed.
Thaksin had never shown hostility towards the royal family, let alone any republican leanings. He had gone out of his way to cultivate Vajiralongkorn in particular. He was impatient with some outmoded aspects of royal protocol, and he had little respect for the interfering “good men” of the network monarchy, but he was no enemy of Bhumibol’s. Yet like religious fundamentalists, elite royalists clung to a rigid and antiquated understanding of the world and reacted with unwarranted ferocity when their orthodoxy seemed to be facing a challenge. They were unable to be pragmatic about Thaksin’s rise, convinced it would lead to disaster for Thailand and its monarchy. And in their efforts to combat Thaksin in the years that followed, they unwittingly caused the very disaster they were so anxious to prevent: they dealt a catastrophic blow to popular support for the palace.
In his annual birthday speech in December 2005, Bhumibol once again took aim at Thaksin. His typically rambling and impenetrable monologue returned repeatedly to the theme of whether the king “can do no wrong”:
When you say the King can do no wrong, it is wrong. We should not say that… Actually I want them to criticize because whatever I do, I want to know that people agree or disagree… Actually I must also be criticized. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know. Because if you say the King cannot be criticized, it means that the King is not human… If they criticize correctly, I have no problem.
In the years since, this speech has been frequently cited as proof that Bhumibol is opposed to strict enforcement of the lèse majesté law. That interpretation remains controversial and open to debate, but one aspect of Bhumibol’s message was unmistakeable: Thaksin should learn to accept criticism.
In response, Thaksin dropped his lawsuits against Sondhi, pledging to be less sensitive in future. And in a lunch with U.S. ambassador Boyce a few days later, he seemed remarkably sanguine about the royal dressing down he had received:
Prime Minister Thaksin came to the residence on December 7 flush from what he considered a boost from the King’s birthday speech several days earlier. Thaksin said there were no unpleasant surprises in the speech and noted that the King had previewed the speech to him on November 21. The King counseled him not to be hot headed in response to his critics. Thaksin replied that as he grew closer to age 60 he would mellow. According to Thaksin, the King’s frequent anecdotes during the December 4 speech referring to the Prime Minister had the quality of inside jokes that he and Thaksin shared. Thaksin noted that he had dropped his lawsuits against fervent critic Sondhi Limthongkul. I asked him if this had taken the wind out of Sondhi’s sails. Thaksin thought so, saying that the Bangkok elite may be easily duped by a “crook” like Sondhi, but “not for long.” …
Thaksin expressed satisfaction over what he termed a uniformly good relationship with the Palace. He related to me that when he called on the King following his massive 377 seat win last February, he intimated that it would be his last term. “What, you will leave me alone?” Thaksin said the King replied. The Queen also urged that Thaksin see the King regularly, citing his ability to cheer up His Majesty. Thaksin agreed that the King’s chief motivation these days is the preservation of the status of the monarchy. He referred humorously to the first time he attended the King’s birthday speech as Prime Minister. The King at that time made critical comments about him. While he visibly cringed, Khunying Potjaman (Thaksin’s wife) dug him in the ribs with her elbow. The King told him later that he was lucky to have a Khun Potjaman to candidly advise him as well as encourage him. When I asked Thaksin if the Queen was His Majesty’s “Khun Potjaman,” he said emphatically no. The Palace clearly has two camps, with fundamentally different DNA in each.
Thaksin’s confidence was misplaced. On December 16, Boyce met Thai foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai, a well-connected political operative who was deeply unpopular among the staff who worked for him at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Despite being stunningly underqualified, Suriakart was, with Thaksin’s full backing, making a quixotic bid to be the next secretary general of the United Nations. He told Boyce that Thaksin was hated by the royalist elite:
Surakiart unexpectedly delivered a downbeat analysis of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s standing in the wake of the King’s speech. Surakiart contradicted Thaksin’s rosy view of the speech completely, reinforcing the view that the palace remains unhappy with the PM. Surakiart recognized that Thai Rak Thai (TRT) is still strong, particularly in the countryside, but repeated the adage that “Prime Ministers are elected in the countryside but deposed in Bangkok.” He said that rabble-rousing journalist/businessman Sondhi Limthongkhul is not the man to lead a successful opposition to Thaksin, but he may continue to plague TRT with his (accurate) revelations of government corruption. Although Surakiart is an opportunist who has hitched his wagon to Thaksin’s star, he is also a member of the Bangkok elite, tied into the palace through his wife, the daughter of the King’s former principal private secretary and current Privy Counsellor…
At the very outset of our meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart dismissed Thaksin’s contention that the King and the PM had discussed the issues in the King’s December 4 speech beforehand and reached an understanding. Surakiart explained that, if the King thought that Thaksin would listen to his private advice, then he would have given it privately. The King had 60 years of experience dealing with prime ministers, and he knew how to handle them. The problem was that Thaksin simply doesn’t listen, so the King felt compelled to make his points in a public, albeit typically veiled way. Surakiart also refuted Thaksin’s claim that the Queen urged the PM to meet the King regularly to ”cheer him up,” maintaining that the Queen was also no fan of Thaksin. Overall, Surakiart’s view tallied with what we’ve heard from other sources, that the palace, including the King, still has issues with the Prime Minister. Surakiart leaned toward the view that Thaksin had convinced himself that this was not so, and was just refusing to acknowledge the signs to the contrary.
Suriakart’s final plaintive question to Boyce illustrated the reasons for his concern:
If Thaksin goes down, he asked, “how will it affect my bid to be UN Secretary General?”
Despite the mounting criticism of his premiership, Thaksin did not appear to be in any serious trouble at the end of 2005. His opponents were making an increasing amount of noise, but had failed to shake Thaksin’s solid support among a majority of Thais. As Thitinan Pongsudhirak argued in Thaksin’s Political Zenith and Nadir in the journal Southeast Asian Affairs in 2006:
The Prime Minister’s contentious relationship with the king, whom the Thai people increasingly looked to as an institutional check on Thaksin’s runaway power, did not appear to be at a breaking point. Sondhi’s vendetta against Thaksin reached a critical point on 9 December 2005 when Thaksin’s critics of all stripes massed at Lumpini Park in central Bangkok. The event proved well attended but remained insufficient to rock Thaksin’s power. It was in need of a spark to fan the simmering public discontent against Thaksin.
In early 2006, Thaksin himself provided the spark. On January 23, Thaksin announced he was selling his family’s Shin Corp business empire to Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek for $1.8 billion in the largest corporate deal in Thai history. Thaksin hoped the move would protect from from accusations of policy corruption and conflicts of interest. “The stock transaction was not decided by Shin Corp,” he claimed, “but by my children who want their father to devote his attention to serving the country.” It was an astonishing misjudgment. The deal was structured in a way that preserved the fiction that Shin Corp remained majority owned by Thais: in fact, Temasek had control despite formally buying only 49 percent of the conglomerate. Moreover, the law was changed just a day before the deal was announced, raising the legal ceiling for foreign ownership of Thai telecoms companies to 49 percent from 25. And most disastrously of all for Thaksin’s reputation, he and his family managed to avoid paying a single baht of tax on the vast profits from the sale. The episode put many of Thaksin’s most glaring deficiencies on display: his arrogance, his greed, his readiness to abuse his public office for private gain. Had he been prepared to pay a token amount of tax on the multi-billion-dollar windfall he had engineered for his family, it is likely he could have avoided the storm that followed. Instead, Thaksin gifted his opponents the opportunity they needed to torpedo his premiership.
More than two years later in July 2008, Thaksin told U.S. ambassador Eric G. John that the sale of Shin Corp to Temasek decisively soured his relationship with King Bhumibol:
Thaksin reflected that he had enjoyed a good relationship with the King during his first term as Prime Minister. The King was particularly grateful that Thaksin had taken steps to improve Crown Property Bureau (CPB) management of its assets, significantly increasing the CPB’s wealth. The King’s attitude toward him soured after his Thai Rak Thai party won a supermajority (377 out of 500 seats) in the 2005 election. Thaksin said many figures at the palace felt threatened by his political power and his popularity with rural Thais, who appreciated his commitment to eradicating poverty.
Thaksin cited his decision to sell his Shin Corporation conglomerate to Singaporean investment firm Temasek as a key turning point in his relationship with the King. Thaksin claimed he told the King about the sale in an audience prior to a public announcement. On hearing that Thaksin would sell the conglomerate to a foreign entity, the King reportedly stiffened visibly and asked, “To whom?” Thaksin told the Ambassador he had not heard the King’s question clearly and asked, “Pardon?” The King then erupted, loudly and angrily repeating his question. Thaksin told the Ambassador he had never before seen the King behave thusly. After this incident, Thaksin said, his political opponents effectively went on the offensive; the People’s Alliance for Democracy drew substantially more supporters to rallies, had more funding at its disposal, and effectively manipulated the issue of the Shin Corp sale, paving the way for popular acceptance of the 2006 coup d’etat.
Thaksin’s calamitous blunder came at a moment when his opponents appeared to be running out of steam. Indeed, Sondhi had called for a demonstration on February 4 that he said would be his last: interest in his campaign had dwindled and his regular Friday protests were by now attracting fewer than 10,000 people. A U.S. embassy cable described the February 4 rally as “SONDHI’S LAST STAND“:
Sondhi keeps telling the press that it is not his goal to overthrow the government. That’s good, because this demonstration doesn’t look like it will even come close to having that kind of impact. But it should be an impressive show of opposition to a government, and most particularly a Prime Minister, that has made some serious mistakes and alienated a lot of people. Thaksin’s highly controversial Shin Corp sell-off is a great big Chinese new years present from the PM to his most ardent critic, and public concern about the sale should significantly swell the numbers attending. A huge turnout will further weaken the PM, who is firm in his refusal to consider himself embattled — he told the press today that he would resign “in his next life.” …
At a meeting today with government officials, the Ambassador asked what was likely to happen on Saturday. An MFA official present said it was like a bunch of ants attacking an elephant. What mattered, he said, was what the elephant did. Most observers keep reaching the same conclusion: much will depend on Thaksin’s response to events. The official noted some concern over the PM’s regular weekly radio address on Saturday morning — would the PM be cool and reassuring, or would he be “his usual self?”
In the event, a crowd of up to 100,000 people packed into Royal Plaza Park for the protest. Another U.S. cable described the scene:
The diverse crowd, representing a wide range of ages, provinces and walks of life, entertained themselves with games of dart throwing at and hopscotch on the Prime Minister’s likeness. Organizers handed out yellow T-shirts and arm bands with the slogan “save the country.” Merchants traded in an array of products with more colorful and direct attacks on the PM — many not fit for print in a family reporting cable. Of note, representatives from labor groups, anti-electric power privatization, the teachers and poor farmers were all present.
Following a series of pre-game speakers and entertainers, Sondhi — looking vaguely messianic in his matching white headband and T-shirt, which stood out in the yellow-clad crowd — took the stage about an hour after sunset. The late middle-aged media magnate decried the corruption of the Thaksin government in newly strident terms and led the crowd in chants of “Thaksin, get out!” before reading aloud his petition asking the King to dissolve the parliament and replace the PM. After asking the crowd to wait patiently, Sondhi and his entourage of movie-cameras and flag-bearers strode down the street two blocks to the home of Privy Council Chairman Prem Tinsulonda to deliver this petition.
The social diversity mentioned my U.S. diplomats was a striking feature of the anti-Thaksin rallies of early 2006. The yellow-clad protesters who gathered on February 4 and on subsequent weekends were a broad-based and relatively good-humoured alliance from across the ideological and political spectrum that drew together authoritarians and liberals, radical students and middle-class aunties, progressive activists and patrician establishment patriarchs, united in opposition to Thaksin Shinawatra.
By avoiding tax on his sale of Shin Corp, Thailand’s prime minister had breathed new life into the campaign to bring him down. It was the biggest mistake of his life. And he followed it with another bewildering blunder. On his weekly radio show on February 4, the same day as the rally, Thaksin made a clumsy attempt to proclaim his humility that was to disastrously backfire, declaring:
It would only take one person to remove me from office… His Majesty the King. If he whispered in my ear “Thaksin, it’s time to go”, I would certainly prostrate myself at his feet and resign.
Sondhi and Abhisit pounced on Thaksin’s statement, accusing him of dragging Bhumibol into politics. This was of course a supremely hypocritical allegation: Sondhi and his allies had been explicitly playing the royal card for months in their campaign against the prime minister. But Thaksin was clearly rattled, and his promise that he would humbly abandon politics if Bhumibol asked him to was to come back to haunt him in the months ahead.
Sondhi’s last stand was only the beginning. A week later, on February 11, another rally attracted more than 50,000 protesters. Sondhi widened his movement’s appeal by adding Thaksin’s plans for a free-trade agreement with the United States to the litany of grievances. More importantly, he announced the formal creation of a new mass movement: the People’s Alliance for Democracy. As a U.S. cable remarked:
The birth of the People’s Alliance for Democracy marks a turning point in the Sondhi-led movement to oust Thaksin. While Sondhi likely will continue to play a prominent role, the entry of student groups, the anti-FTA crowd and others will likely alter the character of the movement. Many of the substantive issues remain the same, but the tactics employed by the demonstrators — who now include students and activists — may become more confrontational. Beyond these groups, the rallies also seek to draw on Bangkok’s middle class. While this weekend’s demonstration did attract some protesters from other provinces, it seemed to be a majority Bangkok crowd. If organizers are able to maintain their alliance and draw additional support from the countryside in a sustained campaign of public demonstrations, heretofore reticent opposition Members of Parliament will be under increasing pressure to enter the debate. The police, who have shown great restraint so far, may face more provocation, however, as students and other potentially less docile groups join the anti-Thaksin coalition.
Within days, Thaksin suffered another blow, with the high-profile defection of another of his former allies to the mass movement seeking his ouster: eccentric ascetic activist Chamlong Srimuang. Chamlong had brought Thaksin into politics in the 1990s and staunchly supported him ever since, but showed signs of wavering in late 2005 when he spearheaded a typically quaint campaign by religious groups to oppose the planned privatization of state alcohol firm Thai Beverage. In February he announced he had been wrong all along about Thaksin, pledging his allegiance to the Yellow Shirts of the PAD. As the U.S. embassy commented:
Things are getting worse for the Prime Minister… Chamlong Srimuang, a retired general and former governor of Bangkok, was a prominent political figure in the 1980′s and 1990′s; his political influence has waned, but he still has star power. His criticism of Thaksin is especially noteworthy as he was the PM’s first political mentor: Thaksin got his start in Chamlong’s Palang Dharma party twelve ago. Chamlong is an outspoken critic of government corruption, a “Mr. Clean” who adheres to strict Buddhist precepts and organizes his supporters to demonstrate against social evils like alcohol. He says he will lead his “Dharma Army” to participate in the next protest rally on Feb. 26.
Chamlong brings some baggage along with him. After leading the popular uprising against the military dictatorship in 1992, he was blamed by some for contributing to the violence and the deaths of demonstrators. He stepped down from political life for several years to atone for his role in the bloodshed. Some press and NGOs are raising concerns that his participation on Sunday could spark violence in what have been, up to now, largely peaceful protests.
One thing Chamlong was good at was mobilizing mass protests. His declaration of support for Sondhi ahead of the planned rally on February 26 left Thaksin more rattled than ever.
On February 24, with the biggest ever mass protest against his government looming, Thaksin made another highly questionable decision. Following an audience with King Bhumibol, he announced he was dissolving parliament and calling snap elections on April 2. Thaksin clearly believed this would allow him to demonstrate the continued strength of his support among Thais, reestablishing his mandate and undercutting efforts by his enemies to challenge him. Thaksin’s great strength — and the key weakness of his opponents — was that in spite of the tens of thousands joining Yellow Shirt tallies in Bangkok, many millions of Thais still firmly backed the prime minister. The Democrat Party remained feckless and unpopular and was certain to fare dismally at the polls once again. A snap election, Thaksin believed, would help silence his foes.
The problem was that Thaksin’s decision gave the Democrats and the other small opposition parties the opportunity to sabotage his legitimacy and engineer a constitutional crisis by boycotting the polls. It took them several days to realize this and form a common front, but after plenty of dithering the Democrat, Chart Thai and Mahachon parties declared during March that they would not compete in the election. Meanwhile, Snoh Thientong finally announced a formal break with Thaksin, resigning from Thai Rak Thai, and the PAD rally in Sanam Luang on February 26 drew well over 100,000 people. Thaksin Shinawatra was suddenly looking distinctly vulnerable.
In a lunch with Boyce several months later in September 2006, Thaksin’s ally Bhokin Bhalakula claimed that both Prem and Bhumibol himself had privately told Thaksin to call the snap election:
When the Ambassador asked about the wisdom of Thaksin’s decision to dissolve the parliament in February, Bhokin replied that Thaksin had received advice to do so from Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda as well as then-Cabinet Secretary Borwornsak Uwanno. Bhokin then confided that Thaksin had discussed the matter directly with the King; when Thaksin had presented various alternatives to resolve growing political tension, the King had said it would be better to dissolve the parliament.
Bhokin’s claims remain unconfirmed, but another leaked U.S. cable shows that Prem told Boyce that Thaksin had indeed begun consulting him regularly from early 2006, perhaps hoping to defuse the mounting confrontation with the network monarchy. When Thaksin made the fateful decision to seek a renewed mandate, he may have been walking into a trap set by his enemies.
In a late-February meeting with Boyce, privy councillor and retired general Surayud Chulanont insisted that King Bhumibol had no intention of being drawn into the conflict:
Surayud said that the King was not taking sides. Nonetheless, both sides were trying to drag him in. Media firebrand Sondhi Limthongkul had taken the lead, with his constant references to the King in his weekly demonstrations. Thaksin has played this card as well. (Comment: For example, in his weekly radio address right before the February 4 demonstrations, Thaksin commented that the King “only had to whisper in his ear” and he’d resign. Surayud said that Thaksin’s comment caused great perturbation among the Thai and was an inappropriate reference to the monarch. End comment.) The King’s focus is on preserving the monarchy, according to Surayud. The King also, naturally, wants there to be no violence.
Surayud also insisted there was no prospect whatsoever of a military coup. Boyce believed him, commenting: “As things stand now, we do not believe that the military wants to step in, nor does the King want to be caught in the middle.” But plenty of evidence surfaced during the month that Bhumibol was indeed trying to intervene. And Bangkok was rife with rumours that Prem was plotting against the prime minister behind the scenes.
During March, the pattern of duelling mass demonstrations that has been a feature of Thai politics ever since became established. A pro-Thaksin rally on March 3 drew more than 200,000 people, while well over 100,000 joined a PAD protest two days later. On March 9, a small bomb exploded outside Prem’s house. Nobody was hurt, but it was a sinister incident that marked the beginning of another trend in Thailand’s political crisis: unexplained bombings mainly targeting Thaksin’s opponents and their companies.
On March 12, out of the blue, came a curious royal intervention. At 8 p.m., all TV stations broadcast the iconic footage of Bhumibol lecturing the chastened kneeling figures of Chamlong and Suchinda in the king’s famous intervention to end the May 1992 violence. The broadcast began with the announcement that:
As the current situation has led to the existence of a large diversity of different conflicting opinions, several groups in the society are worried that this may lead to unrest in the country. The TV Pool of Thailand deems it appropriate to present His Majesty the King’s advice given on 20 May 1992 to serve as a reminder for consideration for all parties and individuals.
It appeared to be an eccentric message from Bhumibol to cool tensions. But since the May 1992 crisis ended with prime minister Suchinda stepping down, many Thais also interpreted it as a coded royal warning to Thaksin. According to a confidential U.S. cable:
The King’s principal private secretary, Asa Sarasin, told the Ambassador that the King himself ordered the film to be shown in order to encourage a peaceful resolution to the current political conflict. Although Asa says the intent of the broadcast was not to favor either side, the initial analysis is that it works against the Prime Minister, since everyone knows that part of the solution in 1992 was for the PM under siege to step down. This was the view expressed to DCM by a military aide of Privy Councillor General Suryayud Chulanont…
The Palace’s tentative intervention is being widely viewed mainly as a call for negotiations and moderation. Thaksin supporters can claim that the message is aimed primarily at protest leader Chamlong, whereas others interpret the broadcast as a call for Thaksin to step down (i.e., the “whisper in the ear.”) The broadcast message is very much the King’s preferred style, vague enough to be interpreted in different ways by different audiences.
Bhumibol’s intervention only worsened the feverish atmosphere of intrigue, and the palace was forced into damage limitation mode, denying the king had ordered the broadcast. But the denial was bogus: it had indeed been Bhumibol’s idea, as Arsa Sarasin admitted again a few days later in a meeting with Boyce:
The Palace is trying to undo the furor caused by the broadcast Sunday night of the King’s intervention following the violence that resulted from the 1992 democracy protests…
Arsa admitted that the Sunday evening broadcast of the iconic film of the King’s intervention following the 1992 pro-democracy demonstrations had provoked a wave of conspiracy theorizing. Arsa claimed that the King himself had wanted the film broadcast to emphasize the need for peace and reconciliation. Following the broadcast, however, both sides seized on the film to justify their positions. The confusion was compounded because no one knew who had authorized or encouraged the TV stations to show the footage. The PM and the government denied any role.
Arsa expressed his concern that both sides were exploiting the broadcast. On Tuesday, he had scrambled to issue a press statement to distance the Palace from all of this. First, they issued a statement saying that the Palace had had nothing to do with the Sunday evening broadcast. However, they quickly realized that this could provoke yet another unintended reaction, since it would cause people to believe that the government had done it and was now covering it up. Arsa further assessed that the broadcast had been beneficial overall, having a ‘cooling effect’ on the protesters and on the situation in general. Therefore, his office followed up with a second statement almost immediately. That statement noted that as film was “public information” the media could re-broadcast it on their own, providing they did so responsibly. Thus Arsa had tried to extricate the Palace from the political storm.
Even though he had just spent several days scrambling to deal with the controversy over the broadcast, Arsa insisted that Bhumibol had no wish to involve himself in the crisis at present:
Arsa described both sides as “implacable.” Both were trying to force the King to come down into the political arena. Arsa said that the King was just not ready to do this — yet.
The king’s secretary also insisted that the relationship between Bhumibol and Thaksin was not broken beyond repair:
The Ambassador asked about the relationship between PM Thaksin and the King. There has been much speculation about this question. In general, it is presumed that the King does not like Thaksin, but the Palace has been very discreet about its views. Arsa answered that the relationship between the King and Thaksin is “correct.” The PM gets an audience with the King whenever he wants one. Lately, however, the King “only listens,” he doesn’t say anything because “he’s afraid that Thaksin will quote him.” The Ambassador asked about the allegation that Thaksin has been less respectful of the King than previous prime ministers. Arsa said that the PM behaves in a respectful way, and that it seems the PM wants to be sincere. However, Thaksin is disrespectful generally to anyone else who disagrees with him.
Comments to Boyce by Arsa’s deputy, Tej Bunnag, also hinted that Bhumibol’s royalist circle was increasingly considering whether Thaksin’s removal should be engineered:
The Ambassador raised the question of how an intervention by the King would actually be perceived by the public. Tej agreed that, despite Thaksin’s popularity in the countryside, if the King did somehow remove him, this would be accepted by the population.
Quite clearly, Bhumibol and his circle were thinking about further intervention. The question that was preoccupying them was not whether intervention was appropriate, but how it should be done.
A week later, Boyce reported further evidence of Bhumibol’s animosity towards Thaksin. In line with rumours that had been circulating right from the start of Thaksin’s premiership, privy councillor Pichit Kullavanijaya and his wife said the king was angry at Thaksin’s efforts to court the support of Vajiralongkorn:
In a dinner over the weekend, the Ambassador discussed the current turmoil with Privy Councillor and West Point grad GEN Pichit Kullavanijaya and his well-connected wife. That both were quite vocal in their criticism of Thaksin was not surprising; the vehemence of their comments was unexpected, however. Pichit’s wife alleged that the King is thoroughly displeased because Thaksin’s efforts over time to curry favor with the controversial Crown Prince have “divided” the Royal Household.
It was an interesting admission that the palace itself was divided over how to deal with Thaksin.
At end-March Boyce paid yet another visit to Arsa Sarasin, to give the palace a copy of Paul Handley’s groundbreaking and controversial biography of Bhumibol, The KIng Never Smiles. Arsa insisted once again that the king was reluctant to intervene:
Asa discussed the Palace’s concerns about the repeated calls from anti-Thaksin demonstrators for the King to intervene to resolve the current political impasse. Asa said that the King did not intend to intervene, since that would be a set back for Thailand’s democratic development. The Palace believes that the situation can be resolved without the King’s intervention…
But Arsa went on to explain that he believed Thaksin would have to stand down within months, whatever the outcome of the April snap election. The reason the palace was not planning a major intervention to topple Thaksin was that the royalists believed that he was doomed anyway. There was no need for Bhumibol to get his hands dirty:
The Palace believes that the situation can be resolved without the need for royal intervention, and anticipates that Thaksin will eventually be forced to step down…
It may take time, since the PM is “ignoring all the signals.” But the Palace prefers this to the option of a premature and unnecessary interference in politics.
During March, under pressure not only from his opponents but also increasingly from his allies, Thaksin began considering the possibility of stepping down as prime minister and taking a break from politics. In the space of less than two months, he had rashly thrown away his tactical advantage and allowed his enemies to corner him.
One of the Thai Rak Thai members urging Thaksin to withdraw from politics for a while was Chaturon Chaisaeng, the education minister, a former student activist. In a meeting with Boyce, Chaturon said that “the sooner Thaksin can find an acceptable and dignified way to step down, the higher his chances are of returning to power after an interval”:
Chaturon described the PM’s dilemma. The PM is considering options in which he agrees to take a “temporary break” from the leadership. However, he wants to have the validation of an election, in which he would demonstrate that he still has wide support. After the election on April 2, once he has proven he is still “beloved” by the people, then he might be prepared to announce that he will not be Prime Minister during the next Parliament, for the good of the country. He has already announced that this next Parliament would be in session for only about one year, to consider constitutional changes and “political reform,” and then there would be new elections.
Chaturon had no illusions that either side in the conflict held the moral high ground:
Chaturon commented on the theory that the current crisis represented the death struggle of the old “Bangkok elite” against the new political forces, represented by the PM. “Neither side is black or white,” he said, “they are both shades of gray.”
In a separate meeting, Surakiart Sathirathai also told Boyce it was imperative for Thaksin to step down soon. Suriakiart was a political opportunist with little natural allegiance to Thaksin, and was well connected with the royalist elite:
Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai told the Ambassador on March 17 that time was running out for Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. If he finds a way to step down soon, he might be able to preserve his political future and return to office some day. If not, it would mean the end of his political life. Surakiart said that the PM was surrounded by “hawks” giving him bad advice…
In Surakiart’s view, if Thaksin did not agree to step down “within days,” then either Privy Councilor Prem Tinsulanonda or Army Commander Sonthi should tell him he had to step down. According to Surakiart, both the King and the Queen want Thaksin to step aside. (Surakiart’s wife is the daughter of the King’s former principal private secretary and current Privy Councillor, giving him good insights into the Palace views.)
Prem, of course, had long been an enemy of Thaksin and was fully in favour of the prime minister giving up the fight. In a meeting with Boyce on March 22, Prem declared: “He needs to go now.” By this stage, Boyce was actively intervening himself in the situation, telling Prem that some of Thaksin’s allies wanted the privy council president to pressure the prime minister to step down:
Prem asked, rhetorically “They think I should tell the PM? I don’t even know where he is.” Surprisingly, Prem said that Thaksin did not listen to his advice in any case…
If Thaksin steps down now, according to Prem, most people would welcome it, and Thaksin would “win merit.” If he stays through the election, somehow seats a parliament and returns as prime minister under dubious circumstances, the mobs will just come back. The people want another prime minister.
Prem’s comments were deeply disingenuous: it was not “the people” who wanted another prime minister, but royalists like himself, and other factions of privileged Thais in Bangkok. The rural majority remained supportive of Thaksin. And it was extraordinary that Boyce was giving his support to unconstitutional efforts to unseat the prime minister. Despite his sympathy with the anti-Thaksin movement, however, even Boyce recognized that Prem was not entirely trustworthy. He commented with considerable understatement that: “We note that Prem may not be telling us everything.”
Bowornsak Uwanno, a member of the royalist elite still nominally allied with Thaksin (he was cabinet secretary), told Boyce on March 28 that the prime minister had already decided to take a break from politics to cool tensions:
Bowornsak was critical of the opposition PAD leaders, especially Sondhi Limthongkul and Chamlong Srimuang, for trying to force the King to intervene and resolve the political impasse. He complained that the PAD leaders were trying to induce the PM to use force to end the demonstrations, and thus provoke a crisis that would bring down the government. The government, however, would not resort to force.
Bowornsak then volunteered that, after the election on April 2, he expected the PM to seek an audience with the King and “ask the King’s opinion.” Thaksin would then decide to step down for a period, during which political reforms could be undertaken. In fact, Bowornsak said, “perhaps a decision has already been made,” but the PM had to have the election first, before he would consider stepping down. “Things will be all right after the vote,” Bowornsak assured the Ambassador.
It was an astonishing reversal. Just a year after the most decisive election victory in Thai history, Thaksin seemed resigned to stepping aside — at least for a while.
The opposition boycott of the April 2 elections posed some serious problems for Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai. The prime minister’s support in most of the country was strong enough to ensure plenty of votes and a decent turnout, but in much of the south it was a different story. Large swathes of southern Thailand were traditionally Democrat Party territory and Thai Rak Thai had failed to make significants inroads there. According to electoral rules, candidates standing unopposed had to receive the support of at least 20 percent of registered voters in a constituency for the vote to be valid, and there was no way Thai Rak Thai could achieve this in some southern areas where it was very unpopular. If the election failed to fill all 500 parliamentary seats, because in some constituencies no valid candidate could be selected, Thailand could face a constitutional crisis. As usual, Thaksin and his allies sought to game the system by paying some dormant political parties to put up candidates in southern constituencies and pretend to contest the election, so that Thai Rak Thai could get around the 20 percent rule. It was another cynical abuse of the rules.
The election result demonstrated the strength of Thaksin’s support but also his weaknesses. Thai Rak Thai received about 16 million votes, 53 percent of all votes cast. Nearly 10 million people chose the “abstain” option on the ballot — essentially a vote against Thaksin — and there were nearly four million invalid votes. Thai Rak Thai dominated in central and northern Thailand and the northeastern Isaan province but performed abysmally in the south. Thaksin’s performance in Bangkok was also poor: in 28 of 36 constituencies in the capital the number of people who voted to abstain was higher than the number who voted Thai Rak Thai, a serious deterioration in support from 2005 when Thaksin’s party won 30 Bangkok seats.
In a defiant television interview on April 3, Thaksin claimed the election results vindicated him, but clearly the outcome was highly problematic. Thai Rak Thai candidates had been elected in 461 of the 500 seats in parliament, with 39 seats requiring votes to be rerun, mainly because of the 20 percent rule. If this parliament was ever to sit, it could hardly claim to be a representative body, Thanks to Thaksin’s unwise decision to call the snap election, and the opposition’s boycott, Thailand was facing a full-blown constitutional crisis.
With this troubling reality hanging over him, Thaksin travelled to Klai Kangwon palace in Hua Hin on April 4 for an audience with Bhumibol at around 5:30 in the evening. Afterwards, he returned to Bangkok and made a live televised address to the nation at 8:30 p.m. from Government House.
Ashen-faced, Thaksin announced that he would not be prime minister in the next parliament:
My main reason for not accepting the post of prime minister is because this year is an auspicious year for the king, whose 60th anniversary on the throne is just 60 days away. I want all Thais to reunite. We have no time to quarrel. I want to see Thai people unite and forget what has happened.
After his speech, Thaksin wept. His wife Pojaman, also in tears, tried to comfort him. Across the nation, many Thais were stunned.
There are multiple conflicting accounts of what transpired between Bhumibol Adulyadej and Thaksin Shinawatra at “Far From Worries” palace on April 4. Thaksin himself has given different versions of what happened. It remains unclear whether his decision was a result of receiving a royal “whisper in the ear”.
In a conversation with Boyce on April 7, Thaksin said he had always planned to step down as prime minister after the election. He added some frank comments about his relationship with the king:
Thaksin reviewed the events of the week. He said that, despite his defiant performance on TV Monday night, he had gone to the audience with the King on Tuesday knowing that he would have to step aside. He said that he knew that the King did not like him. For the first four years of his tenure, he and the King had had a good relationship. After Thai Rak Thai’s (TRT) landslide victory in February 2005, the relationship had deteriorated, since the King saw Thaksin as challenging the King’s popularity in the countryside. Soon after dissolving Parliament in late February, Thaksin’s plan had been to hold the election in order to show his continued relevance but then to take a break in order to allow the political situation to calm down. Although his support in the rural areas was strong, he faced opposition from a cabal of the “Bangkok elite,” the press, “the mob,” and some privy councilors…
Thaksin appeared calmer and more relaxed than I have seen him in some time. The decision to step aside has relieved the enormous pressure on the caretaker PM. However, it has hardly solved the political dilemmas caused by this election.
A few days later, privy councilor Surayud Chulanont assured Boyce that Bhumibol had put no pressure on Thaksin to take a break from politics:
Surayud told the Ambassador that he had heard an account of the April 4 meeting between PM Thaksin and the King directly from the King’s principal private secretary, who had been present during the meeting. Because the meeting immediately preceded Thaksin’s nationally televised announcement that he would “take a break,” many Thais have concluded (or chosen to believe) that the King somehow encouraged Thaksin to step down. In fact, Surayud said, the King said very little in the meeting, beyond noting that the political situation was very tense. Thaksin did most of the talking; when Thaksin told the King he had decided not accept appointment as PM in the next government, the King “only nodded,” according to Surayud.
Surayud said that the decision to step aside was consistent with a plan Thaksin had formed before the election. During a meeting on March 2, Surayud said, Thaksin had told the King that he would only stay on as PM through the June celebration of the King’s 60th year on the throne. By March 27, at a meeting with Surayud, Thaksin had revised his plan, saying that he would step aside immediately after the election…
The Ambassador asked about Thaksin’s comment that the King did not like him. Surayud, weighing his words, said that the King had gotten wind of certain under-the-table transactions that had not pleased him.
The following month, however, Thaksin gave a very different account of events that day, telling U.S. official Karen Brooks explicitly that he was the victim of a “palace coup”:
He dropped several bombshells which, if true, recast the history of the past six weeks. Thaksin’s story now is that the King explicitly told him to step aside during the fateful audience on April 4. He told Brooks that he had planned to step aside after the election, but he wanted to stay on through the King’s 60th anniversary celebrations, and then resign. At the audience with the King, however, his hand was forced. After the audience, he gave his emotional speech announcing that he would not be PM in the next Parliament.
Thaksin claims that even this was not enough for the Palace. A few hours after the speech, he said, the King’s principal private secretary, Asa Sarasin, called him and said that he needed to “go completely.” Thaksin agreed to do so in three stages: he would leave as PM, then leave as MP, and finally leave as party leader. This was the reason he suddenly took “vacation” immediately after his announcement that he would step down.
Thaksin spun an elaborate tale of palace intrigue, accusing privy councilors Prem and Surayud of conspiring against him, including blaming Surayud for bringing Gen. Chamlong out of retirement to head the opposition “People’s Alliance for Democracy.” He claimed that courtiers in the palace are manipulating the infirm and isolated King, Thaksin repeated his theory that the King sees Thaksin as rival for the loyalty of the people in the countryside. Thaksin denied trying to rival the King, saying that he was a just a “simple peasant” who wanted to be among the people and eat in noodle shops. He described the King, with barely-concealed disdain, as “provincial,” unaware of the changes that had taken place in the world (“never been on a Boeing 747″), and accused him of “thinking he owns the country.” Thaksin advisor Pansak Vinyaratn said that recent events were a return to “absolute monarchy.” Thaksin told Brooks that he “cannot come back as prime minister as long as this King is alive.” He unironically compared himself to Aung San Suu Kyy — the winner of a democratic election who is not allowed to take office. He dismissed the courts’ annulment of the elections as a sham. He claimed that, if it were not for his financial power and grassroots support, he’d be chased into exile.
Although Thaksin had pledged to withdraw from politics in three stages, he hoped to draw out the stages. He mentioned his strong relationship with the Crown Prince (implying that, once the present King was dead, he would have an ally on the throne.) He planned to lead TRT into the next elections — whenever they are — and run as an MP. He expressed complete confidence that TRT would emerge with a commanding majority again. Thaksin would only announce that he would not serve as Prime Minister after the election, so as not to affect the enthusiasm of TRT’s base or hamper their ability to set out the vote.
Boyce had always been far more sympathetic towards the royalists than Thaksin, and questioned whether his latest account was honest:
Thaksin’s diatribe and revisionist history are highly suspect; we are not convinced that the King and his minions pushed Thaksin out of office. Thaksin’s enormous ego has taken a tremendous battering this year, and it may be hard for him to grasp how a rag-tag bunch of demonstrators somehow started a process that led to this deadly challenge to his political future. He would rather see the King as his nemesis.
But in spite of his bias, Boyce did not deny that the royalists were conspiring to bring Thaksin down:
We agree with the underlying theme of Thaksin’s complaint — the palace has aligned against him and will (carefully) seek ways to support the effort to drive him from politics definitively.
Pansak Vinyaratn, Thaksin’s chief political advisor, gave yet another version of events during a meeting with Ralph Boyce and Eric John on May 22. Pansak’s account accords partly with what Surayud had said: Thaksin told Bhumibol he would stand aside, and Bhumibol simply nodded. Given that Pansak and Surayud were political foes, the fact they both agreed on this account of the meeting makes it likely that this is indeed what happened. But Pansak echoed Thaksin’s claim that after the meeting, the prime minister was telephoned by a senior royalist telling him he had to resign right away. He said the elderly Bhumibol was being manipulated by a network of royalists around Prem Tinsulanonda who were determined to drive Thaksin out of politics forever:
Asked about the circumstances behind Thaksin’s decision to step down as Prime Minister, Pansak accused a small cabal of advisors in the palace of interpreting the King’s words and actions to force Thaksin’s resignation. He said that Privy Councilor Prem Tinsulanonda (whom Pansak referred to as the “Monarch, Jr.”) was a key player in this group. He said that Prem viewed Thaksin as an “inappropriate” Prime Minister because he did not share enough with the “old power groups” in Bangkok.
Pansak reaffirmed that Thaksin had intended to withdraw from politics all along, but that he wanted to leave in a credible, face-saving manner. When Thaksin told the King, during their April 4 meeting, that he was willing to resign, the King nodded and then ended the meeting. It was only later that Thaksin received a phone call from one of the King’s advisors telling him that the nod, meant that he should resign immediately. Pansak lamented that “Thaksin took the King’s ephemeral statements too seriously” and was thus manipulated by the King’s advisors. Asked if he thought Prem and his confederates were acting independent of the monarch, Pansak said, “Yes. The King is never that explicit.” Nevertheless, he noted, the outcome is favorable for the King as it allows him to maintain plausible deniability of any interference in the democratic process while appearing as the stabilizing force in Thai democracy. In the end, according to Pansak, “whichever serf wins, he will give credit to the King.”
Boyce was sceptical, commenting in his cable to Washington that Pansak’s “theory of a palace cabal acting independent of the King sounds farfetched”. In fact, events since April 2006 showed such a theory was not so far-fetched all all. Leading royalists were explicitly conspiring to bring Thaksin down. Bhumibol clearly approved of their aims — he too wanted Thaksin out of politics — but the extent to which he agreed with their methods remains unknown. This is how the network monarchy had served Rama IX for decades: they strove to achieve what they believed the king wanted, whether or not he had actually ordered them to do so. And now, the network monarchy was determined to destroy Thaksin Shinawatra.
The political intrigues of March and April 2006 were a turning point in Thailand’s political strife and the genesis of the crisis that has since engulfed the monarchy. This was the time that Thaksin Shinawatra realized beyond doubt that the “good men” of the network monarchy were explicitly and relentlessly conspiring to crush his political ambitions, and that King Bhumibol at the very least sympathized with their aims. Thaksin had never shown republican inclinations, but he was a born fighter, and it was now unambiguously clear that Bhumibol’s circle were his enemies. The years of shadow boxing were over. This was war.
In a very revealing speech to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand in August 2007, Thaksin’s longtime ally Jakrapob Penkair said Thaksin had never intended to get into an open conflict with the palace and the network monarchy, but had drifted into the battle “sleepwalkingly”:
I was with him so I knew that he didn’t launch those policies philosophically. He simply wanted to do his job. He wants to be liked. He wants to be loved. He wants to be a useful rich man.
Jakrapob’s analysis is highly credible because Jakrapob genuinely was a republican, and he had become increasingly impatient with Thaksin precisely because Thaksin did not have any particular ideological opposition to an activist monarchy. He just wanted to be able to govern without the meddling of geriatric royalists like Prem Tinsulanonda.
By enthusiastically sailing into battle against Thaksin, who for all his faults was the unambiguous electoral choice of Thailand’s people, the royalists turned him into a dangerous and vengeful enemy who had no intention of being bundled unceremoniously out of politics by a bunch of unelected and mostly elderly men who resented his power and popularity. The royalists were sleepwalking too, blundering into a far more perilous confrontation than they realized. They were dragging King Bhumibol — unwittingly or otherwise — into an unnecessary and bitter conflict that would prove devastating to the prestige and survival prospects of the Thai monarchy.
Bhumibol was by no means unaware of the enormous risks of stepping too boldly beyond his constitutional bounds, but his views about what constituted acceptable royal activism in a modern democracy were woefully out of touch with reality. This became clear on April 25, when the king made his most direct and open intervention of the crisis so far. In two speeches to judges broadcast on Thai television, Bhumibol said of the political situation: “It is, pardon me, a mess.” He ordered the judges to sort it out.
U.S. charge d’affaires Alexander Arvizu recounted what happened in a cable to Washington:
King Bhumibol Adulyadej yesterday gave two of the most direct and to-the-point speeches in recent years to the newly sworn-in judges of the Administrative and Supreme Courts. In these speeches, the King questioned the democratic nature of the April 2 general elections as well as the “correctness” of dissolving Parliament and calling for snap elections in the first place. He reminded the Administrative Court that it is their job to consider these issues, and opened the possibility of nullifying the elections. He further asserted that invoking Article 7 of the Constitution to have the royally-appointed Prime Minister would be undemocratic, The King therefore called on the courts and other institutions to work together to resolve the current political chaos…
In his first speech of the night to the judges of the Administrative Court, the King asserted that “it is impossible for a democratic election to have only one party and one candidate. This is undemocratic.” He further questioned why no one discussed whether dissolving the Parliament and calling for a snap election within thirty days was the “correct” decision in the first place. If not, he suggested, one would need to “solve the problem,” including ”perhaps nullifying the elections.”
The King stressed that the current political state is quite a “mess,” and that for him to intervene would only make it messier. He called on the three courts (Constitutional, Administrative, and Supreme Courts) to work together to ”urgently decide, otherwise the country would collapse.”
Bhumibol genuinely thought he was showing great restraint by rejecting calls for him to intervene directly through appointing a new prime minister himself, and instead giving the responsibility to the courts to sort out the mess. In his speeches he used the Thai word for “democracy” without any qualifications, unlike in his famous 1992 intervention when he dismissively spoke of “so-called democracy”. And — incredibly — according to privy councillor Surayud in a conversation with Boyce in May, Bhumibol had explicitly intended his words and actions to be a riposte to Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles and its central thesis that Rama IX had meddled in politics throughout his reign. It was more evidence of Bhumibol’s obsession with his image and how he was perceived abroad:
Surayud explained that the King’s recent remarks to key judges emphasizing his position as a “monarch under the Constitution” were made in part as a response to allegations made in Paul Handley’s yet-to-be-published book “The King Never Smiles” which assert that the King has little respect for democratic principles. Surayud was convinced that the King intended to see the present political stand-off resolved through the courts.
But by telegraphing the outcome he wanted — the voiding of the April 2 elections — Bhumibol was not only obviously intervening himself, but he was also entangling another supposedly neutral institution in Thailand’s crisis: the judiciary. He was compromising the independence of the courts. And his apparent belief that wading into judicial territory was not just acceptable but in fact was a sign of his restraint and commitment to the constitution showed how little Bhumibol understood about how democracy should work.
Ever since Bhumibol’s speech that day, the Thai judiciary has played an activist role in Thailand’s political crisis, unambiguously siding with the royalists against Thaksin on repeated occasions. The courts had never been particularly admirable: for decades, money had usually been able to buy justice in Thailand. But following Bhumibol’s intervention, the judiciary has plainly been a player in the political conflict, issuing decisions time and again that targeted Thaksin and favoured his opponents. The king had only divided Thailand even further, and deepened the crisis the country was facing.
On May 8, as expected following Bhumibol’s remarks, the Constitutional Court ruled that the snap election had been unconstitutional, and new elections must be held. The judges had done exactly what Bhumibol had told them to do, as Boyce made clear in a cable on May 10:
The King’s statements likely served as a significant motivator for the Court. In a salient part of his speech, the King said that “another point is whether it was right to dissolve the House and call for snap election within 30 days. There was no debate about this. If it is not right, it must be corrected. Should the election be nullified? You have the right to say what’s appropriate or not. If it’s not appropriate, it is not to say the government is not good. But as far as I am concerned, a one-party election is not normal. The one candidate situation is undemocratic.”
After nullifying the election, the judges went even further: they called for the election commissioners who had overseen the polls to resign. One complied but three refused, leading to another legal battle. In 2007 allies of Thaksin released a recording of a telephone discussion between two senior Supreme Court officials and a senior bureaucrat, discussing how to force out the election commissioners. It was clear from their discussion that they explicitly saw it as their duty to follow Bhumibol’s instructions: their duty was to the king, not to the law. But they were anxious to pretend otherwise, particularly in light of Handley’s book. At one point, Virat Chinvinijkul, who was Supreme Court secretary at the time (he is now a judge), declared:
When releasing information publicly we are afraid to talk about the Royal Address because it was his speech to direct us. We follow his orders. Foreigners won’t accept it.
Later in the conversation, Virat also stated that Prem Tinsulanonda was heavily involved, phoning the president of the Supreme Court every morning. Virat said that because of this, “His Majesty knows every step we take.” Prem was actively meddling in the deliberations of the supposedly independent judiciary on matters pertaining to the fate of Thaksin.
The extent of the collaboration by royalists, judges and generals to undermine Thaksin was further revealed by a dinner party hosted by Piya Malakul at his Sukhumvit residence on the evening of May 6. Piya was a minor royal who ran a media conglomerate had fallen out with Thaksin even before he became prime minister during a power struggle over the ITV television channel. He also had a long history of producing propaganda for the palace, including using his radio station to denounce protesters in May 1992 as republicans and traitors to Thailand. Guests at the dinner included Administrative Court president Akrathorn Chullarat, Supreme Court president Chanchai Likhitchitta, Supreme Court official Charan Pakdithanakul, privy councillor Surayud Chulanont and retired General Panlop Pinmanee — a slithery character who has changed sides with dizzying regularity throughout Thailand’s years of political crisis. The dinner party became public knowledge in 2009 when Panlop — by now back in Thaksin’s camp — told Thaksin that a coup had been discussed that evening. Surayud and Piya both admitted that the meeting took place, but both rather lamely insisted they had only exchanged views on the political situation. Surayud told a news conference that:
It would have been stupid of me to discuss plotting a coup with judges. I would have been better off discussing it with military commanders.
Piya told a similar story, claiming:
I only wanted to hear what the country’s top judges who happened to be my friends had to say about the situation… I can confirm there was no talk of a coup or about who was going to get what position. There was not a single military officer there. How could we discuss a coup?
Their denials were interestingly specific: they said they never discussed a military coup, but they did not deny discussing how to sabotage Thaksin’s political career. Given the events of April and May, particularly the sudden activism of the courts to undermine Thai Rak Thai, it is highly suspicious that judges met with senior royalists that evening.
The judicial intervention, however, had the unintended effect of giving Thaksin a way to remain in politics for the time being. He had promised not to be prime minister in the next parliament, but with the April elections annulled, a new parliament could be several months away, and Thaksin could continue as “caretaker prime minister” in the meantime. Having had some time to reflect, Thaksin had also made up his mind not to give up without a fight. He was going to try to stay in power.
On May 23, Thaksin Shinawatra formally resumed work as prime minister, chairing the weekly cabinet meeting. For the moment, he was still very much a political player.
During May 2006, Ralph “Skip” Boyce wrote a lengthy cable analyzing Thailand’s political crisis. He titled it: “MANICHAEAN STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF THAILAND“. Boyce was by no means an objective observer of Thai politics, but he was astute enough to realize that the escalating conflict was far more than a power struggle over Thaksin’s influence:
The Thai political crisis has grown increasingly complicated, as multiple lawsuits work their way through the three high courts, charged by the King with finding a solution to the “mess” created by the “undemocratic” April 2 parliamentary elections. Thailand will spend most of 2006 in a protracted political crisis…
At issue is not just who will be the next prime minister. Rather, this is a confrontation between different models for Thai society, playing out in the struggle between the beloved King, and all he represents, and the popular prime minister, and what he portends. Right now, the momentum is running against Thaksin, who may have to pay a high price for his hubris. But in the longer run, the King is old and the Thailand he represents is changing. Thaksin faces serious challenges right now, but he, or someone like him, is likely to be back.
In his cable, Boyce analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the alternative visions for Thailand represented by Bhumibol and Thaksin:
On the one hand, the King represents traditional Thai values: respect for age and authority, moderation, modesty, and Buddhist values. He is the father of the people, his country is the Thailand of the rice farmers. He champions “sufficiency economy,” in which people eschew debt and dreams of quick riches, and instead build their lives around honest labor and prudent investment. Pictures of him are everywhere in the country, iconographic images often showing him with the elderly, the poor, and children.
On the other hand, to some the King represents an old and perhaps out-dated order. His periodic interventions in Thai politics may, as in 1992, have had a positive influence, but he has also supported military governments and condoned their human rights abuses in the past. Governments come and go, but the King has been there since before most Thai were born. Knowing this to some degree discourages the Thai from taking the training wheels off their democracy, building strong institutions and relying on them, instead of the monarch, to unify their nation and defend their rights.
On the one hand, Thaksin Shinawatra represents a modern political and economic order. He is decisive, not risk-averse, confident about himself and about Thailand’s place in the world. He is the CEO of Thailand, Inc. His Thailand is best symbolized by Bangkok’s many luxury shopping malls — it’s big! it’s modern! everything here is imported and expensive! He advocates a mixture of capitalism (red in tooth and claw) with populism. He tells the rural people to do what he did — borrow money, think big, leave behind your rural roots, play the system, and strike it rich. I did, and so can you. People don’t put up his photos, but his Shin Corp. products are everywhere — its cell phones in every shopping center and many pockets, its TV station beamed to every TV set.
On the other hand, to some people Thaksin represents everything that is wrong with development in southeast Asia. He is greedy, corrupt, inherently undemocratic under his facade, (did we mention corrupt?), conceited and self-promoting. In his heart, he defers to no one — not to age, not to Buddhist hierarchy, and not to the King. He introduced many positive aspects to Thai politics: his party had a platform that attracted rural voters, and he kept many of his promises to them, introducing the 30 baht health scheme and cheap credit for farmers. But the cost was high — a Prime Minister who, in the end, disdains many of the key features of a democracy, such as a free press and civil society, and was eager to grasp power more openly and greedily than any civilian PM before him.
At the elite level, Thailand’s conflict was a clash between two rival power networks — the informal alliance of leading royalists versus Thaksin’s political juggernaut. It was a bare-knuckles fight for supremacy among competing factions in the ruling oligarchy. Neither side was democratic or particularly admirable. The royalists tried to claim the moral high ground by insisting they possessed some kind of inherent virtue in contrast to the corruption and venality of the Thaksin camp. But in fact, most of the “good men” were no better than Thaksin’s cronies. The attempts to portray Prem as an ethical titan in a good-versus-evil battle with Thaksin were particularly ridiculous: his administration in the 1980s had been characterized by rampant corruption and shady backroom deals just like Thaksin’s in the 21st century. It was not a moral conflict: it was a naked power struggle.
But as Boyce observed in his cable, the conflict was not just a brawl between two elite networks. It was much more than that too. It was becoming an ideological battle over fundamental issues of concern to everybody in the country, from the richest to the poorest. It was a struggle over whether sovereignty derived from the monarch or from the people, over how democracy should work in 21st century Thailand, over what it meant to be Thai. For all Thaksin’s obvious corruption and authoritarianism, by 2006 he stood for those who believed in popular sovereignty and opposed the cabal of royalists and generals who for decades had run Thailand. Thaksin Shinawatra was no democrat, but he had found himself on the side of democracy.
The royalists of the network monarchy were incandescent over Thaksin’s return to work, viewing it as a brazen snub to Bhumibol’s wishes. It was certainly a brazen challenge to Prem and his cronies: Thaksin was signalling to them that he would not go down without a fight. With the 60th anniversary celebrations of Rama IX’s reign looming, open hostilities had to be put on hold, but behind the scenes, the confrontation was uglier than ever.
Sometime in early June, Boyce met Thaksin again, and sent a cable to Washington about their discussion: cable 06BANGKOK3349, entitled “NOODLES WITH THAKSIN”. Whatever they discussed was deemed so sensitive by the U.S. embassy that it was classified as top secret, which meant it was not sent electronically: a physical copy was conveyed to the United States via diplomatic pouch. We know the cable exists because it is referenced in five subsequent leaked cables. The extreme level of secrecy suggests Thaksin shared highly sensitive information about the palace. In cable 06BANGKOK4040 Boyce references 06BANGKOK3349 after stating:
Thaksin…says that the King told him on May 19 that Thaksin could never return as PM.
Since none of the cables obtained by WikiLeaks contains a direct report of such an incident, it appears this was the focus of the top secret cable: Thaksin informed Boyce during a meal of noodles that Bhumibol had told him he could never return as prime minister. Whether Thaksin was telling the truth remains unknown, but the fact that he would make such a claim to Boyce shows the extent to which his working relationship with the king had broken down.
For the sake of appearances, such differences had to be put aside for the 60th anniversary ceremonies. But the political tensions were never far from the surface: the whole Diamond Jubilee celebration was a show of strength by the royalists, with Thais donning yellow clothing to proclaim their devotion to Bhumibol, the same colour that had been appropriated by the PAD. The royalists seem to have concluded from the scenes of adulation of June 9 that Bhumibol’s popularity far outstripped Thaksin’s and that they would easily triumph in their confrontation with the prime minister. Prem told Boyce that:
After seeing the adoring crowds on June 9, a million people in their yellow shirts who waited for hours in the heat just to catch a glimpse of their King, Thaksin should understand that he cannot rival the King for the people’s affection, Prem concluded.
And Boyce himself drew the same conclusion from the extraordinary scenes of June 9:
Thaksin recently told the Ambassador that his own popularity in the countryside is seen by the palace as threatening to the King’s popular standing. After this weekend’s massive, unprecedented display of public adoration for the monarch, however, one hopes that Thaksin has a firm enough grasp of reality to reconsider this idea.
But what the royalists — and Boyce — had failed to grasp was that most ordinary Thais did not yet feel that they had to make a choice between their adulation for Bhumibol and their support for Thaksin. Most ordinary people who strongly backed Thaksin also genuinely and instinctively revered the king. But that was soon to dramatically change, as a result of the hubris and rash overreaching of the royalist elite.
As soon as the celebrations were over, open political warfare resumed. Thaksin launched another salvo of defamation lawsuits, against the Democrat Party for calling him a “bloodsucking demon” and against three newspapers for printing the slur. Meanwhile, the judicial onslaught against Thai Rak Thai escalated, with moves to seek the dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai party for electoral irregularities gathering pace. Two of the last remaining royalists with senior government positions, cabinet secretary Bowornsak Uwanno and deputy prime minister Wissanu Krea-Ngam, abandoned ship, resigning from their posts.
On June 29, Thaksin went on the offensive once again. In a speech to assembled bureaucrats and military officers he declared that a “charismatic person outside the constitution” was plotting to overthrow him. The English translation fails to capture the nuances of the Thai phrase: the taciturn Prem was not a particularly charismatic individual in the English-language sense of the word, but the Thai word, barami, conveys the sense of being influential and of high status close to the palace. Thaksin added:
I will not allow any changes that don’t observe the democratic process. I will protect democracy. Let me repeat: I will protect democracy with my life.
There was little doubt who he was referring to: Thaksin Shinawatra was publicly throwing down the gauntlet to his royalist nemesis Prem Tinsulanonda. The result was uproar. Even Boyce appeared shocked, in a cable that greatly overestimated Prem’s popularity:
After a brief break to celebrate the King’s 60th anniversary on the throne, PM Thaksin has come out swinging, more aggressively than ever. While his own political fortunes are still very unclear, he appears bent on fighting every step of the way, and taking everyone down with him if he goes. He may have miscalculated, however, in making a not-so-veiled attack on the very popular Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda…
Thaksin’s comments have been described by various academics “an open declaration of war.” In addition to the high esteem the public feels for Prem himself, the General is regarded in many ways as a proxy for the King.
The following day, royalist conspirator Piya Malakul weighed in, with a diatribe about Thaksin full of scurrilous smears:
The Ambassador met on June 30 with Piya Malakul Na Ayutthaya (protect), a close associate of the Queen and a very knowledgeable palace insider. Piya said that those attending the PM’s speech had been shocked by his attack on Gen. Prem; Piya has received many calls since the speech expressing dismay and asking what should be done about the PM’s remarks…
The Ambassador noted that Thaksin felt he was a rival of the King for the affections of the rural population. Piya agreed, and pointed out how TRT officials had sycophantically received Thaksin on his trips to the North and Northeast, swelling his ego…
Everyone is speculating on why Thaksin launched this attack. Piya claims that Thaksin is taking large doses of Valium (28 mg) to cope with the pressure he’s under. The Democrat party spokesman suggested that Prem may be operating behind the scenes, encouraging the Constitutional Court justices to find against Thaksin; these efforts may have come to Thaksin’s attention, infuriating him so that he blew a gasket… Others point to Thaksin’s penchant for spouting off combined with his ingrained arrogance. Whatever the reason, this was a reckless act, provocative to society at large and particularly to the Army…
Whether on account of stress or hubris, Thaksin has seemingly overstepped, leaving himself exposed by firing off a salvo in the general direction of the Palace. Given the growing impatience of the King (and those around him) with prime minister, everyone is waiting to see what the response will be to Thaksin’s upping the political ante.
Piya also told Boyce that “if the situation did not resolve itself soon, the Army might step in, in some unspecified manner”.
Prem himself shared his opinions with Boyce in a July 5 meeting. The ambassador’s cable on their discussion is remarkable for his own outraged interjections about Thaksin’s comment:
Thaksin’s comments were construed by many as an open declaration of war against Prem, all the more surprising (or foolhardy) given Prem’s stature and close relationship with the King. Meeting Prem at his home, I joked that he seemed to be exuding charisma. Prem immediately launched into a 50 minute discourse on “what makes Thaksin tick?” …
Prem was… shocked to hear the accounts of Thaksin’s speech last week. At first, he couldn’t believe the reports, especially when he realized that Thaksin had not been speaking off the cuff, but from a prepared speech. Prem’s first thought was, “What does he think he’s doing?” (Comment: our question as well. End comment.)
Ominously, several senior generals also said they were horrified by Thaksin’s remarks, including army commander Sonthi Boonyaratglin. In a discussion with Boyce, Sonthi insisted however that the military had no intention of getting involved:
Sonthi was appalled by the thinly-veiled attack on Prem (himself one of Sonthi’s predecessors as Army Commander). Sonthi said that the situation is untenable but he doesn’t know how it can be resolved. The current crisis revolves around one man — Thaksin. The PM has the ability to end the crisis by going away, but he doesn’t want to go away.
The army chief was lying: royalists and generals were already discussing military intervention. Even Boyce realized he might not be hearing the truth, commenting:
We take him at face value; that said, one can never completely rule out the potential for military intervention in Thailand.
What was ironic about the theatrical outrage that greeted Thaksin’s remark was that what he had said was, quite plainly, absolutely true. The prime minister had a well-deserved reputation for sophistry and deception, but it was widely accepted in Thai politics that the country’s leaders would routinely spin fairytales with little relation to reality. The reason for the horrified reaction among the royalists was that for once, Thaksin told the truth. He refused to play along with the fiction that the “good men” of the network monarchy were above politics. He dropped the pretence and said what everybody knew to be true: Prem was at the heart of efforts by the royalists to bring down his government and push him out of politics forever. Honesty, it seemed, was a much worse offence than lying as far as the elite monarchist gerontocracy was concerned.
The claim that by exposing Prem’s machinations Thaksin was blatantly badmouthing Bhumibol was also bogus. Prem was nowhere near as popular as Boyce and the Thai military appeared to believe. Not only was he viewed with considerable suspicion by many ordinary Thais, but he was also increasingly out of favour with Bhumibol himself. Prem derived his power from the assumption that he was Rama IX’s proxy, the lynchpin of the network monarchy, and that had indeed been true through the 1980s and 1990s. Many believe it remains true even today, but in fact Bhumibol has paid Prem less and less attention over the past decade, and the old general’s access to the palace has steadily dwindled. Thaksin was aware of this fact: his political adviser Pansak had (correctly) told Boyce in May that “Prem rarely meets directly with the King”. A cable by Boyce’s better-informed successor Eric G. John in 2009 made the same point:
Prem is not particularly close to the King, as it turns out. While the Embassy has seen many instances of this over the years, perhaps the most notable came during the December 2006 visit to Thailand of former President George H.W. Bush. When King Bhumibol offered to host a dinner for former President and Barbara Bush, Prem did not make the initial guest list drawn up by the Royal Household Bureau on the King’s behalf, despite having worked with the former President as Thai PM from 1980-88.
A key reason for Prem’s declining influence in the palace was that Bhumibol increasingly favoured Anand Panyarachun as his proxy. Sirikit, meanwhile, also grew less enamoured of Prem due to his obvious antipathy towards her beloved son Vajiralongkorn. But the privy council president was determined to assert his authority and protect his position at the centre of the network monarchy. And because many Thais continued to assume that Prem was the favourite of the palace — a misperception that Prem did nothing to correct — the old general was able to preserve immense influence. This was a key flaw in the network monarchy system, especially with Bhumibol increasingly detached from day-to-day politics and going into semi-seclusion by the seaside: even many senior royalists were unsure how much authority self-proclaimed palace proxies like Prem actually possessed. As Eric John said in his 2009 cable:
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’s special relationship with Bhumibol was over, and his influence had been curtailed by the ascendancy of Thaksin’s rival political network, but he was still a force to be reckoned with. In particular, the upper ranks of the military tended to be deferential to him, not least because he jealously guarded had made sure he retained a key role in deciding the annual military promotions list. His rival Anand lacked a significant support base in the military, and indeed had always been an opponent of military intervention in politics. Prem also built close business links with some of Thailand’s most powerful companies including Bangkok Bank and the Charoen Pokphand Group, despite this being frowned upon for members of the privy council. At New Year and on his birthday in August, processions of high-ranking military officers, politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen still make their way to his Sisao Thewet residence in Bangkok to pay obeisance to him.
It was, of course, convenient for Thaksin and his allies to insist that Prem was acting without Bhumibol’s blessing and that their conflict with Prem did not imply a power struggle with the palace. While the extent to which Bhumibol approved of — or was even aware of — Prem’s scheming remains unclear, the king was clearly an enemy of Thaksin and wanted him out of politics. But singling out Prem as their prime opponent was not just a tactical move by Thaksin and his allies: it was a response to the reality that the privy council president was not always acting on Bhumibol’s instructions. He was playing his own game.
In a discussion on July 4, 2006 with Karl Jackson of the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Thaksin was scathing about Prem:
Jackson told the Ambassador that Thaksin was clearly under enormous pressure, but did not give any indication of being under the influence of tranquilizers. He continued his attack on Privy Council President Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, saying that Prem thought that a Privy Councillor was higher than a Prime Minister and that the political ‘elite’ of the country think Thaksin is ‘a peasant.’ He claimed that many of his opponents are ‘living off land given them by the palace’ and said that the courts were being used in an anti-democratic fashion. Renewing his personal assault on Prem, he referred to the “(expletive deleted) democracy from the gay opposition.” (Note: a slur on Prem’s sexual orientation.) He hinted darkly at the threat of a coup or assassination attempt…
Over steak during a lunch with Boyce three days later, Thaksin acknowledged that Bhumibol had turned against him, and once again denounced Prem:
Thaksin defended his lightly veiled attack on Privy Council president Prem as an effort at transparency, i.e., revealing the “unconstitutional” palace intrigue against him.
I started out raising Thaksin’s inflammatory comments to civil servants last week, in which he described a “charismatic person” trying to overthrow the government. Although government and party spokesmen have tried to deny it, Thaksin freely admitted to me that he was referring to Privy Council President Prem. He said that he “wanted to flip on the lights and flush out the ghosts.” It was wrong, and undemocratic, for Prem to work against the PM behind the scenes. Thaksin alleged that Prem was trying to influence various judges involved in the key cases pending, including by “dangling the prospect” of a privy council position before one of them. Thaksin again honed in on Prem’s sexual orientation to criticize him in terms not fit for a family telegram…
I told Thaksin that he had changed Thai politics forever. His party had made promises to the poor rural population, and then kept them, such as setting up the 30 baht health plan and the village funds. Thaksin launched into an attack on the King and his vaunted “sufficiency economy” model. Thaksin said that he was proud of his origins as “a peasant;” he had gotten ahead by managing debt and risk, and this was what the rural population needed to do. (Comment: Thaksin neglects to mention that it helps to have prominent relatives, marry well, and get advantageous government concessions from your friends. End comment.) Thaksin claimed that the policies advocated by the King kept the people poor, while TRT’s policies had changed the countryside, making the people “smarter and richer” and less dependent on the King. This was part of the reason for the King’s opposition to Thaksin…
Thaksin, without any discernible irony, lamented the weak state of Thai institutions. He said that Thai society was “stupid” and did not understand the importance of the rule of law. Thaksin understood this because he had studied it, and had gotten his Ph.D. in America. He extemporized on the importance of grass roots democracy, how the people tell the government what they need and the government delivers it through appropriate mechanisms. This was how TRT worked, he said, contrasting it with the old duffers on the Privy Council and their top-down view of government…
Thaksin Shinawatra was clearly a very angry man. He felt betrayed by Bhumibol and he harboured particular hatred for Prem. He no longer had any illusions about Rama IX’s supposed benevolence and wisdom. He was fully aware that he was on a collision course with the palace. And he did not shy away from the enormity of that. It had always been one of Thaksin’s greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses that whatever the odds, he was always ready to fight.
Boyce, however, was convinced Thaksin would lose. He commented:
Thaksin is mistaken to think that he can win a showdown with the Palace. In addition to the historical reverence for the King, the palace is widely viewed by civil society as providing the only counterweight to the excessive power that Thaksin has accrued, in part through the clever use of his enormous wealth to distort the political system.
Thaksin also told Boyce that he was resigned to stepping down as prime minister after the election rerun, now scheduled for October.
Thaksin said he had a three stage plan. First, TRT would win the upcoming elections. Thaksin would not serve as PM, but another TRT figure would fill this position. Thaksin would remain as head of the party and MP. After about a year, Thaksin would step down from the party leadership, and about a year after that, would resign his MP slot. He would then start the “Pak Suk Niyom” — the “Hedonist” Party.
I asked, if he was planning to step down anyway, why not announce that now, and reduce the political tensions? Thaksin answered that he might do that; he was playing it day by day. I noted that his chances of coming back as PM in the more distant future would probably be improved if he stepped down now. I asked whether he would like to return as PM some day. He answered that, at this time, he wasn’t particularly interested in being PM again. He was fairly fed up. He claimed, however, that he couldn’t resign now, while the government was in caretaker mode, under Thai law. He completely dismissed the suggestion that he could not leave politics because he needed political position to protect against assets seizure. He said that he had not done anything wrong that would subject him to that kind of punishment. I urged him again to consider announcing soon that he would not be back as prime minister, to spare the country from the continuing political tension.
Throughout this part of the conversation, Thaksin was quite combative, sprinkling threats to sue his opponents into his speech.
Thaksin was convinced Thai Rak Thai would win elections whenever they were held, and his confidence was well-founded. The Democrat Party under its new leader Abhisit Vejjajiva remained deeply unimpressive, unable to connect with most Thai voters. Both Thaksin and Boyce were well aware of this:
I commented that Thaksin was lucky that the main opposition party was so weak. The Democrat Party had not capitalized on the opportunities presented by the current political situation, and was not coming up with new ideas for the upcoming campaign. Thaksin agreed. He said that the Democrat Party was hidebound and hierarchical. The current leader, Abhisit, was like the previous leader, Chuan — passive and indecisive.
The incompetence of the Democrat Party was widely acknowledged both by Thaksin’s allies and his opponents. His adviser Pansak had been equally contemptuous in a conversation with Boyce in May:
He was dismissive of the Democrat Party’s ability to effectively run in a future election, and called Democrat Party leader Aphisit’s declaration that he was ready to be Prime Minister “laughable.” The Democrats had not offered any new policies and have failed to capitalize on the situation. “Their one unifying goal was to remove Thaksin, they don’t offer voters a real alternative.”
Bhumibol’s principal private secretary Arsa Sarasin trashed the Democrats in remarks to the ambassador in July:
Asa complained that the main opposition Democrat Party was hopeless; Thaksin was keeping it on the defensive with a series of lawsuits… Asa expected Thai Rak Thai to win the majority of seats in the next parliament.
This was the dilemma the elite royalists faced. The political party that they were aligned with, and which represented the only real parliamentary opposition to Thaksin, was utterly useless. Everybody knew Thai Rak Thai would thrash the Democrats whenever an election was held. And so Thaksin’s opponents plotted undemocratic ways to remove him from power instead.
Piya Malakul’s discussion with Boyce on June 30 revealed another key development in the battle between Thaksin and the royalists. Although Bhumibol had long been contemptuous of Thaksin, Sirikit and (especially) Vajiralongkorn had been more favourably inclined towards the prime minister. This was partly because Thaksin had helped the queen and the crown prince with some of their expenses over the preceding decade. Vajiralongkorn hated Prem and the elderly royalist “good men” and was grateful for Thaksin’s financial support. Sirikit had always favoured strong leaders and had never thought Thailand needed democracy. She tended to follow the advice of a cabal of ladies-in-waiting, one of whom, Thanpuying Viriya Chavakul, was a fervent supporter of Thaksin: U.S. ambassador Eric John described her as “a prodigious fund-raiser who was also Thaksin’s chief agent of influence in palace circles”. But after 2003, Viriya’s influence declined, and in mid-2006 Piya poisoned Sirikit’s views of Thaksin:
There was an overseas website which for months had carried scurrilous and crude attacks on the monarchy. Piya presented a convincing case that he had traced the source of the money being paid to the webmaster of this site (usdols 4000/month) to the wife of the TRT deputy secretary general Phumtham Vechayachai. He described the website as part of a program by Thaksin and his supporters to diminish the role of the monarchy…
Piya said he had spent three days with the Queen right before the 60th anniversary celebrations earlier last month “explaining” to her what the PM was up to. He gave her hundreds of pages of printouts from the anti-monarchy website. (Comment: The Queen was long considered a Thaksin supporter in the Palace, perhaps beholden to the PM for funding and for his support for her rather unpopular son. Piya’s story corroborates what we have heard from other sources, that the Queen may no longer be a fan of Thaksin. End comment.)
Sirikit’s role in the crisis became increasingly toxic in the years that followed, doing immense damage to the credibility and sustainability of the monarchy.
Increasingly under siege, Thaksin wrote a letter to U.S. president George W. Bush on June 23, again accusing his opponents of attempting to undermine him through undemocratic and unconstitutional means:
Having failed to provoke violence and disorder, my opponents are now attempting various extra Constitutional tactics to co-opt the will of the people…
I want to assure you that I will take steps to help got the country ready for free and fair elections, and to work to shift the national debate from one that is emotionally charged to one that reasonably discusses the central questions of Thailand’s future, including whether the country’s political governance will be decided through the ballot box or in the street. The answer to that question, Mr President, will have an important impact on the future course of democracy in Asia. I know that your agree with me that the rule of law and Constitutional order in Thailand and in Asia more broadly must prevail over demagoguery and mob action.
As with his remarks about Prem, the accusations made by Thaksin in his letter to Bush were broadly true. His claims to be a supporter of democracy and the rule of law were bogus, but he did at least have legitimacy from the ballot box, unlike his opponents. But writing the letter was another tactical mistake: the Americans were not going to do anything to help him out, and when the Thai foreign affairs ministry published the text of the letter it left Thaksin vulnerable to more denunciations by the PAD.
Sondhi Limthongkul, however, was running out of steam. His weekly rally on July 14 attracted only around 1,000 people. He announced a “final effort” to unseat Thaksin due on July 19, and a U.S. cable noted that he was increasingly short of cash:
According to several journalists who work for Sonthi, this new “final effort” against the PM may be a desperation move. The media magnate has apparently failed to pay both his local and foreign staff for nearly six weeks, citing the financial drain of ongoing lawsuits against him and his funding support for PAD activities. Some senior members of Sonthi’s staff have even speculated that if Thaksin is not out of office by September, Sonthi will have to fold his tent and declare bankruptcy.
But now the military moved to increase the pressure on Thaksin. On July 14, the 85-year-old Prem Tinsulanonda donned his full cavalry uniform for an extraordinary speech to cadets at the Chulachomklao Military Academy in the presence of fellow privy councillor Surayud Chulanont and army chief Sonthi Sonthi Boonyaratglin. Prem told the audience:
In horse racing, horse owners hire jockeys to ride the horses. The jockeys do not own the horses. They just ride them. A government is like a jockey. It supervises soldiers, but the real owners are the country and the King. The government comes and goes.
It was an open declaration of defiance, a clear message to the military that it should be loyal to Bhumibol, not Thaksin. Just three days later on July 17, army chief Sonthi announced a military reshuffle that moved officers thought to support Thaksin — in particular his former classmates from cadet school — out of key positions in Bangkok and the northeast. It was an uncharacteristically bold move by Sonthi, who was a generally weak and unremarkable character, and a U.S. cable quoted a military source as saying Sirikit had influenced the strategy:
One Embassy military contact — in the “for what it’s worth category” — believes that the cool and careful Sonthi would never have undertaken such a “provocative” move on his own. According to this same source, it was the Queen — no fan of Thaksin’s — who directed the Army Chief to push back against the PM’s cronies in the military.
In northern Thailand — Thaksin’s strongest powerbase — the Third Army commander, General Saprang Kanlayanamit, was openly hostile to the prime minister.
These were very troubling developments for Thai democracy. The military, which had seemed to have been mostly banished from politics after 1992, was once again asserting a muscular role. The ageing Prem was openly challenging an elected prime minister. And Queen Sirikit, whose interventions in the 1970s and 1980s had been so damaging, was once again meddling in politics. But blinded by their hatred of Thaksin, most of Bangkok’s elite and middle class did not appear concerned by the way things were going.
On July 25, the three election commissioners seen as loyal to Thaksin who had refused to resign were convicted of election violations and sentenced to four years in jail. Because they were denied bail, they were automatically disqualified from their posts. As U.S. charge d’affaires Arvizu noted in a cable, their conviction was further evidence of the politicization of the judiciary following Bhumibol’s speech:
The court’s decision not to grant bail will probably be viewed harsh, and based not solely on the law, but on the political need to sideline them in order to fulfill the King’s commission to “fix the election mess” and ensure free and fair elections in October. In sum, the court’s ruling not to grant bail was a political decision through and through. Although in the eyes of many, the “bad guys” got what they deserved, this was no victory for judicial transparency and the rule of law.
On August 24, 2006, police discovered and defused a car bomb close to Thaksin’s residence. The car’s owner, an army lieutenant who worked for Pallop Pinmanee, was arrested. Pallop was a deeply dubious character: he had a long history of scheming, had ordered the Krue Se mosque massacre in 2004 in defiance of direct orders to end the siege peacefully and had been one of the guests at Piya Malakul’s dinner party in May 2006. He has repeatedly played both sides in the political conflict over the past decade. Pallop denied any involvement in the bomb plot, of course, declaring:
You know me. If I were behind it, I would not have missed.
As always, investigations failed to find those responsible. There were certainly plenty of people who wanted Thaksin dead. But the most likely scenario is that allies of Thaksin were behind the whole incident, to give them a pretext to launch security measures that could help thwart any coup. Following the discovery of the car bomb, Thaksin said that for his own safety he would have to re-examine some of the recent military reshuffles: in particular he wanted to appoint some of his allies from the military pre-cadet school Class 10 in key position around Bangkok including 1st Army commander and the Royal Guard (1st Division) commander. Clearly, he was worried the military would launch a coup to topple him. A U.S. cable on the incident observed:
We still do not have enough information to reach a conclusion about who was behind the car bomb and what their goal was. The government is not doing a good job making its case that it was a serious assassination attempt. The arrested driver certainly does not sound like suicide bomber or assassin. The immediate move by the PM to seize an advantage and put his classmates in some important positions can be interpreted two ways, like most of what has happened so far. Either it’s a cynical manipulation to play up the alleged bomb to get concessions from the military the PM couldn’t get before. Or, it’s a prudent step to have friends watching his back during a dangerous time. In either case, it will exacerbate the negative view that much of the military now has of the PM, and contribute to already rising tensions.
The unfolding confrontation between the network monarchy and Thaksin was increasingly bitter and destabilizing. An atmosphere of tension and foreboding pervaded Bangkok in mid-2006. But the situation was by no means catastrophic: a major political conflict was playing out without massive violence or a collapse in governance. Key institutions still functioned, even though many were compromised to some degree. Thailand was polarized, but not paralyzed, and it had been through plenty of more tumultuous periods before. The country was not unravelling.
And yet as Ralph Boyce observed in a cable entitled “THAILAND: DIVIDED” in early September, many royalist elder statesmen were talking in apocalyptic tones about the political situation, as if it were the most baleful crisis Thailand had ever faced:
Thailand is more divided than ever in its history, according to many of post’s contacts. Former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun articulated this publicly in a speech on August 30. “Thai society is now polarized by strong hatred. If this condition is allowed to continue, we will be living in horrifying times.” He warned that Thailand was in danger of becoming a “failed state” if the polarization continues. “The Democrat Party can’t go to the North, while Thaksin can’t step foot in the South. What kind of country is this?” …
Privy Councillor Air Chief Marshall Siddhi Savetsila made remarks in late August at a small reception in honor of the Ambassador. He surprised the group by stating baldly that Thai society was more divided than he had seen in his lifetime.
Many media pundits, particularly Thanong Khanthong at The Nation, spoke in similar language during 2006, depicting Thailand as a country collapsing into ruin due to Thaksin’s influence. But Boyce was quite rightly dismissive of this view. The reason the elderly network monarchists were convinced the world was coming to an end was because their world was indeed dying: the traditional hierarchical feudalistic Thailand in which an unelected gerontocracy around the palace ran the affairs of state without challenge, and the uneducated peasantry uncomplainingly accepted their lowly position. Elderly relics like Prem, Anand and Siddhi were watching their influence ebb away, and an increasing number of Thais were disinclined to treat the “good men” with the deference they felt they deserved. And so, as grouchy old people often do, they dolourously declared that the country was going to the dogs:
Privy Councillor Siddhi is 86 years old, and has lived through every coup d’etat since the military overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932. Much of the public, like the Democrat’s Suthep, was upset by the TV images of the violence against protesters in August, but Thai elections historically are a contact sport. (For example, we reported 25 suspicious deaths of political canvassers in the 2001 Human Rights Report.) According to Thaksin, last month’s car bomb is not even the first time someone has tried to blow him up. In 2001, a still-unexplained explosion occurred on a Thai Airways jet minutes before Thaksin and a few hundred other passengers boarded. (There are two theories — either it was an accident involving the plane’s gas tank or a bomb placed by Thaksin’s enemies, but the official explanation at the time claimed that it was a bomb.) The deep concern about divisions in society voiced by our interlocutors seem to us disproportionate, given the strikingly peaceful and orderly demonstrations so far, especially when compared to Thailand’s turbulent history.
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.
The elite royalists and their military allies were not really fighting to save Thailand, or even to save the monarchy. They were fighting to save themselves, and their power and privileges.
Talking to Boyce on September 5, Thaksin’s adviser Pansak Vinyaratn reaffirmed that Thaksin planned to withdraw from politics after the planned October elections, and claimed the royalists were out to destroy Thailand:
Prem and his allies hoped to get rid not only of Thaksin, but also Thailand’s democratic system, Pansak asserted. The royalist oligarchy wanted to return to a prior era in which the Palace, not democratically elected politicians, would reign supreme…
The royalists, however, feared that Thaksin’s policies, which benefited and empowered the rural majority, would erode their own standing. The royalists were against democracy, he noted, dismissing the critique that Thaksin had consolidated power to an extreme degree…
Whatever Thaksin did or did not do, his enemies would continue coming after him; unconstrained by legal or rational justifications, these opponents would find ways to attack. Tragically, while the royalists and oligarchs were undermining Thaksin, the political landscape was bereft of credible alternative leaders. Given the King’s age, it was imperative for the Thai population to begin preparing psychologically for the King’s passing and for a transition to a system increasingly reliant on democratic structures rather than royal authority. The current crisis forestalled such preparation, however. ”It’s all about Prem becoming Regent,” Pansak warned.
Two weeks later, the military unseated Thailand’s most popular ever prime minister, in the 19th actual or attempted coup in the country’s modern history since 1932. Tanks and troops from outside the capital, commanded by royalist generals, trundled into the centre of Bangkok, some getting snarled in the rush-hour traffic. They effectively checkmated any attempt to resist by pro-Thaksin Bangkok commanders before it even began. Thaksin was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly: by the time he heard that tanks were on the move, it was already too late. He managed to broadcast a partial statement on Channel 9 television declaring state of emergency, but the signal was cut before finished. With royalist military units in control of the capital, the coup leaders were summoned to an audience with Bhumibol and Sirikit Chitralada Palace around midnight, signalling the king’s acquiescence in the military overthrow of an elected prime minister. A photograph of the audience was circulated to the media afterwards:
Sonthi told Boyce the following day that Bhumibol had been in high spirits at the audience:
I began by asking Sonthi about the audience with the King last night. Who had attended? He said Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda had brought him, Supreme Commander Ruangroj and Navy Commander Sathiraphan in to meet the King. Sonthi stressed that they had been summoned to the palace; he had not sought the audience. He said the King was relaxed and happy, smiling throughout.
There was nothing particularly unexpected about Bhumibol giving tacit endorsement to military coups. But what was unusual and troubling about the 2006 military takeover was the degree to which it was a royalist putsch: it was essentially a coup by the network monarchy. Above all, of course, Prem Tinsulanonda had been intimately involved, a fact that he continues to querulously deny even today. As Thongchai Winichakul wrote in comments on the coup in 2006:
This coup is not only for toppling Thaksin. It is a royalist coup with purposes. If one is not so naive, Prem’s fingerprints and footprints are all over the place for us to see…
The coup junta named itself The Council for Democratic Reform under the Monarchy. It later shortened the English-language version of the name to The Council For Democratic Reform, while leaving the Thai version unchanged. It was a clumsy attempt to avoid foreign news coverage linking the coup and the monarchy. Krit Garnjana-Goonchorn, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, insisted to the diplomatic corps in a briefing that Bhumibol had nothing to do with the coup:
Krit said that the CDRM had learned that the initial rendering of its title (The Council for Democratic Reform under the Constitutional Monarchy) had caused misunderstandings and “wrongly suggested some role for His Majesty in the September 19 intervention.” Therefore, the official title would now be simply the Council for Democratic Reform (CDR). During the Q’s and A’s, Krit returned to the question of the King’s role. He emphasized that the CDR had their audience with the King “after the process of the takeover” to report what had happened. “The King had no foreknowledge” of the coup. “He is above politics. Remember the past year; he has been cautious not to intervene. He turned down requests to appoint a prime minister under Article 7 of the Constitution. That was a clear indication of how the King applies his role as constitutional monarch.” He added, “We don’t want any misunderstanding about this — hence, the name change.”
As Boyce commented, the junta and its apologists were struggling with “angst over how to portray the King’s role”:
On the one hand, the CDR wants the legitimacy that comes from the perception that the King has accepted, if not approved, the coupmakers’ actions. At the same time, they do not want to be accused of causing damage to the King’s reputation by having exposed him to international criticism.
Whatever the junta wanted to call himself, its loyalty and links to the palace were clear.
A cable by U.S. ambassador Boyce two days after Thaksin was overthrown examined “THE MONARCHY’S ROLE IN THAILAND’S SEPTEMBER 19 COUP“:
It remains unclear whether Thailand’s King encouraged or provided approval in advance for the September 19 coup d’etat by the Council for Democratic Reform Under the Monarchy (CDRM). However, the CDRM is publicly linked to the monarchy to a greater extent than previous coup plotters, and the CDRM’s September 19 royal audience sent a clear public signal of Palace endorsement. Palace endorsement likely contributed to public support for the coup…
The CDRM’s public claims that it acted to maintain peace and order, and to protect the King against acts of lese majeste, were not unexpected or atypical. The CDRM’s inclusion of reference to the monarchy in the coup-plotters’ group name, however, appears unprecedented in Thai history. (A literal translation of the Thai version is: “Council for Reforming Governance in the Democratic System having His Majesty the King as Head of State.”) Also unprecedented is an alleged Royal Command, published online by the Prime Minister’s Office, in which the King “appoints General Sonthi as leader of the (CDRM), and demands… all government officials follow the orders of General Sonthi.” …
Given the widespread public understanding, especially in Bangkok, that Thaksin was increasingly engaged in confrontation with members of the Privy Council (if not with the King himself), most Thais view the CDRM as acting on behalf of the King’s interests. Almost universal Thai reverence for the King has likely contributed significantly to popular acceptance of the coup.
Ever since the 2006 coup, Thailand’s elite royalists have insisted that Bhumibol had nothing to do with it. Initially, their denials that the king played any active role were routine and half-hearted. Like Prem’s pious pretence of having no interest in politics and Thaksin’s frequent straight-faced declarations that he only wanted power so he could selflessly serve the people, the claim that Rama IX bore no responsibility for the coup was widely understood as another of the obligatory ritual incantations of Thai politics: everybody knew such statements were not literally true, but they were a traditional part of the theatrical spectacle of Thai politics, the show that the elites put on to divert attention from what was really going on behind the scenes. But as it became increasingly clear that the coup had been a disaster for the royalists and that the truth would be profoundly damaging to the monarchy, efforts to distance Bhumibol from what had happened became deadly serious.
But no amount of propaganda can alter an obvious fundamental truth about the 2006 coup: had Bhumibol wanted to stop it, he could have done so very easily indeed. For much of his reign, the relationship between the military and monarchy had been uneasy, and the ambitious generals who regularly sought to seize power were utterly insincere in their proclamations of devotion to the king. Bhumibol had to learn to pick his battles, to avoid taking a stand when he knew he could not win, to preserve royal prestige for when it really mattered. But the 2006 coup was quite different. It was very plainly an inside job by the network monarchy, planned and executed by royalists who moved in the inner circles of power around Bhumibol and Sirikit. The coup plotters were well that their success depended utterly on the king’s blessing: any word or gesture from Bhumibol to signal his opposition to their actions would have brought the whole scheme crashing down. There was no risk at all for Bhumibol if he refused to countenance a coup and ordered his acolytes to respect the constitution and the rule of law. Indeed, doing so would have cemented the reputation he had spent his entire adult life trying to build. He could have told Thailand’s people that the era of coups was thankfully over, that the country was now a modern democracy and any problems had to be worked out peacefully within the parameters of the constitution and without undermining the rule of law. His exalted legacy would have been secure. But Bhumibol failed the test.
It remains unclear exactly when Bhumibol was told that the coup was coming. Veteran royalist legislator Prasong Soonsiri, one of the core group of coup plotters, told Boyce that Prem had been formally informed six days before the putsch, and that the plotters believed that his acquiescence meant the palace did not oppose their plan:
Prasong’s claims are consistent with what we observed before and during the coup, and Prasong’s status and background lend credibility to his account. Prasong has claimed that approximately five or six months before the coup, he met with General Sonthi and two retired generals whom Prasong refused to identify. (He stated unequivocally, however, that Surayud was not involved in the plot; no one would have suggested bringing Surayud in on the planning, as Thais knew well his opposition to coups and preference for the military not to take on a political role.) After discussing the political situation, Prasong, Sonthi, and their associates decided to begin planning for a coup on a contingency basis.
On September 13, according to his account, Prasong and his associates decided the situation was sufficiently urgent that they would have to proceed with their plan for a coup. One of the unnamed Generals met with Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, to seek his approval. Prasong, who was not in the meeting, did not recount Prem’s precise response, but the group understood that Prem had accepted their decision. The group assumed that, by consulting Prem, they were assured at least that the King did not oppose their action.
In fact, the assumption that Prem was a direct proxy for Bhumibol, always acting in line with the king’s wishes and keeping him fully informed, was no longer true by 2006. The privy council president rarely saw Bhumibol, and was not one of the trusted members of the king’s inner circle. So it is conceivable — although extremely unlikely — that Prem did not consult with Bhumibol before approving the coup, and only informed the king what was happening once it was already under way. But even in this scenario, the most favourable for the palace, Bhumibol had plenty of time to stop the coup in its tracks if he had really been against it. Prem was at Chitralada Palace from early evening to keep the king appraised of what was going on. All Bhumibol had to do was tell Prem a coup was unacceptable, and the military takeover would have been quickly and quietly aborted, with the unusual tank movements explained away as some kind of exercise. It was that simple.
The far more likely scenario is that Bhumibol was told of the impending coup by Prem around September 13, and signalled that he was not opposed to it, again via Prem. Given Prem’s formal role as head of the privy council, he was clearly obliged to inform Bhumibol of something as serious as a planned coup. Moreover, most of the key plotters genuinely revered Rama IX and would not have proceeded with their plans unless they believed they had Bhumibol’s blessing. So Thailand’s king was almost certainly given several days warning to ponder whether he should allow a group of royalist generals to seize power in his name and topple the elected prime minister. The final decision lay with Bhumibol, nobody else. He could have prevented the coup. Instead, he chose to allow the military to send tanks into Bangkok, abrogate democracy, tear up the constitution, and oust a prime minister supported by millions of ordinary Thais.
Whichever of the two scenarios is correct, the fundamental fact remains that Bhumibol Adulyadej had ultimate responsibility for allowing the 2006 coup. He knowingly permitted a cabal of royalists and generals to seize power in his name and overthrow an elected prime minister. It was the worst miscalculation of his reign, pitching the palace into the heart of Thailand’s political crisis, and it may yet lead to the demise of the Chakri dynasty.
Prem was the key link between the palace and the coup plotters. Just hours before the coup began on September 19, he gave an interview to Colum Murphy of the Far Eastern Economic Review. “An old soldier never dies,” the ebullient Prem declared, well aware of what was about to unfold. As usual, he insisted he had no interest in political power, claiming he had only agreed to become prime minister in the 1980s because Thailand’s people craved his leadership: “they wanted me to lead and so I had to lead.” He managed an even more outrageous response when Murphy asked him about the current political situation:
Please dont ask me about politics. I am not allowed by law to speak about that. But to speak about my country in terms of security is okay.
After calling Murphy “a foreigner who knows not very much about the situation in this country”, Prem patiently explained that as long as Thailand had its monarchy, it would never face serious problems:
My country is about 800 years old, and we run the country as a kingdom. We will never be a republic or be without the king. So that is the trick — the only thing that induces the people together. So as long as we have the king, the monarchy, this very, very good king we have right now, we will go ahead, either slowly or rapidly, but we will be united. So if you have a united country and the people united you have few problems to undo.
Murphy was later to write that Prem showed signs of his age during their discussion:
In the course of our conversation, the general stopped to tell me about 1969, a pivotal year in his military career. He took a scrap of paper on which to do the conversion from the suriyakati, or Thai solar calendar, to the Western one. (Normally, the equivalent year in the Western counting system can be arrived at by subtracting the number 543 from the Thai calendar.) To be fair, it is a calculation that would be taxing to most people, but Gen. Prem took two or three minutes mulling the problem, only to get the answer incorrect. An aide came to his assistance, and the general graciously conceded: “You were right. I was wrong.”
After interview, in which Prem showed he was more than a match for Thaksin Shinawatra when it came to shameless posturing and audacious hypocrisy, the elderly general headed to Chitralada Palace to keep Bhumibol briefed as the putsch got under way. When the coup conspirators were summoned for their legitimizing audience with Rama IX around midnight, it Prem who called them to the palace and escorted them in to see the king.
We know from Prasong Soonsiri that Prem was explicitly given details of the planned coup on September 13. It is possible that this was the first time he was told of the exact date and the specific plans of the plotters, but equally possible that Prasong was not telling the full truth and that Prem was in the loop much earlier and helped organize the coup. Either way, it is inconceivable that Prem could have been unaware that for several months royalist generals were gravitating towards a coup and putting contingency plans in place. Prasong’s disclosure that planning began five or six months before the coup corroborates comments by Third Army commander Saprang, who said the plot to overthrow Thaksin started to take shape early in 2006. A revealing book on the coup, Secrecy, Deception, Camouflage, published in 2008 by Bangkok Post military reporter Wassana Nanuam quotes Sonthi, the nominal leader of the coup, as denying Prem was involved but admitting that in the months ahead of the coup he met the privy council president weekly to brief him on the political situation. Sonthi was to some extent an outsider in the Thai military elite, particularly because he was a Muslim with two wives, and he owed his success and status largely to the patronage of Prem and Surayud. He had never shown a great deal of initiative. The idea that he would have masterminded the coup without the encouragement of more powerful figures — and even without their knowledge — is simply not credible. Prem may have left the detailed preparations to others and maintained a degree of distance from the conspirators for the sake of future deniability, but given his military contacts, his extensive informal intelligence network, and his constant scheming to encourage and coordinate efforts to bring down Thaksin, he would certainly have known very early on that a coup was being discussed.
Showing how little they knew or cared about what democracy meant, the junta insisted their military takeover had been somehow democratic. Sonthi told foreign ambassadors on September 20 that:
Thailand is 100 percent democratic now; our reason for action is that we want real democracy in our country.
Everyday, the front page of the various newspapers show pictures of smiling soldiers receiving flowers from the public and playing with children. Today’s best public relations photo showed a smiling bride and groom in Chiang Mai, getting their wedding pictures taken in front of a tank.
Liberal royalists like Anand Panyarachun and Abhisit Vejjajiva who had long professed opposition to a political role for the army faithfully followed the same script. Clearly, their commitment to democracy was less important to them than their desperation to restore their declining relevance. Anand told Boyce the coup was necessary because Thaksin had manipulated gullible rural voters. As Boyce commented:
Interesting and not surprising was Anand’s disparaging reference to Thaksin’s manipulation of the “uninformed” electorate. This elitist point of view — shared by many wealthy and educated Thais, especially in Bangkok — gets to the heart of Thaksin’s claim about revolutionizing Thai politics, precisely by taking on these entrenched elites.
In May 2005, Abhisit had given a speech at a ceremony to lay the foundation stone for a memorial to the victims of Black May 1992, and declared:
While we are confident we won’t return to a time of military rule again, we must continue the fight for democracy in order to honor those who have suffered so much.
A little over a year later, he had become an apologist for the military overthrow of an elected prime minister — a prime minister who had proven far more effective and popular than the lacklustre and pedantic Democrat Party leader. As Boyce commented:
Abhisit appears to be among the many in Bangkok who see the September 19 coup as a necessary step to rid the country of Thaksin. He did not appear particularly troubled by the current limitations on civil liberties and political party activities, but he clearly anticipated that these would be relaxed in the near future…
This dishearteningly naïve and hypocritical attitude was typical of most wealthy and middle-class Thais in Bangkok. As Michael K. Connors and Kevin Hewison wrote in the Journal of Contemporary Asia in 2008:
It is clear that a large proportion of the Bangkok-based middle class, the royalist elite, a swathe of political activists, some business people and large numbers in the south believed that the military conducted a “good coup” to rid the country of the Thaksin government and to rescue them from authoritarianism.
The U.S. embassy noted the “jovial atmosphere on the streets” in Bangkok after the coup:
People are having their pictures taken with the tanks, and for the most part, getting on with their normal lives. They are relieved, not afraid…
Many of Bangkok’s opinion shapers seem willing to accept a coup and a brief period of military rule in exchange for a clean slate and a chance at new round of political reforms and elections free of the specter of Thaksin’s overwhelming wealth and power. This is a very sad commentary on the state of Thailand’s democratic institutions.
Even many Thais who considered themselves progressive insisted the coup really was necessary and democratic, and seemed convinced the army would selflessly withdraw from politics after eradicating the threat from Thaksin. They appeared convinced that the whole country shared their view. It was an assumption born from their habitual arrogance and their total ignorance of the views of Thailand’s poor. As Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, writing under the pseudonym “Chang Noi”, said in a column in The Nation on October 2, the royalists and military were “marooned on an island”:
On one side there is a sea of international opinion, appalled at how the beacon of democracy in Southeast Asia could have bombed itself back into the political stone age. On the other is the rural mass, probably unsurprised but massively resentful at this treatment of the first political leader they had embraced as their own. Why should they ever again listen to city slickers preaching to them about democracy?
The column noted that it was a “myth… that this coup will overcome disunity”:
Reconciliation does not come out of the barrel of a gun. Unity cannot descend from above. The coup makers themselves are divided; the armed forces are divided; and the country is now divided worse than before. Moreover, things are likely to get worse.
As the royalists in Bangkok congratulated themselves for ousting their nemesis Thaksin in a bloodless coup carried out in the name of the king, most were oblivious that their actions had left millions of urban and rural poor shocked and disgusted. They believed the coup was a roaring success. They were utterly wrong. It was a catastrophe.
The royalist military coup of September 19, 2006, altered Thailand forever. It led directly to the birth of an anti-monarchist mass movement for the first time in the country’s history. Such a paradigm shift in popular opinion had seemed unthinkable to the royalists after the adoration lavished on Bhumibol during the 60th anniversary celebrations for his reign. Many Thais regard it so inconceivable that millions of their fellow citizens have turned against the monarchy that they continue to disbelieve it even now. They have retreated even further into a state of denial, clinging to fairy tales that are falling apart.
The rural poor in northern and northeastern Thailand, and the underclass in Bangkok (largely drawn from the northeastern Isaan region also) had generally adored Thaksin and unquestioningly venerated Bhumibol. They had believed the myth that King Rama IX was on their side. He represented goodness, fairness, social justice: he was their protector and guardian. But how could this be reconciled with the king’s obvious acquiescence in allowing a coup backed by leading royalists that toppled a prime minister millions of ordinary Thais credited with bringing them hope and improving their lives? How could they continue to believe in Bhumibol’s commitment to democracy when their votes had been so contemptuously overruled by the royalist elites and the king had done nothing to prevent this? If Rama IX really understood and valued their aspirations, as they had always believed, why had he failed to do anything to help them when their aspirations were trampled? It made no sense, unless what they had been taught about Bhumibol was lies.
This was what made the coup so catastrophic for the monarchy: it made millions of Thais begin to question the monarchist myths that they had always put their faith in. It was the beginning of the end of the fairy tale of Thailand’s beloved democratic dhammaraja.
As David Streckfuss says in his monumental study Truth on Trial in Thailand, the coup “laid bare the underlying dynamics behind modern Thai history”:
The coup and its aftermath caused an ideological implosion that threatens to rather unceremoniously shove Thai history out of its half-century old suspension and, perhaps, lead to its reckoning….
Thai history no longer made any sense. Or maybe better said, the illusion of a progressive, democratic movement evaporated, revealing both a core authoritarian mindset amongst the elite and intellectuals, part and parcel of a shared project to keep Thai society and history in suspension, and subject to systemmatic social injustice…
The majority of people in Thailand, who live on the other side of this political divide, have become incredulous and enraged… Tempers seethed in the North and Northeast, as it seemed that everything was being done to thwart the will of the majority. Sovereignty, apparently, was not to be with ‘the people’.
This process of profoundly rethinking everything Thais had learned to believe has become known as ตาสวา่ง — phonetically, taa sawang; literally, a brightening of the eyes. The closest English-language equivalents are seeing the light, having one’s eyes opened. Thongchai Winichakul describes it as “disillusionment” which captures not just the terrible disappointment felt by ordinary Thais who suddenly realized they had been deceived, but also the unravelling of the hyper-royalist myths and illusions. For those Thais going through this process, it is often a gradual and profoundly emotional process. As Thongchai has argued, the dominant emotion among many Thais who have lost faith in the monarchy is not anger but intense grief. People who had genuinely thought of Bhumibol as a paternal figure have had to cope with the impact of discovering the “father of the nation” was not the man they thought he was. Many now describe themselves bitterly as “orphans”.
A U.S. cable from early October reported that efforts by embassy staff to gauge opinion in the northeast were hampered by an oppressive atmosphere:
While we expected that the CDR would have tighter control of the North and Northeast, we did not expect the oppressive atmosphere that inhibited our ability to meet with former TRT officials. Although most contacts eventually began to talk, whispered words and darting eyes were common during the meetings.
Embassy contacts in Isaan reported that “local farmers could not accept that Thaksin has been ousted”. One village head in rural Khon Khaen said “people in his village were still secretly gathering in groups of five or more to discuss their discontent”. In stark contrast to the festive atmosphere in Bangkok, the rural northeast was angry and afraid.
The U.S. consulate in Chiang Mai noted continued widespread support for Thaksin:
Thaksin’s many supporters in northern Thailand have been quieted, but hardly vaporized. A little probing often reveals the opinion that much of what the former Prime Minister and his party did was good. Although martial law and a desire to avoid conflict have dampened public discussion of the issue, many people would likely be responsive to a Thaksin return.
One episode above all captured the heartbreak and betrayal experienced by many ordinary Thais in the aftermath of the coup: the tale of Nuamthong Phaiwan. He was a 60-year-old taxi driver who painted his purple cab with slogans attacking the coup and drove it head on into an M41 Walker Bulldog tank at Bangkok’s Royal Plaza at 6 a.m. on September 30. He suffered broken ribs and serious lacerations and was taken to Vachira Hospital. He told reporters who visited him in hospital: “I did it intentionally to protest the junta that has destroyed our country, and I painted all the words myself.”
The junta tried to play down Nuamthong’s solitary act of defiance. Police claimed there were no slogans painted on the taxi and said the collision might just have been an accident caused by reckless driving. Akkara Thiproj, a spokesman for the junta, declared: “Nobody’s ideals are so great that they would sacrifice their lives for them.”
He was wrong. On October 31, Nuamthong hanged himself from a pedestrian bridge over the Vibhavadi Rangsit road. He was dressed in a black T-shirt with a picture of the Democracy Monument. A suicide note on his body said he had rammed the tank and later killed himself for the sake of democracy:
My act is to protest against dictatorship … and let me tell you again that both incidents are calls from my heart.
Nuamthong died a few days before his 23-year-old daughter Sawida was due to graduate. She told reporters:
My father told us that the coup d’etat was wrong. He was always true to his ideology and honoured the truth. He said we should be proud of what he did because it’s the right thing… My father did not take any side in politics, and he had never been an admirer of Thaksin. He had never been bought by politicians.
After his death, the iTV channel aired an interview with Nuamthong recorded two weeks before his suicide. The broadcast of the interview was abruptly cut short after intervention from furious military officers. Soldiers were also sent to iTV to prevent any repeat.
The junta installed one of Bhumibol’s most trusted followers, privy councillor Surayud Chulanont, as prime minister. The 63-year-old retired general was also a protégé of Prem’s but less hawkish than his elderly patron, and less hungry for power. In contrast to the posturing of Prem and Thaksin, Surayud genuinely didn’t particularly want a major political role, but felt he had no choice if Bhumibol wanted him to do it. He was a less divisive figure than Prem, but his military background and links to the royal family were further proof of the monarchy’s close involvement in the coup. As the U.S. embassy said:
On the positive side, Surayud is very widely respected across the economic and geographic lines dividing the country. He is unlikely to be viewed as seeking power for himself. The negatives are just as obvious: as a retired General, he is technically civilian, but choosing a retired military officer will not be well-received by the international community. Also, Surayud, as a privy councillor, is also identified with the King, which could complicate efforts by the CDR and other Thai officials to dispel the rumors that the King was behind the coup.
Surayud chose a cabinet of 26 mostly elderly bureaucrats, academics, judges and retired military officers. It was quickly dubbed the “cabinet of old men“. Finally, the royalists had achieved what they wanted: Thailand would be directly governed by venerable stalwarts of the network monarchy, who would selflessly steer the kingdom in the direction charted by their wise and benevolent monarch, for the good of all Thais. In a speech to the new cabinet, Bhumibol admonished them to quickly solve Thailand’s problems, and once again showed peculiar concern for the country’s image:
A lot of people who are not Thai, who are foreigners, are saying that Thailand is not good. We have to try to change that. … If we don’t, our country will lose its good name and it will be difficult for our people to live happily… Therefore, we have to try and change what is not good, to improve matters. And that is difficult.
Bhumibol did not get his wish. The government of royalist “good men” installed by the 2006 coup was to prove one of the most abject and incompetent administrations in modern Thai history. The elderly elite royalists had been convinced that they knew all the answers for Thailand, and totally failed to understand that they were out of touch and increasingly decrepit. They were bewildered by the challenge of trying to govern a complex modern nation. Far from installing a virtuous government of experienced technocrats, the coup gave Thailand a floundering gerontocracy of lost and confused old men.
Things started going wrong almost immediately for the geriatric administration. There were tensions right from the outset between Surayud’s nominally civilian administration and the military junta led by Sonthi and guided by Prem which was reluctant to take a back seat and allow the cabinet to govern. Martial law remained in place, despite repeated promises to revoke it. The international community became increasingly exasperated. As Boyce commented on October 16:
Sonthi appears to view martial law in strictly security terms — a useful tool to maintain order and prevent potential unrest. He seems not fully cognizant of how martial law is damaging Thailand’s reputation abroad.
On October 12, Bhumibol endorsed the appointment of a 242-member National Legislative Assembly. It was packed with cronies of Prem Tinsulanonda, including his chief of staff. As the U.S. embassy observed:
Many… newspapers commented on the large number of serving military officers (35), bureaucrats, and retired military, and the absence of “grassroots” representatives, meaning mostly people from outside Bangkok. Several also commented on the predominance of “Prem’s men”: military and civilians associated with Privy Councillor Prem Tinsulanonda. (Comment: It is worth noting that Prem’s advanced age and long tenure in government (he was PM for over eight years in the 1980′s) mean that many political figures are less than six degrees of separation from the Privy Councillor. However, the observation that Prem’s former proteges and colleagues are well-represented seems fair. End comment).
As the authoritarian instincts of the new administration became clear, some of the progressive Thai activists who had supported military intervention to tackle Thaksin’s illiberal rule began to realize they had made a serious miscalculation. Among them ways Human Rights Watch researcher Sunai Phasuk, who shared his concerns with U.S. diplomats:
Human rights activist Sunai Phasuk noted that the concerns about martial law and similar issues “puts people like me in a very difficult and uncomfortable position.” He said that as a staunch anti-Thaksin activist, he was initially relieved to see the Thaksin administration forced out, and he wants to be supportive of the interim government’s effort to restore democracy in Thailand. But the failure of the CNS in responding to repeated calls for lifting martial law and restrictions on civil liberties is making it impossible for him (and people like him) who want to be supportive. He drew a parallel to the 1991 coup and the initial support for Gen. Suchinda that “disappeared overnight” when the population determined that the military planned to retain control of the government. He said that the justification offered by the CNS and the government for maintaining martial law are weak. He observed that the military could certainly contain any perceived threat from remaining Thaksin loyalists without the imposition martial law on the entire country…
Sunai … expressed concern that, a month after the coup, the military appears to be creating a structure that will enable it to retain excessive influence throughout the coming year, and possibly beyond. He pointed to the various articles in the interim constitution placing power with the CNS, and to the predominance of military figures in the line-up of the recently announced National Legislative Assembly…
He said that General Sonthi was “clueless” and the other military leaders around him are preparing “to sacrifice our freedoms for the sake of stability.” He found it increasingly evident that, while General Sonthi was in over his head and Surayud struggled to set an agenda and “action plan” for his cabinet, Privy Councillor Prem is the one “pulling the strings.” …
Sunai said how deeply disappointed he was in the military. He emphasized that he was close to many officers and, in fact, taught many of them in his capacity as a guest lecturer at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy and the Royal Thai Air Force Academy. He said that he had always held the military in high regard for their sense of honor and dedication to the country. As such, he expected that the coup makers would hold true to the promises made in the hours and days following the coup to restore civil liberties and democratic civilian rule as quickly as possible. Now he is increasingly concerned that the military is taking steps to maintain its influence over the government for the long term.
As Somchai Homlaor, chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Lawyers Council of Thailand, observed:
This is the nature of a military junta. At the beginning the junta made a lot of promises. Now they are in power and they are approached by a lot of greedy business people, greedy politicians, and others. Now they will seek to hold on to power as long as they can.
Progressive Thais had shown staggering naïveté in believing that a military takeover could ever make Thailand more democratic, and assuming the elderly royalists of the network monarchy were on their side. And while some, like Sunai, quickly realized their mistake, many others continued to male excuses for the military regime. Blinded by an irrational hatred of Thaksin and unquestioning adoration of Bhumibol, they failed to see the obvious: the royalists were not acting in the interests of democracy. This ideological confusion has persisted right up to the present day: both sides in Thailand’s political crisis contain an uneasy alliance of authoritarians and liberals. Many human rights organizations and NGOs continue to support the royalist cause, exonerating the abuses and oppression carried out in the name of crushing support for Thaksin. Befuddled by years of propaganda demonizing Thaksin and exalting Bhumibol, they have forgotten what they stand for.
Policymaking in the months after the coup was dominated by two objectives: eradicating Thaksin from politics forever, and governing in accordance with Bhumibol’s vague “sufficiency economy” philosophy. But the ineptitude of the administration led to one blunder after another. Economic policy, under the supervision of former central bank governor Pridiyathorn Devakula (a great-grandson of Rama IV) was particularly hapless.
As a U.S. cable warned in October 2006, following Bhumibol’s economic homilies too religiously would be damaging to the Thai economy:
Pridyathorn’s views on sound economic policy are shaped by his experience from the 1997 crisis as well as his conservative, royalist views (largely based on the teachings of Thailand’s ruling monarch)… While Thailand’s economic policies are unlikely to take a radical turn away from trade and investment openness, there will be a reduced emphasis on growth and a heightened wariness toward “excessive” dependence on foreign capital. If Pridyathorn’s interpretation of King Bhumipol’s “sufficiency economy” is put into practice, Thailand will likely achieve only the modest expectations that are set, thereby under-performing its peer countries for years to come.
This was worrying enough for foreign investors, but many international conglomerates who had invested in Thailand had an even more pressing reason to worry. Determined to find a way to declare Thaksin’s sale of Shin Corp to Temasek illegal, the new government was focusing on the use of nominee companies in the deal to get around laws restricting foreign ownership of Thai companies. The problem was that it was commonplace for foreign firms to use this kind of arrangement in Thailand, and this had always been accepted with a nod and a wink by successive Thai governments. Suddenly enforcing the rules could have a chilling effect on foreign direct investment in Thailand, as the U.S. embassy noted in a cable in mid-October:
The new Thai leaders find themselves in a bind: under pressure to validate charges of financial improprieties against deposed PM Thaksin, the newly appointed government feels the political imperative to find legal fault with the Shin/Temasek deal. That goal could clash with the need to reassure international investors that Thailand remains a welcoming destination. Reconciling these conflicting aims is the biggest economic challenge faced by the Thai government.
Many international companies put Thai investments on hold, and there was particular dismay and concern in Singapore, the second biggest source of FDI in Thailand.
To make things even worse, the government stunned investors on December 18 by suddenly introducing draconian capital controls designed to tackle the rapid appreciation of the baht. Demonstrating an outmoded understanding of markets and a calamitously bad communication skills, the government announced the new measures in an opaque news release available only in Thai. As foreign analysts and brokerages scrambled to decode the new policy, they quickly realized it would be a massive deterrent to new equity investments by foreigners — contrary to government claims that the capital controls would only affect speculators. There was panic selling when Thailand’s stock market opened the following day, with shares suffering a staggering 15 percent collapse, wiping out more than $20 billion of value. One analyst, JP Morgan head of research Sriyan Pietersz, described the measures as “like hitting an ant with a sledgehammer”. A U.S. cable described the fallout:
Bankers with whom we spoke were highly critical of the move. They cite the lack of coordination and consultation and the clear lack of understanding of how capital markets would react. “They panicked and went nuclear” said one local banker. Given the foreign inventors are estimated to control about 33 percent of all shares on the stock exchange and supply around 50 percent of daily turnover, the forced absence of new foreign investors and likely departure of existing ones will continue to severely depress capital markets…
A senior official with the Thai Chamber of Commerce lamented that the damage to Thai capital markets was hardly worth the small reversal in the baht’s appreciation. “They are incompetent” he said.
After initially trying to defend the policy, Pridiyathorn was quickly forced into a U-turn, announcing on December 19 that equity investments would be exempted from the capital controls. He insisted:
This was not a mistake… Measures always have side effects. Once we knew the side effects, we quickly fixed it.
But the episode destroyed the government’s credibility on economic issues. The regime’s arbitrary and amateurish approach to policymaking appalled Thai and foreign investors alike. As the U.S. embassy observed, Pridiyathorn’s reputation was ruined:
Having cost the investing class dearly, sent shock waves through regional markets, and damaged Thailand’s international credibility, Pridiyathorn appears … thoroughly discredited.
Another cable was equally damning in its comments about the botched policy:
Many observers believe that it also displays a high degree of both arrogance (for not consulting with actual market experts as to the likely fallout) and ignorance (for not understanding the likely result himself).
This was the embarrassing reality of government by Thailand’s royalist “good men”.
As the cabinet floundered, the junta overseeing it also became increasingly uneasy and paranoid. Now calling itself the Council for National Security, the junta was hopelessly stuck in the past, unable to understand the challenge posed by Thaksin Shinawatra except as a continuation of the communist threat the military faced decades earlier. As Pasuk and Baker observe in their 2011 paper The Mask-play Election:
The coup leaders believed Thaksin’s populist policies represented a bid to seize the state and overthrow the monarchy — analogous to the communist insurgency of thirty years earlier — and hence the generals had a right and duty to deploy public money and public resources in opposition…
Shortly after the coup the CNS earmarked a budget of 55.6 billion baht and a special force of 13,625 men to root out support for Thaksin and his TRT party in core areas of the upper north and northeast. Early in their military careers, Sonthi, Surayud and other members of the CNS had been involved in the fight against the Communist Party of Thailand. This anti-Thaksin drive in the rural areas bears obvious affinities to the campaigns to wean villages away from support for the CPT in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The generals even revived a powerful and controversial Communist-era national security agency: the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC). Created in 1966 to coordinate the efforts of the military, police and interior ministry to combat communism, ISOC had swiftly grown and mutated to become a state-within-the-state, a military run bureaucratic behemoth with vast powers and little accountability. By the 1980s, as the threat from communism waned, the agency’s influence and importance dwindled. Now, the junta was determined to bring ISOC back to combat the threat from Thaksin, as a U.S. cable reported:
Following the September 19, 2006 coup, leaders on the Council on National Security (CNS) began to publicly propose reinvigorating the old ISOC, ostensibly to better coordinate operations in the restive South and to deter public “undercurrents;” for example, school-burnings attributed to pro-Thaksin supporters in the countryside, which GEN Sonthi has called “domestic terrorism.” Given Sonthi and his allies’ penchant for invoking the successes of the anti-Communist campaign, and the need to apply the lessons learned back then, this made sense.
The junta’s jittery insistence on keeping martial law in force for months demonstrated how afraid the generals were of Thaksin. In a meeting with Ralph Boyce and Eric G. John on October 24, it was clear that Winai Phattiyakul, secretary-general of the junta, was feeling overwhelmed by the task ahead:
Winai turned to the Ambassador and with a sigh said, “tell me what do with a man who has 100 billion baht in his pockets.”
He tried to insist that martial law was a necessary precaution:
We just don’t want to see Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai come back too early… Please understand, we are not a dictatorship.
Asked to provide evidence that martial law was necessary, however, Winai struggled:
On martial law, Winai cited “lots of intelligence” pointing to an “underground movement.” Specific examples of this effort include leaflets in northern Thailand blaming Privy Councilor Prem Tinsulanond for “supporting the coup.”
Winai was inadvertently revealing the problem the junta faced. They were not dealing with an organized resistance movement in the north and northeast. They were dealing with the consequences of the coup they had launched: many rural Thais were disgusted by it and were well aware that Prem had been pulling the strings. Far from being misguided and gullible, many rural people understood all too well what was happening. This was what made them so dangerous in the eyes of the panicky generals. The junta spoke in ominous tones about “undercurrents” that had to be dealt with, but they were not having to cope with an organized resistance movement. They were just facing a rural population that was increasingly seeing through the lies of the military and the rural elite.
The junta also remained petrified of Thaksin Shinwatra. As a U.S. cablenoted at the end of November:
Given Thaksin’s pervasive influence, vast wealth and famous vindictiveness, the interim government’s insecurity — which likely manifests itself in a desire to retain martial law and whatever other tools they have — is understandable.
On November 28, martial law was lifted in Bangkok and provinces considered safe, but remained in force in large areas of the north and northeast seen as Thaksin strongholds, and also in southern regions affected by the Muslim separatist insurgency.
Meanwhile, efforts to find credible evidence to charge Thaksin with corruption or other crimes were foundering, Surayud told Boyce over lunch on December 8:
Surayud commented… that it may be very difficult for the government to come up with any concrete corruption charges that would stick to Thaksin, as he had been very clever in all his business dealings.
This was one of the basic objectives of the junta, as the U.S. embassy noted in December:
Since the September 19 coup d’etat, Thai public figures have haphazardly indicated various possible grounds for the prosecution of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It remains unclear which of Thaksin’s alleged offenses can provide the basis for his future exclusion from political life, which some in the current administration appear to see as a precondition for returning to normalcy…
Despite public statements by various officials on the above and other offenses, such as tax evasion by Thaksin’s close relatives, the government has yet to make public strong evidence of Thaksin’s direct involvement in illegal conduct…
Now more than three months since the coup d’etat, the interim administration has yet to pull together a strong legal case against Thaksin. Although the former Prime Minister demonstrated a penchant for arrogant and impolitic statements, it appears he was quite clever and sophisticated in his financial arrangements, and government sources acknowledge it will be difficult to find clear evidence of corruption.
As the year drew to a close, the junta was finding itself increasingly unpopular and far from achieving its goal of decisively banishing Thaksin Shinawatra from Thai politics. The cabinet seemed to have lost focus, failing to tackle the important issues and instead getting sidetracked by economic policy blunders and a preoccupation with secondary issues of public morality, like alcohol, gambling and the behaviour of the nation’s youth. Surauyud, Boyce said, was “a thoughtful and reasonable man grappling with an overwhelming array of problems”.
The cabinet was given a boost by Bhumibol’s eve-of-birthday speech on December 4. The king had routinely used his annual address to lambast civilian governments, but despite the clear failings of Surayud’s administration, Rama IX considered it worthy of praise. He declared that the advanced age of the cabinet (its average age was 64) was a good thing:
The elderly are not greedy and don’t want to accumulate power for themselves.
It was another sign of Bhumibol’s support for the royalist network that had seized power.
On the last day of 2006, just as dusk was falling, several bombs exploded around Bangkok. Two people were killed, and a third was to die from his injuries the following day. Several were wounded. Shopping malls across the city shut down early, and worried Bangkok residents headed for home. The New Year celebrations, at Sanam Luang and at Central World Plaza near the Ratchaprasong intersection, were cancelled, and people were told to stay at home. Tens of thousands began streaming out of the centre of the capital, but many others, including hundreds of foreigners, elected to stay at beer gardens and streetside bars around the Central World complex, where a large digital clock was a favoured gathering point for the countdown to 2007.
At the stroke of midnight, two bombs were detonated nearby, one at the Best Sea Foods restaurant beside a pier on the Saen Saeb canal north of the plaza, and one beside a phone booth at a pedestrian overpass. At least nine people were wounded, most of them foreigners who had ignored instructions to leave the area. A bomb at another nearby tourist area, the Suan Lum night bazaar, was defused by police.
Thais were already weary and unsettled after a year of political instability that had battered the economy and dented tourism, and after the bombings a palpable atmosphere of anxiety permeated Bangkok. From the start, the government made things worse. Both Prime Minister Surayud and junta leader Sonthi quickly hinted the bombs were linked to Thaksin, even though they had no actual evidence, as junta member Winai admitted to Boyce. There were indeed some reasons to suspect Thaksin — not least the fact that his enemies had been targeted by small bomb blasts during 2006 — but it was also possible that southern insurgents were behind the attack. Other explanations were that that disgruntled hardliners in the junta had staged the blasts in order to justify a tougher crackdown, or that the bombings were the result of conflict between the army and police.
Thai authorities have a dismal record of uncovering the truth about murky violent episodes caused by conflict among the country’s elites, as Boyce observed:
Given that many previous bombings, attempted bombings, and alleged attempted bombings remain unsolved, we are not optimistic that the perpetrators — or the mastermind — will be uncovered.
The U.S. embassy noted with alarm that the government seemed fixated with spinning conspiracy theories about the incident rather than carefully examining the evidence:
Despite having all the tools of the government apparatus at their disposal, top RTG officials seem not to realize the need to go beyond elucidating conspiracy theories (whether accurate or not). The rush to judgment about the bombings… illustrates a lack of sophistication and, with the government’s position on the matter now public, could have serious and deleterious ramifications as further facts about the attacks come to light.
Saprang Kanlayanamit, one of the most hawkish generals in the junta, publicly accused retired general Chavalit Yongchaiyudh of masterminding the bombings on Thaksin’s behalf. His insistence on blaming Thaksin and demanding tough action led to speculation that Saprang himself could be behind the bombings, as a foreign intelligence agent told the U.S. embassy:
A high-ranking Bangkok-based intelligence official from a friendly country on January 4 offered his perspective on the December 31 bombings. This official, with many years’ service in Thailand, admitted uncertainty about the culpable group, but leaned toward believing the perpetrators were domestic political actors rather than southern separatists. He doubted Thaksin’s personal involvement, however, noting that Thaksin might instigate violence if pushed into a corner, but his situation had not yet become sufficiently dire to spur Thaksin to take such steps.
The official considered it plausible that Chavalit or his associates might be involved. (Comment: Chavalit, while currently aligned with Thaksin, also has interests distinct from the former Prime Minister’s and should not be seen simply as Thaksin’s tool. End Comment.) He also believed one of the more likely scenarios was that disaffected members of the CNS — those he termed “minority shareholders” — orchestrated the bombings to gain greater power, or perhaps to pave the way for a second coup d’etat against Surayud and the current CNS leaders. The September 19 coup required very little manpower, the official noted, and this fact might well inspire an ambitious figure to launch a new putsch.
Another U.S. cable recounted extraordinary bickering and tensions in the junta over ascribing the blame for the bombing. And on the evening of January 4, unusual troop movements in Bangkok sparked suspicions Saprang’s forces were launching a coup, recounted in an American cable entitled “COUP RUMORS HAVE BANGKOK ON EDGE“:
On the evening of January 4, Embassy sources from various sectors, including the police, contacted us to relay news of unusual troop movements. The JUSMAG Chief phoned a high-ranking military officer, who assured him that ongoing troop movements were part of a regular rotation. Nevertheless, rumors were rife that Council for National Security (CNS) member General Saprang Kalayanamitr was behind the movements, due to his dissatisfaction with the current regime’s “softness” against those seeking to undermine the interim government (e.g., former Thai Rak Thai officials). People drew various conclusions, ranging from a coup against Surayud Chulanont’s administration to a military-led crackdown against officials associated with the previous government.
Responding to the rumors, the Defense Attache contacted Saprang, who claimed to be at home, after having had dinner with foreign contacts. Saprang also told the Defense Attache that ongoing troop movements were part of a regular rotation; troops that had been in Bangkok since December 31 were departing, and others from Ubon Ratjasima were heading south. Saprang attributed the alarmist rumors to opposition figures (specifically, former Prime Minister Chavalit) trying to drive a wedge between himself and CNS Chairman Sonthi Boonyaratglin. Sonthi engaged in media interviews on the night of January 4, to assure the public that there was no reason to be concerned about the soldiers’ movements.
The following day the exiled Thaksin phoned Boyce to wish him a happy new year, and the conversation turned to the bombings:
Thaksin asked inquisitively whether we knew who had carried out the attacks. I said we did not. He said he suspected southern separatists, pointing out that the modus operandi was similar to that in recent Hat Yai attacks…
I acknowledged the devices used in Bangkok resembled those from the South but pointed out that they could be easily copied by others. Thaksin did not dispute this but complained that Prime Minister Surayud, despite lacking evidence, had publicly accused him within hours of the bombings. Surayud had subsequently walked back his comments, I pointed out, noting that he’s not stupid, to which Thaksin quipped, “He’s not smart.”
The embassy also reported troubling circumstantial evidence that police were aware in advance about the bombings, and comments from Surayud that intelligence contacts had warned him of the bombings in advance. Several informed contacts said it seemed unlikely southern separatists were involved. Other shreds of information made the picture even murkier. A report in the Thai Rath newspaper on January 2 gave details of an ammonium fuel oil bomb packed with nails that had been found and defused on New Year’s Eve on Pattaya North Road, with a timer set to go off just after midnight. But it was never mentioned again or confirmed by officials. Was it hushed up to prevent even worse damage to tourism in the notorious beach resort, or was the report bogus?
Meanwhile, Surayud was continuing to waffle and engage in scaremongering despite having no idea who was behind the bombs. This was clear from a conversation with Boyce on January 10:
The Ambassador… requested further details of the information that had prompted Surayud to state at the National Legislative Assembly on January 4 that people should “get ready for a new form of threats which may occur and last for a period of time…” Surayud declined to flesh out his remark, saying that he had to wait until the police provided him with further information. The Ambassador pressed whether Surayud’s warning of further attacks reflected assumptions rather than intelligence reports. Surayud replied: “I don’t have any confirmation at all.”
Whatever the truth about the bombings — which have never been solved — they had exposed more incompetence and disunity within the junta and the government. As the U.S. embassy observed:
Regardless of who detonated the December 31 bombs in Bangkok, the attacks have heightened tension not only between the CNS and its opponents, but also within the ruling clique. Despite the outward appearance of calm following the September 19 coup, it seems clear that there are important political forces which have yet to reach equilibrium. The January 4 rumor flurry, coming on the heels of the New Year’s Eve attacks… will likely further decrease public confidence in the current government and heighten the anxiety of top officials.
By January 2007 it was clear that Surayud’s administration was in deep trouble and that things were not working out as planned for the royalists and their allies in the military. Martial law remained in place in much of the country. The government’s poor handling of the bombings had done serious damage to public confidence. Even Boyce, who had always been sympathetic to Surayud, could see the prime minister was in over his head. As he wrote on January 10:
Surayud is increasingly disengaged on a number of issues we believe are important. His administration is being pummeled in the press for the lack of progress on the bombing investigation, but Surayud shows no sense of urgency. The intelligence services apparently blew off a threat warning, capricious economic decisions are hurting the Thai economy, but Surayud does not appear to feel that he needs to respond in any way or hold anyone accountable. His pledge to lift martial law is hung up on some bureaucratic glitch, and Surayud is taking a hands-off approach. This does not augur well for the interim government’s ability to steer Thailand through the very difficult months ahead. We will be raising the same points with members of the CNS and other influential figures in the coming days, in an effort to spark some sense of urgency in addressing our concerns.
Meanwhile, in direct contravention of its promises to quickly restore stability and democracy and then withdraw from politics, the junta was tightening its grip on Thailand. Asked about the the junta’s creation of a huge military task force to crack down in areas where support for Thaksin was strong, Surayud could offer only evasions. He was not even being kept in the loop:
The Ambassador … asked why the RTG in December established a new Special Operations Center, reported to be over 13,000-strong, that would report directly to the CNS. Surayud said he did not know the details of this new Center, only that it would comprise of personnel from the three military service branches and police. The concept, Surayud said, was that the Center was to operate nationwide and work with the population at the grassroots level, to assure people that the government was not carrying out purges of Thaksin supporters or eliminating popular programs for the rural areas. The Ambassador requested further information on the Center.
The same day, the junta tried to pressure the Thai media to be less critical in their coverage, a further sign of desperation. As the American embassy reported:
General Winai Phattiyakul, Secretary General of the CNS, summoned 50 editors and media executives to Army headquarters on January 10. According to press reports, Winai said the CNS wanted the media to report only “constructive” news, and a failure to comply with this request would result in stricter measures. Thai daily The Nation quoted Winai as saying “I would like to urge all the TV and radio stations to stop airing statements of the former prime minister and executives of the former ruling party. You guys should know that if we allow representatives of the former premier to make statements every day, the public will be confused.” Winai appears to have been motivated in part by coverage of a letter in which Thaksin denied culpability for the New Year’s Eve bombings in Bangkok. The print media gave prominent coverage to objections by civil society figures to restrictions on press reporting.
The extent of the disarray within the ruling elite was revealed by Bowornsak Uwanno in a conversation with the U.S. ambassador on January 12. As Boyce said, Bowornsak had “close ties to both the Thaksin administration and the current leadership”:
A consummate insider and representative of the “Bangkok elite,” he is well-positioned to comment on the internal workings of the interim government/CNS, and we think his concerns are well-founded.
Boyce titled his cable on their discussion “COUPMAKERS’ HAUNTED DREAMS“:
Borwornsak… warned that the challenges the current leadership faces could derail the transition back to democracy. He complained that Prime Minister Surayud was too much like an “English gentleman.” The government’s economic failures had undermined its credibility, as had the lack of progress on the investigation of the New Year’s bomb attacks…
Given the political tensions and uncertainties, Borwornsak warned that a “re-coup” was possible. He said that both Gen. Sonthi and Gen. Winai “had been approached” to stage a further military intervention. Borwornsak did not go into detail on what this would entail, but the idea has been circulating in Bangkok, even cropping up in the Thai press as “the only way out” of what is beginning to feel like another political impasse. Presumably, the “re-coup” would involve some bolder members of the junta taking over, easing out the more cautious leaders, and putting in place “a new gameplan.” This would likely include a faster track in the Thaksin corruption investigations — perhaps seizing assets first, and justifying it later — and maybe dropping the constitution drafting process…
Borwornsak told the Ambassador, “the CNS is not sleeping well at night,” and we believe it. Before the new year’s bombing, many of the coup’s early supporters were disillusioned and impatient; since the bombing, many seem angry and afraid. The government’s popularity has plummeted, as has confidence in its ability to deliver on its promises. While the idea of a “coup within the coup” seems outlandish, but there is a growing feeling that the interim government/CNS have painted themselves into a corner, are “weak,” “feeble,” and “too gentlemanly,” (to quote from some of the headlines.) They are hemmed in by provisions of the interim constitution and the legal procedures they themselves established; now they find that they may be unable to achieve the goal of their putsch — ensuring that Thaksin cannot return to power again — unless they make, at a minimum, a drastic course change. Stopping the wayward ministers from wasting political capital on their pet peeves about morality issues, accelerating the anti-corruption investigations, and convincing the public they have gotten a grip on the security situation would be a start, but probably not sufficient to win back the good will they have lost through their ineffective leadership.
Such was their ineptitude and narrowness of vision, the only solution many military officers and elite royalists could envisage to fix their failing administration was yet another coup.
As the military-backed royalist government struggled to cope, King Bhumibol’s health remained shaky too. Boyce gave an update on Rama IX on February 1:
The Ambassador attended January 31 ceremonies in honor of the recipients of this year’s prestigious Prince Mahidol Awards for outstanding achievement in the field of public health. In a private session with the recipients (three of the four of whom were Americans), King Bhumiphol not uncharacteristically spoke so softly that even those close to him had difficulty hearing what he said. However, once he began discussing soil projects and other issues of longstanding interest to him, the King was actively engaged in the conversation, which continued for an hour. He still walks shakily, with a cane, but his overall health seems stronger than when the Ambassador last saw him, in early December.
It was a poignant vignette: a fading Bhumibol, his voice scarcely above a whisper, clinging to pet subjects like soil as his kingdom sank ever deeper into crisis.
On February 5 the U.S. embassy sent a detailed cable to Washington assessing the progress made by the junta and government — or more accurately, the lack of progress — since the coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra. Entitled “CAN’T ANYBODY HERE PLAY THIS GAME?” it starkly set out the failings of the royalist elite:
The current leadership has so far been unable to deliver what it promised with the September 19 coup: accountability from Thaksin for his alleged corruption and hijacking of democracy, and sound leadership to reunify the country during the transition back to democratically-elected government. The government has been undercut by fractious ministers pursuing their own dubious agendas and cautious bureaucrats who want to be sure to pick the winning side in the current power struggle. The disarray in policy-making, and the lack of accountability for officials, has had serious consequences. It has caused the CNS/government to lose much of the popular support it had immediately after the coup, alienated foreign business, and interfered with the government’s ability to resolve serious problems, like finding the perpetrators of the New Year’s Eve bombings. Last year, some of the “Bangkok elite” questioned whether western-style democracy was really suitable for Thailand. There are lingering concerns about the dangers of populism, but this government’s performance has helped dampen any nostalgia about the rule by the so-called “elite.”
The cable depicted Surayud as an increasingly dejected and pathetic figure:
Surayud appears increasingly detached from it all. A long-time friend of the PM recently told Econoff, “I asked Surayud if he wants to be Prime Minister, and he said no.” This is neither a secret nor a recent development; Surayud has said the same thing to us. Publicly, he has pointed that he turned down the job the first two times that coup leader Gen. Sonthi asked him. Another observer has told us that, before the coup, Surayud’s highest aspiration had been one day to replace Gen. Prem as the head of the Privy Council. It is generally believed that Surayud longs to return to his retirement house by the golf course. But the prospects of getting someone better to fill the position for the few months until elections are slim.
Boyce gave a damning appraisal of what government by Thailand’s network monarchy meant in practice:
The ruling class of the country, in short, is acting like a room full of school kids with a substitute teacher… There may be one good result from all this: last year, we heard many education contacts in Bangkok complain that western-style democracy might not be suited to Thailand. They yearned for governance by “good men,” educated and professional, who did not have to win office through the corrupting procedure of partisan elections. Well, that’s what they have now, and it clearly isn’t working out so well.
The comparison of the elderly royalist elite to schoolchildren was particularly resonant. For decades, these old men had looked up to Bhumibol as a father figure whose wisdom should steer the nation. They had looked upon ordinary Thais with immense condescension, as unruly kids who needed a firm guiding hand. They hadn’t realized the irony: it was the royalists who had grown childlike, unable to cope with or even to understand the modern world. Put in charge of the country, they were totally lost.
General Sonthi was totally bewildered, as comments to Boyce on February 6 showed:
Several times Sonthi expressed frustration with the Thai people’s lack of seriousness, once joking that “the only problem with Thailand is the Thai people.” Soccer enthusiast Sonthi said that the Thai people needed more discipline and suffered from the same problem the Thai national soccer team has — an inability to play like a team. (Note: The Thai national team recently lost a highly emotional match to Singapore that drew national attention. End Note.) During the Thaksin era, he complained, the people were seduced by state-sponsored appeals to greed and rampant consumer spending. This appeal to man’s baser instincts will be hard to overcome, he noted.
In a Valentine’s Day lunch with Boyce, Anand Panyarachun lambasted the cabinet as having “no national agenda, no strategy, no management skills, and no guts”. Anand clearly felt slighted by the preponderance of Prem’s men in the administration: he complained that he had been frozen out of decision-making:
Given his own experience as a successful two-time appointed Prime Minister, Anand decried the failure of (unnamed) key administration figures to consult him until late January.
And in a telling exchange, Anand implied that Bhumibol himself was increasingly out of touch with events, and receiving bad advice:
Anand said he was less concerned about the King’s physical health than about his ability to receive objective advice and to benefit from the company of friends. Anand remarked that half the people who work at the Palace did so only to acquire status and peddle influence; only around one-third of those at the court were there solely out of devotion to the King. He said the King was lonely and, for the most part, could not select the people with whom he spends his time. Anand considered it fortunate that the King still benefited from the company of Princess Sirindhorn every evening.
The Ambassador asked Anand about rumors that he had turned down an offer to join the Privy Council. After a long, poker-faced pause, Anand noted that if he were to accept such a position, he would have to give up his positions on various corporate boards, in order to avoid a perception of possible conflicts of interest. He also would have to accept limitations on his ability to present his views publicly. Finally, he did not feel drawn to the ceremonial aspects of such duties.
Anand’s comments contained an implied rebuke of Prem, who had obtained several lucrative corporate positions despite heading the privy council. Boyce commented that while Anand’s comments were clearly partially due to “a bruised ego”, his criticisms of the administration were nevertheless accurate.
Prasong Soonsiri, one of the original coup plotters, was equally appalled by Surayud, telling Boyce on March 16: “I don’t know what it is about this guy, but he has been an utter failure.” He said it was important to find a new prime minister soon. Boyce, increasingly disenchanted with the elite royalists he had long sympathized with, acidly commented:
In a marker of the depth of discontent with the current government, some segments of the Thai elite are returning to the idea that “we don’t know what comes next, but we’ve got to get rid of this government now.” That they cannot see this type of brilliant thinking is what produced the object of their current criticism is sadly ironic, and bodes ill for the future of Thai politics.
There was further evidence of scheming and schisms within the ruling elite after Pridiyathorn, the finance minister responsible for the capital controls debacle, resigned in February. In March, Pridiyathorn told Boyce that Saprang Kanlayanamit and Sondhi Limthongkul had been involved in a conspiracy to oust him, part of a plan to also push Surayud out and make junta leader General Sonthi the prime minister instead. Meanwhile, Pridiyathorn’s successor as finance minister, Chalungphob Sussangkarn, quickly made clear he had no intention of following Bhumibol’s “sufficiency economy” edicts too closely. Markets remained wary, and forecasts for the Thai economy became ever gloomier.
Struggling to reassert control — and perhaps as part of his plan to oust Surayud — General Sonthi announced he had requested emergency powers ahead of a protest rally against the junta on March 30 to prevent Thaksin loyalists causing “chaos” in Bangkok. According to a U.S. cable on March 29, Sonthi was worried protesters might focus on the role of Prem and Queen Sirikit in supporting the September 2006 coup. Citing a Thai academic, the cable noted:
The CNS is clearly overreacting, but they are less afraid of the size of the demonstrations than they are of what the group will say. They are particularly sensitive about discussions of Privy Councilor Prem’s role in the coup and current politics, and fear the criticism might “go beyond Prem to the King. Or the Queen. The Queen is more the target.” (Note: One recurrent rumor has the Queen and Prem quietly supporting the September coup, while keeping the King, recuperating from his back surgery, out of the picture. End note.)
A more prosaic reason for Sonthi’s anxiety was that protesters planned to publicly criticize him for having two wives:
The general was also concerned that they would publicly disclose the not-so-secret fact that Sonthi (a Muslim) has two wives. (According to one source, this violates military rules and could lead to pressure for disciplinary action against Sonthi.)
Surayud, however, refused to grant the military the emergency powers Sonthi had requested. The rift between the two men was becoming increasingly public. Several sources told the U.S. embassy that Surayud was prepared to resign rather than accede to Sonthi’s request. Tensions among the ruling elite were not helped by the continuing incompetence of the investigation into the New Year bombings, and concerns over the economic damage being caused by the regime’s plans to declare Temasek’s takeover of Shin Corp illegal. As bickering worsened, Surayud checked into hospital for a colonoscopy after feeling unwell. Things were going from bad to worse for the royalists.
In an effort to salvage the situation, junta Secretary-General Winai, Vice Chairman Chalit Phukphasuk and other leading regime figures including one of General Sonthi’s wives, Piyada, flew to Chiang Mai for an audience on April 1 with astrologer Warin Buaviratlert. Warin had been Sonthi’s favoured astrologer for years, after telling Sonthi that he was the reincarnation of one of King Taksin’s generals who had rescued Siam after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, and that it was his destiny to save the nation once again. He predicted Sonthi would rise to head the army — which duly came to pass — and had even declared that September 19 would be an auspicious date for Sonthi’s coup. Now that Sonthi was struggling, it seemed a good time for some of his supporters to seek further astrological help. As a cable from the U.S. consulate in Chiang Mai reported:
Sonthi has sought Varin’s advice for more than 10 years, ever since the seer foretold of a coveted military promotion Sonthi received. Other CNS members similarly depended on Varin’s guidance long before they helped oust the former government. Many see Varin as serving as an unofficial special advisor to the CNS, claiming he has provided recommendations on everything from the precise timing for staging the coup to political appointments in the new government.
A Chiang Mai native, Varin was a rural teacher and failed real estate investor before making the leap to all-knowing astrologer 20 years ago. Prior to finding fame as the CNS’s favorite soothsayer, he struck it rich by convincing his clients to include him as a partner in their business investments. The media coverage of his services to CNS leaders has driven demand for his services even higher. But even before the coup, he had achieved notoriety, playing both sides of Thailand’s political divide by also once counseling former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Belief in astrology and mysticism is well within the mainstream of Thai culture, which blends astrology and a rich mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism, animism, and elements of the occult into everyday life and decision making. However, the devotion to Varin’s wisdom expressed by some CNS officials combined with the cost of flying government leaders up to Chiang Mai in C-130 military planes, has raised eyebrows even among normally superstitious Thais.
But as the junta sought solace in the stars, renewed turbulence erupted in another celestial realm: the lofty and secretive world of the royal family.
On Bhumibol’s birthday in December 2006, Oliver Jufer spent much of the day getting drunk. In the evening, the 57-year-old Swiss resident of Chiang Mai went out to buy more beer. Told it was illegal to sell alcohol on the king’s birthday, an enraged Jufer went on the rampage around Chiang Mai with a can of black spray paint, defacing five pictures of Bhumibol. Arrested three days later, he faced up to 75 years in jail: 15 years for each count of lèse majesté. On March 30. 2007 he pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Two weeks later he received a royal pardon — standard practice for foreigners — and was quietly deported. The Swiss advised the Americans that their strategy of dealing with the matter quietly had been crucial in securing a swift pardon:
According to Swiss Embassy Minister Jacques Lauer, who helped coordinate the Swiss response to Jufer’s arrest, the Swiss government was surprised by how rapidly the King pardoned Jufer — a mere 13 days following his conviction and before Jufer had even filed an appeal or requested a royal pardon. Lauer indicated they had expected the King would follow tradition and wait until his 80th birthday, eight months later, to pardon Jufer and others accused of lese majeste…
Minister Lauer credited Jufer’s speedy pardon to a Swiss decision to not antagonize Thai officials by making public comments, an action that may have provoked a backlash due to the public adoration of the King. Lauer claimed that intense international media attention and the public clamor in Switzerland for Jufer’s release made it difficult to balance the need to avoid offending their Thai interlocutors while appearing proactive in the eyes of the Swiss public.
But while the Swiss authorities had done their best to keep the case quiet, it ended up sparking a bizarre battle between Thailand’s military-installed government and YouTube. In protest at Jufer’s treatment and the lèse majesté law, somebody had uploaded a video to YouTube that crudely mocked Bhumibol — a monkey’s face was superimposed on a photography of the king, and Rama IX was also shown with cartoon feet on his face, a great insult to any Thai, let alone the monarch. If the Thai authorities had simply ignored it, it would have garnered little attention. Instead, the heavy-handed response by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MICT) caused headlines all over the world. As a U.S. cable reported:
On Wednesday, April 4, MICT added Google-owned YouTube.com to its “blocklist” after a user posted a video clip with crudely drawn markings and pictures of feet superimposed over the image of the King. An MICT officer told PDoff that, when the ministry noticed the video, MICT Minister Sittichai Pookaiyaudom contacted Google.com to ask them to pull the offending video. According to the MICT officer, Google responded that the user was using ”guerilla” tactics — posting, pulling, and reposting his clips repeatedly — making it impossible to pull the clip. As a result, MICT decided to block the entire YouTube.com site “for a few days.”
Since MICT blocked the site, the original user pulled the clip after getting over 63,000 hits. However, at least ten additional clips commenting on the video or duplicating its content have appeared, each generating tens of thousands of hits.
Oblivious to the “Streisand Effect” — the fact that the best way to draw attention to something online is to try to block it — the Thai authorities sparked an outpouring of juvenile abuse of Bhumibol as a result of their clumsy actions. As another cable recounted:
The first controversial video clip featured the Thai king with drawings of feet superimposed over his head. (Note: The feet are considered unclean in Thailand and placing feet over a photograph of a face is a major affront. End note.) The poster of the clip identified himself as a American in his profile. MICT blocked access to the site and sought to make YouTube remove the offending video. The resulting press attention to the block apparently inspired a series of copy-cat offenders. There are currently perhaps a dozen clips disrespectful to the Thai monarchy on the site. These include one accusing him of being a pedophile, one with crudely sexual themes and allusions to “Brokeback Mountain,” and one accusing him of murdering his brother, who died under mysterious circumstances 60 years ago. MICT efforts to block access have failed, as savvy internet users inside the country set up proxies outside of Thailand to access and post messages and clips of their own, many in support of the king.
Many Thais respond to these insults to their King much the way many Americans respond to someone burning their flag. The response may even be closer to Muslim reaction to the infamous Danish cartoons. It is an emotional reaction that is not particularly susceptible to logical arguments about freedom of speech. The fact that several of these clips use profanity and sensational allegations of murder or sexual misconduct makes it that much worse. This is all a great headache for the government, which is, once again, stuck with no good options. Crack down on the offenders, and they risk international criticism for stifling free speech. Ignore the videos, and they will be accused of failing to defend the King. This is a particularly awkward accusation for the interim government; the coup leaders justified their overthrow of the former prime minister in part due to his lack of respect for the king.
The authorities eventually unblocked YouTube on August 30 after negotiations with Google. But the episode drew attention to a wider phenomenon: growing internet censorship by the Thai authorities. This was extending way beyond efforts to crack down on insults to the king. As the U.S. embassy reported, Thai censors were — tellingly — very sensitive about websites that said Prem was involved in the 2006 coup:
Thai sites critical of Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda have also run afoul of MICT. On Monday, April, MICT asked pantip.com to shut down its popular political chatroom “Rajdamnoen.” The Minister cited “several threads” that “undermined national security.” He did not clarify what topics had raised his concerns, and said the site could re-open when “the political situation improves.” Before it was blocked, the room carried several discussions critical of General Prem’s involvement in the coup…
MICT has also blocked other sites critical of Prem. On Friday, April 4, Council for National Security (CNS) Chairman Sonthi ordered police to look into pressing libel charges against www.saturdaynews.org, which was asking for signatures to support Prem’s “impeachment.” A MICT official said they had not blocked the site, but it is not currently accessible… Likewise, sites linked to deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra such as hi-thaksin.net remain inaccessible in Thailand. The anti-coup www.19sep.org has been blocked six times since the coup.
It was around this time that a video began circulating that was far more damaging to the palace than the crude images lampooning Bhumibol on Facebook. It showed a birthday party held a few years earlier by Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn for his pet while poodle Foo Foo. It had clearly been filmed with Vajiralongkorn’s knowledge. Liveried servants were visible several times during the video and a stills photographer had also been present: there were frequent camera flashes, and Vajiralongkorn showed no sign of being perturbed by the attention. Throughout the proceedings, his wife Srirasmi was naked apart from a thong, and her apparent lack of self-consciousness suggested this was by no means an unusual state of affairs in Vajiralongkorn’s palace. The video startled even Thais long used to tales of the prince’s lascivious lifestyle: it showed their probable future king and queen behaving in — to put it mildly — a rather less-than-magisterial manner.
What made the timing of the video’s release particularly interesting was that Prem, Surayud and their elderly royalist circle both loathed and feared Vajiralongkorn. Not only did they consider him unfit to become king, but they fretted that he and Thaksin had formed an alliance, partly thanks to Thaksin’s generous payments over the years to finance the prince’s dissolute lifestyle. Surayud’s dislike of the prince was clear from a February 2005 conversation with Boyce:
I asked Surayud about the heir to King Bhumhibol, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Surayud replied that he had tutored the Crown Prince some 20 years ago and surmised that “He’ll never measure up” to the present monarch, but “somehow the Thai people will make do.”
In May 2006, Surayud told Boyce he feared the prince and Thaksin were in cohoots:
Surayud told the Ambassador that he agreed with speculation that Thaksin might be waiting until the King dies before resuming his political career, noting that Thaksin had invested heavily in cultivating good relations with the Crown Prince.
As efforts by the junta to deal a fatal blow to Thaksin’s political ambitions foundered during 2007, the generals grew increasingly afraid the former prime minister might one day return to power and seek revenge against them. Winai admitted this to Boyce in April 2007:
CNS figures could not rule out the deposed PM returning and wreaking havoc on the country — and possibly acting vengefully against CNS members.
With Bhumibol’s health precarious, the ultimate nightmare of Prem, Surayud and their circle was that a royal succession could unravel their carefully laid plans at any time and leave them vulnerable to vicious reprisals from Thaksin in league with the new King Rama X, Vajiralongkorn. Given the extreme risks to any member of Vajiralongkorn’s staff who had circulated the video of Foo Foo’s birthday, many Thais speculated that it must have been leaked with the blessing of Prem’s circle, in an effort to torpedo the prince’s chances of ever taking the Thai throne. Around the same time, still photographs showing Srirasmi in various stages of undress also started to circulate via e-mail and bootleg compact discs.
During 2007, Vajiralongkorn abandoned his third wife Srirasmi and their young son Dipangkorn Rasmijoti to spend most of his time in Germany with a mistress who he had met when she was a Thai Airways flight attendant. He began undergoing some kind of blood-related medical treatment near Munich, leading to rumours that he was suffering from AIDS. In July 2007, he was widely (and wrongly) rumoured to have died. The nature of his illness has never been confirmed. A U.S. cable stated in 2009 that:
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).
The prince’s wayward behaviour had some serious consequences in 2007: his formidable mother finally decided enough was enough. Queen Sirikit had doted on Vajiralongkorn all his life, overlooking his faults and finding excuses for his antics. She had been horrified when he abandoned his first wife, Somsawali — Sirikit had engineered the marriage in an effort to secure the primacy of her family’s branch of the Chakri bloodline — but she had managed to forgive even this. She had always remained absolutely adamant that Vajiralongkorn should succeed Bhumibol as Rama X when the king died. Bhumibol, whose relationship with his son was extremely poor, was far less convinced that Vajiralongkorn would ever be fit to become king, and during the late 1970s and 1980s he may have even considered the possibility of changing palace law to allow his trusted and popular daughter Princess Sirindhorn to become the next monarch instead. But Sirikit’s implacable support for Vajiralongkorn always prevented any alternative succession schemes from being seriously explored. But when the prince walked out on Srirasmi and their son Dipangkorn Rasmijoti to shack up with a flight attendant in Munich, and then the scandalous video of Foo Foo’s birthday party emerged, it was the last straw for Sirikit. As a secret cable from U.S. ambassador Eric John reported in 2009:
For many years, Queen Sirikit actively promoted Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s interests and was seen as his greatest backer in the face of widespread public opposition and open preference for Princess Sirindhorn. For instance, she was the driving force behind the Crown Prince’s 2003 trip to Washington, which she intended as a cornerstone effort to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of the Thai people as an acceptable future King, one who had recently remarried and would soon produce an acknowledged male heir.
The mother-son relationship suddenly changed in 2007 for two reasons: the appearance of video and still photos of Vajiralongkorn’s wife Srirasmi in the nude on the internet/CDs then widely available in Bangkok; and a noisy row over the amount of time the Crown Prince was spending outside Thailand.
This had major implications for the royal succession dynamic. The elder statesmen of the monarchist establishment had long been petrified of what would happen after Bhumibol died, not just because they feared Vajiralongkorn would be a bad king, but also for the more selfish reason that it would be the end of their own prestige and influence. The prince loathed them and there would be no place for them in the palace inner circle once Vajiralongkorn became Rama X. But Sirikit’s rift with Vajiralongkorn gave the “good men” a beguiling glimmer of hope. Encouraged by her toxic coven of scheming ladies-in-waiting, Sirikit became convinced it was her destiny to ride to Thailand’s rescue once again, just as she had in previous incarnations as a warrior queen. Instead of entrusting the throne to Vajiralongkorn after Bhumibol’s death, she would seek to reign as regent herself, on behalf of the prince’s young son Ong Ti. Particularly to ultra-royalists in the establishment, it seemed the best solution to the succession dilemma. (Interestingly, one ultra-royalist who was less enthused about the idea was Prem Tinsulanonda. Despite his advanced age — he is seven years older than Bhumibol — several well-placed sources say Prem continues to harbour his own aspirations of ruling as regent after the king’s death. His official website information even describes him as a “soldier, statesman and Regent of Thailand“. Sirikit’s row with the crown prince was good news for Prem, but the queen’s ambitions conflicted with his own. )
The possibility of a contested succession raised the stakes immensely in the power struggle between the royalists and Thaksin. Given Thaksin’s links to the crown prince, the royalists fretted that if he or his proxies managed to return to power they would be able to decisively influence the succession, foiling any bid to prevent Vajiralongkorn inheriting the throne. As a U.S. cable observed in 2009:
The dynamics in the ultimate end game/last days of King Bhumibol would likely differ considerably depending on who was the Prime Minister, the governing coalition, the army chief, and the leading Privy Councilors at that time, and whether the King passed away suddenly or lingered in an incapacitated state for a long period of time. Various different political actors shape their short and medium-term plans accordingly.
Spurred on by her dreams of one day reigning as regent, Sirikit sailed into battle from 2007 onwards, enthusiastically resuming her old habits of partisan political meddling. She began to explicitly assume the role of champion of the royalist cause in the struggle to defeat Thaksin Shinawatra. Bhumibol was slowly shuffling off the stage, increasingly disengaged from the drama due to his semi-seclusion in Hua Hin and his fragile health. Sirikit filled the vacuum, becoming the dominant power in the palace, and her hawkish inner circle of ultra-royalist generals and courtiers began eclipsing the influence of the more moderate monarchists who clustered around Bhumibol.
The struggle between the two competing strands of royalism — hardline militaristic monarchism versus “gentlemanly” royal liberalism — caused worsening friction between the junta and the cabinet. During April, Democrat Party godfather Suthep Thaugsuban, coup insider Prasong Soonsiri and Yellow Shirt demagogue Sondhi Limthongkul all told Boyce that General Sonthi had ambitions of replacing Surayud as prime minister. Boyce explicitly told Sonthi that the international community would regard this as unacceptable, and the general denied any such plan, although he admitted there had been discussion of a “re-coup” among the junta:
Sonthi acknowledged that there had been talk of staging a follow on coup to replace Surayud. However, he was quick to add, it was obvious that doing so would only further alienate the international community and cause the CNS to lose the domestic support of those who view the September 19 coup as an evil necessary to rid the country of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. “What would be the point of my becoming Prime Minister,” Sonthi asked rhetorically, “if doing so undermined everything we worked for in September?” Sonthi gave every indication that he expects Surayud to remain as Prime Minister until elections are held despite the Prime Minister’s shortcomings. “If we were to replace Surayud there is no one up to the job we could name in his place,” he added.
Surayud, meanwhile, was feeling increasingly sorry for himself, as Boyce discovered in a phone call on May 4:
During a telephone conversation on May 4, PM Surayud replied to the Ambassador’s question of “how are you doing” by saying “you should pity me.” While the PM did not explain the reasons for his low spirits, the Ambassador noted that the PM was not well-served by his ministers. Surayud agreed with this assessment.
For a man proud of his asceticism who joined the Buddhist monkhood for a time following his retirement from the Army, to complain about his situation indicates the depths of his unhappiness. Surayud has long been a high-achiever and recipient of plentiful praise from his colleagues and superiors. Since becoming PM, he has been repeatedly accused of being a failure as Prime Minister; a group of underperforming, competing ministers have failed to accomplish much and been a source of embarrassment; and a group of generals constantly peer over his shoulder looking to criticize. These are all factors which have clearly taken a toll on Surayud’s spirit. Surayud has many times said that he would gladly quit his post except for his duty to see the job through to the planned elections in December. We believe him.
In a later cable in June, the U.S. embassy said Sonthi had been close to sacking Surayud and his entire cabinet in April, but had concluded he could not get away with doing so:
Based on a wide variety of reports, including GEN Sonthi’s own admission, we believe that some CNS leaders gave serious consideration to replacing Prime Minister Surayud, and probably his entire unpopular cabinet, in the period before the major Thai new year holiday in mid-April. It appears that they peered over the edge of that abyss and, refreshingly, decided not to jump this time. A number of factors probably contributed to this restraint. If nothing else, there does not seem to be anyone to replace Surayud. GEN Sonthi may have briefly flirted with volunteering himself, but then came to his senses. It is widely believed that the Palace and Privy Council President Prem would not have supported an “incumbency coup.” It looks like the CNS and Surayud understand that they are stuck with each other for a while longer.
But while the junta had stepped back from the brink of launching yet another coup, the administration remained in disarray, far from the unity the royalists claimed to uphold.
At the end of May, Thailand’s politicized judiciary made another intervention on the side of the royalist administration. During 2006, charges were filed against both Thai Rak Thai and the Democrat Party for electoral abuses ahead of the abortive April 2006 general election. After the coup, the junta announced that political parties that violated the law would be dissolved, with their executive board banned from holding political office for five years. A Constitutional Tribunal appointed by the junta was empowered to rule on the cases. As a U.S. diplomatic cable noted on May 29, there was little expectation that the cases would be judged purely according to the law, without interference:
Few observers seem to believe that the Tribunal will decide these cases on the merits… To illustrate: pundits repeatedly claim that, if TRT is to be dissolved, the Tribunal must show “balance” by dissolving the DP as well. One daily paper recently quoted an anonymous Tribunal member as stating “We will take everything into account: the principles of law and political science, as well as the spirit of the (coup council).” The Ambassador’s interlocutors on or close to the Council for National Security (CNS) have for months assured him of TRT’s dissolution, as if it has been preordained. And one top Democrat Party official relayed specific rumors of substantial bribe money sloshing toward the Tribunal members.
Bhumibol gave a televised speech to judges on May 24. He told them:
You have the responsibility to prevent the country from collapsing… Whatever court you belong to, judges need to make the right interpretation, otherwise the country will be doomed… I have the answer in my heart but I have no right to day it.
Bhumibol clearly thought he was demonstrating admirable disengagement from politics, proving The King Never Smiles Wrong. But it was just posturing. Simply by making these remarks at all, and telling judges that he knew the correct decision but couldn’t say it, he was clearly interfering in the judicial process. The judges would not, of course, be told what their ruling should be via Bhumibol’s speech — that would be done by the network monarchy in the days that followed, in phone calls and meetings that would make very clear what the palace inner circle wanted them to do. On May 29, General Sonthi had a meeting with Ackaratorn Cularat, vice president of the Constitutional Tribunal. He later denied he had lobbied the judge, insisting it was purely a social get-together.
During the day on May 30, the tribunal cleared the Democrat Party of all charges. Around midnight, it finished reading a six-hour verdict on Thai Rak Thai, declaring the party had breached the law and ordering its dissolution. As the U.S. embassy observed, many aspects of the verdict were ridiculous:
The Tribunal members… denounced TRT in harsh terms as an undemocratic party, saying that TRT sought to advance the personal fortune of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and did not represent “a genuine party with any ideology.” (Comment: Most political parties in Thailand have been non-ideological vehicles to advance the power, prestige, and wealth of the party leaders. TRT had a clear, populist platform and did more to deliver on its promises to voters than any other party in Thai history. End Comment.)
The five-year ban on Thai Rak Thai politicians was particularly troubling because it was a penalty that had been put in place after the alleged crime was committed. The law was being applied retroactively, against all legal principles. In a briefing for the foreign diplomatic corps on June 5, Virasak Futrakul, permanent secretary at the foreign ministry, insisted that Thailand ”is a nation of laws” and offered this explanation:
Jaran admitted that this was a retroactive application of the law, but argued that, since this was not a criminal legal issue, it did not violate international legal norms…
Jaran likewise denied that the dissolution of the country’s largest party and the removal of over a hundred top political leaders would undercut the effectiveness of Thai democracy in the election tentatively scheduled for later this year. “This may be an opportunity” for Thai democracy now that a new generation of leaders and several smaller (and in some cases older) parties have a better chance to win election.
As Duncan McCargo wrote in his 2008 paper Thailand: State of Anxiety in Southeast Asian Affairs:
The episode illustrated a growing trend towards “judicialization”, a royally promoted view that complex political problems could not be solved through electoral politics or by elected ofﬁcials, but were best left to knowledgeable and highly moral judges. Such ideas were popularized in a May 2006 paper by Thammasat University academic and polemicist Thirayudh Boonmi, who had suggested that the judiciary could resolve problems relating to political reform. Yet in practice, the substance of the “judiciary” was wide-ranging: it included professional judges, judges appointed by the Senate to bodies such as the Constitutional Court, or judges appointed by the Council for National Security (NS) to the ad hoc Constitutional Tribunal. While the CNS and the government had appropriated the discourse of “rule of law”, these improvised judicial interventions had a questionable legal basis. The trend reﬂected long-standing conservative mistrust of political parties and elections, mistrust that had only been exacerbated by the rise of Thaksin. In its latest incarnation, judicialization was an anti-Thaksin policy. If a military coup was the blunt instrument used to oust Thaksin from ofﬁce, judicialization could be seen as the means by which the monarchical network sought to manage and reorganize political power in the post-coup period.
On June 11 the authorities struck another blow against Thaksin, hitting him where it would hurt most. The Assets Examination Committee, another institution created by the junta, ordered the freezing of 52 billion baht in the accounts of Thaksin and his family. It alleged he had obtained this money via abuse of power. The irony was that the junta was abusing its own power more blatantly than Thaksin ever had.
If the junta thought that freezing Thaksin’s assets would convince him to give up the fight and quietly fade into obscurity, it was an astonishing misjudgment of his character. He responded, as always, by hitting back. Thaksin’s allies began organizing regular mass demonstrations in Bangkok and around the country, under the banner of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), which would later become the Red Shirt movement.. Sometimes Thaksin himself would address the rally by videolink. He was emulating the tactics of the Yellow Shirt PAD, and challenging the incumbent government via street politics.
The U.S. embassy noted that while at least some of the protesters appeared to have been paid, this did not mean that they were not genuine supporters of Thaksin:
It may be that some of the protesters have been financially compensated for their attendance: a factory manager in the northern city of Chiang Mai, a hotbed of Thaksin support, told the Ambassador on June 14 his employees had been offered 1,000 baht (approximately $30) to attend the rallies in Bangkok. However, many, if not most, of the demonstrators appear to genuinely believe in their cause and fervently support the deposed PM.
The rallies turned up the pressure on Prem Tinsulanonda, singled out for angry criticism because of his political meddling and role in the coup. Prem continued to deny he had anything to do with the putsch, but few believed him. Attacks on the privy council president became increasingly outspoken, and at one rally in June a group of protesters held a mock funeral for Prem. On July 22, thousands of protesters marched on Prem’s house and fought with police trying to stop them getting into the compound. The clashes lasted several hours, with some protesters throwing stones and bottles; police responded with tear gas. The royalists were appalled: visiting Prem at the house two days later in a show of support, Surayud claimed that the pro-Thaksin movement had the “intention of undermining the highest institution on which the country and the public rely” — in other words, the monarchy. Any criticism of Prem, he implied, was an attack on the king.
On June 21, Thaksin bought British football club Manchester City for £81.6 million. The perennially underachieving City had long languished in the shadow of its legendary rival Manchester United, and Thaksin promised fans that he would lavish cash on the team to transform the underdogs into winners. He quickly signalled he meant business, hiring former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager and pledging £47 million for the Swede to spend on new players. Murmurs of disquiet among some fans over Thaksin’s questionable human rights record were drowned out by widespread delirium as City supporters savoured the delicious possibility of success after more than three decades without a trophy.
Struggling to pronounce Thaksin’s name, fans affectionately called him “Frank Sinatra” instead. ”I am not a dictator. I am a strong leader. I am what you call a solution-orientated person,” Thaksin assured them. “I’m quite confident that I can make Manchester City as popular as Liverpool and Manchester United in the next two or three years. It’s a big ambition. I can dream. But we need to build the club step by step. First we have to make the sleeping giant wake up.”
In truth, Thaksin had never been greatly interested in football – he was very much a golf man — and the fans he really cared about were not in Manchester, but Thailand. As McCargo observed in Thailand: State of Anxiety:
Thaksin’s purchase of a controlling interest in the British premier league football club Manchester City in June was a brilliant public relations exercise, allowing him to remain constantly in the popular eye through Thailand’s relentless television coverage of the English national game — in which he remained sublimely uninterested
The military had been pressuring Thailand’s media to starve Thaksin of publicity. Junta secretary Winai Phattiyakul had plaintively lamented in January that he wished the ousted prime minister would just “give up and go away”. Thaksin gleefully crushed such unrealistic hopes with his Manchester City deal, which ensured that even from afar he would remain the centre of attention back home. He ran rings around the wrongfooted generals, outmanoeuvring their efforts to block him with contemptuous ease. The scale of the junta’s abject defeat in the contest became humiliatingly apparent when Thaksin bankrolled a Thai-themed party for 8,000 fans in Albert Square in the heart of Manchester and triumphantly strode onto the stage wearing a blue-and-white City scarf to join the singing of team anthem Blue Moon. The reinvented Thaksin “Frank Sinatra” Shinawatra clearly had no intention whatsoever to quietly give up and go away.
By the middle of 2007, the drafting of a new constitution by an assembly overseen by the junta was complete. In an effort to show their commitment to democracy, the generals had promised a national referendum on the constitution, and this was set for August 19. If Thais approved the new constitution in the referendum, the junta said, general elections would be held by the end of the year to restore democratic parliamentary rule. If the constitution was rejected, a new one would have to be drafted, and the return of democracy would be delayed. This gave a strong incentive to vote “yes” to the constitution in the referendum, even for those who felt the charter was badly flawed. But Thaksin’s political allies publicly rejected the constitution and urged Thais to vote “no”. The referendum campaign became the latest proxy war between the network monarchy and Thaksin. As McCargo noted:
The great majority of those who took part were not really voting for or against the draft document
For most Thais, the vote had little to do with the merits of the constitution. It effectively became a popularity contest between Thaksin and the royalists. It was a referendum on the legitimacy of the junta that seized power from Thaksin in the 2006 coup.
The junta was determined to secure an overwhelming vote in favour of the constitution, and launched a massive propaganda campaign. A copy of the constitution was distributed to every household, with a bright yellow cover, a deliberate ploy to suggest it bore Bhumibol’s stamp of approval. Billboard slogans explicitly implied that Thais who revered the king should vote “yes”:
Love the king. Care about the king. Vote in the referendum. Accept the 2007 draft charter.
The revived ISOC internal security agency coordinated the campaign, with a reported budget of 10 billion baht, and using 50,000 troops to go door-to-door across the country telling people to vote “yes”. Sonthi publicly ordered 700,000 nationwide staff to “promote proper understanding of the constitution” among rural people. A mass rally was organized in Bangkok on August 12 to proclaim support for the new constitution, with Surayud leading a crowd of around 100,000 Thais from Royal Plaza to the Democracy Monument. They were dressed in yellow, the king’s colour, consciously evoking Bhumibol’s 60th anniversary celebrations in 2006, as well as the mass anti-Thaksin protests of the PAD.
The authorities also tried hard to stifle any campaigning for a “no” vote. Human rights activist Sombat Boonngamanong was arrested in Chiang Mai in July for holding a rally in which he advocated rejecting the constitution. In Bangkok, police raided the office of activist Prateep Ungsongtham Hata, and confiscated campaign material opposing the constitution, including posters with the slogan “It’s not illegal to vote against the draft constitution.” Bangkok taxi drivers — who tended to be staunch Thaksin supporters — were warned not to display bumper stickers with the message ”I accept passengers; I don’t accept the new constitution”.
Given the huge imbalance in campaigning, the results of the referendum were extraordinary. The junta’s hopes for an impressive margin of victory were dashed. The constitution was approved, but with only 57 percent of votes cast, against 43 percent rejecting the constitution, and two percent invalid votes. Turnout was 58 percent.
What made the result particularly remarkable was that the authorities had explicitly and relentlessly linked the constitution to the monarchy. Thais were led to believe that voting “yes” to the constitution was what Bhumibol wanted them to do. Voting “no” was to defy the king and display heretical support for Thaksin. And yet this was what 43 percent of voters decided to do. It was an incredible statistic, and would have been inconceivable in any previous period of Bhumibol’s reign. It demonstrated the immense damage that had been done to the prestige of the palace by the antics of the elite royalists and especially by the 2006 coup. Less than a year after the junta had seized power, it was clear that there had been an unprecedented collapse in the number of Thais willing to unquestioningly put their faith in Bhumibol and his inner circle.
There is no way to measure with any degree of precision how many Thais still genuinely venerate Bhumibol as his reign draws to a close. An opinion poll remains unthinkable: quite aside from the problem of getting people to answer honestly, any survey would be in breach of lèse majesté legislation just for suggesting there was even the slightest doubt about Bhumibol’s popularity. In the absence of any better alternative, the best data we have for gauging royal popularity comes from the 2007 constitutional referendum. It can only provide a very approximate indication: this was not, of course, a referendum on the monarchy and many other factors also influenced the voting. But the fact that 43 percent of Thais who cast their ballots were willing to vote “no” to a constitution championed by the members of Bhumibol’s inner circle, despite being told that if they loved the king they should vote “yes”, demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that reverence for the monarchy was far from universal in the Thailand of 2007.
Tellingly, the number of “no” votes cast in the referendum was far higher than opinion polls and even exit polls had predicted. In other words, many of those who voted “no” were well aware of the implications of their choice and wanted to keep their views secret: they lied to the pollsters. When it came to sensitive issues like the monarchy and military, Thais were long used to telling others what they wanted to hear, and keeping critical views private.
The referendum also demonstrated the extent of regional polarization in Thailand. In the south, support for the constitution (and by implication, the royalist administration) was 86 percent. In the north, Thaksin’s home turf, the constitution was narrowly approved, by 54 percent to 44 percent. The northeast, long considered a rebellious backwater by Bangkok, was the only region where a majority of voters rejected the constitution: 62 percent voted “no”. The authorities blamed Thaksin’s malign influence for the poor results.
With the referendum out of the way, the focus turned to the elections that the junta had pledged would be held by the end of 2007 to mark the end of military rule. It was already clear that the generals faced a serious problem, and were struggling to figure out how best to deal with it: Thaksin’s new political vehicle, the People’s Power Party, was well on course to winning the most votes when the election was held, with the Democrat Party still languishing in distant second place. Despite all the junta’s efforts to destroy Thaksin’s political influence, it seemed increasingly likely that if the generals kept their promise to hold free and fair elections on time, they would end up having to hand power back to the political allies of the man they had overthrown the previous year. It would be clearer than ever that their coup had been a terrible mistake and a dismal failure.
With most of the senior figures of the old Thai Rak Thai party banned from politics, Thaksin took the decision to install veteran right-wing bruiser Samak Sundaravej as leader of the PPP, although it was clear to everyone who was really in charge: Samak cheerfully admitted he was Thaksin’s “nominee”. He was a curious choice for party leader, a divisive figure with an extremely chequered political past, including playing a key role in stirring up right-wing hysteria ahead of the 1976 massacre at Thammasat University. He was instinctively authoritarian and dismissive of human rights, and the decision to choose him as leader was further evidence of Thaksin’s lack of comprehension of what genuine democracy entailed. He was also a political dinosaur well past his prime, as an American cable observed:
Thailand has many intelligent and well-spoken political leaders… When the time comes to form a new political party, however, the Thais are inexplicably drawn to an old guard of grizzled political veterans who have long, if unimpressive, resumes. The reappearance of these ancient mediocrities is one of the more depressing elements in the current political landscape. PPP led the way with the election of Samak Sundaravej, a 73-year-old known for his abrasive manner.
McCargo provides a summary of Samak’s colourful career in Thailand: State of Anxiety:
Samak was a controversial ﬁgure, who had ﬁrst made his name as an unbeatable champion contestant on the television quiz show Tick Tack Toe. Possessing a photographic memory and a turbo-charged tongue, Samak went on to become a prominent rightist and scourge of the student movement in the 1970s. As interior minister following the Thammasat University massacre of 6 October 1976, he notoriously arrested hundreds of supposed leftists and banned numerous Marxist texts. In the years that followed, he announced that he would become prime minister in “three steps”. He took the ﬁrst step in 1979, when his small Prachakorn Thai Party swept Bangkok in a landslide election victory. But his abrasive personality, “one man show” management style, and above all his narrow political base — he had virtually no electoral appeal outside the capital — barred him from ascending any further. After stints as communications minister and deputy prime minister in the 1980s and early 1990s, he eventually quit national politics, and was elected governor of Bangkok in 2000.
Thaksin was notoriously paranoid about political colleagues growing too popular or ambitious — he was not a man inclined to share the limelight and he expected his underlings to know their place — and his belief that Samak would be a reliably obedient puppet probably played a large part in the decision to install him as Thai Rak Thai leader. Samak had no political powerbase of his own and owed his position purely to Thaksin’s largesse, which would limit the risk of him going rogue. The obvious flaw in this analysis, of course, was Samak’s pathologically combative personality.
Samak’s reputation as an ardent ultra-royalist may also have influenced Thaksin’s decision: he probably felt the military and monarchist establishment would be more likely to allow the PPP to govern with a figure like Samak in nominal charge. In a discussion with Boyce on August 30, Samak said a top priority was improving relations between the PPP and the palace:
When meeting the Ambassador privately, Samak spoke at length in defense of Thaksin; he claimed that the former PM was the victim of slanderous allegations that he advocated reducing the status of the monarchy in Thailand so it would be on a par with the royal families in Britain and Japan…
As PPP Party Leader, one of his first orders of business, Samak said, would be to work to win support for PPP from members of the royal family. The party’s slogan, he told us, would be “For Nation-Religion-King, with People’s Power.”
But what probably appealed to Thaksin above all was that Samak was a sworn enemy of Prem Tinsulanonda. Although both men were right-wing royalists, they utterly loathed each other. Their animosity began brewing in the early 1980s, and Samak publicly asked uncomfortable questions about Prem’s behaviour during the April Fools’ Coup of 1981. Over the years that followed, Samak grew to increasingly resent Prem’s status as the king’s favourite, and according to several political colleagues he even harboured the (very unrealistic) ambition of one day heading the privy council himself. In February 2006, another row erupted between the two men after Prem gave a speech to doctoral candidates at Suan Dusit Rajabhat University based around some rather vacuous tautological homilies about leadership. Belabouring the obvious for more than half an hour, Prem proclaimed that for leaders:
Being smart and intelligent is a good thing, but if there is no morality and ethics it is not so good.
He added that leaders should be “honest in thought, speech and deeds”, “be righteous”, “have sound judgment” and also rule selflessly, shunning personal gain:
His Majesty the King has said that public administration must be performed for the nation’s stability, security and the public good, and not involve personal interests or the interests of one’s own kin or cronies.
Perhaps momentarily forgetting his own maxim on the importance of honesty, Prem told reporters afterwards that his speech was “not aimed at anybody”. But it didn’t take a doctorate in public administration to deduce that the privy council president was firing a blatant broadside at Thaksin Shinawatra and his recent sale of Shin Corp. Samak blasted back with comments on his “This Morning in Thailand” television show denouncing Prem for partisan political meddling aimed at undermining the elected prime minister. Samak’s accusations were, of course, absolutely true, but the royalist and military camp reacted with ostentatious outrage to the suggestion that Prem was not a saintly figure who floated serenely above the profane realm of politics. Amid military threats, Samak resigned from the television show, grumbling that “good guys are being chased away while bad people have won praise”. His hatred of Prem remained as virulent as ever, and this was exactly what Thaksin wanted in a proxy leader. As Chulalongkorn University’s Thitinan Pongsudhirak observed:
Mr. Samak’s paramount task in Mr. Thaksin’s service was to keep Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda, the alleged mastermind of the coup, at bay.
Hardline royalists within the junta and their allies in the Yellow Shirt movement, meanwhile, were busy conspiring to try to get the end-2007 elections cancelled or postponed. Aware that Thaksin’s PPP was well on course to form the next government after elections were held, the only response the ultra-royalists could come up with was a campaign to sabotage the planned return to electoral democracy, partly by engineering the resignations of several cabinet ministers. A U.S. cable summarized the political intrigue on August 30:
For the past two weeks, the interim Thai cabinet has been under a relentless attack apparently orchestrated by hard-line anti-Thaksin elements dissatisfied with the government’s performance. These factions have long complained that the government was not taking tough enough measures to ensure former PM Thaksin could not return to power. After initial uncertainty about the exact nature of the conspiracy afoot, there is now a general and probably correct view that members of the National Legislative Assembly and of the People’s Alliance for Democracy are the chief conspirators; elements of the military that were sidelined during the recent reshuffle may also be playing a role. Their goal: to create enough chaos in the government to derail the scheduled December elections, and buy more time to reduce the influence of the former PM.
The plan failed. Surayud, who was miserable as prime minister and eager to escape as soon as possible, declared the government remained committed to holding elections before the end of 2007. In late October, an election date of December 23 was formally announced by royal decree. As McCargo noted:
While it may be tempting to impute Surayud with sound democratic impulses, one core reason he kept this promise was his own palpable lack of appetite for the job of prime minister. After leaving Government House, he admitted that he had been extremely loath to take on the position, that his happiest moments as prime minister were when he went to bed, and that if he could turn back the clock he would never have assumed the post in the ﬁrst place.
Coup leader General Sonthi had repeatedly insisted he had no interest in clinging on to power, but behind the scenes he had been plotting for months to find a party he could use as his political vehicle. In mid-2007, tycoon Kajit Habananda, president and CEO of budget airline One-Two-Go founded a new party, Rak Chat, for this purpose, with the encouragement of Pallop Pinmanee. Sonthi began seeking ways to steal money to fund the party, and was widely reported to be ready to officially join it. He seems to have genuinely believed he might be able to get elected as prime minister in the December polls. The plan was revealed to U.S. diplomats by Prasong Soonsiri, one of the coup plotters who had later grown disillusioned with the performance of Sonthi and Surayud:
Prasong said that several months ago Sonthi had come to him and said that he was considering supporting Kajit Habananda’s Rak Chat Party. Sonthi determined that he would need about 2 billion baht (usd 60 million) to build the party up. The Royal Thai Army then negotiated the purchase of armored personnel carriers (APC) from Ukraine, with the deal designed to allow Sonthi to skim 2 billion baht of the inflated 4 billion baht pricetag.
The plans for Rak Chat unravelled, however, when a One-Two-GO flight from Bangkok on September 16 crashed on arrival in Phuket. The McDonnell Douglas MD-82 aircraft hit an embankment beside the runway and burst into flames, and the chaotic and inadequate response by fire and rescue services at the airport and Phuket Town compounded the disaster. The final death toll was 90 of the 13 people on board. Following the crash, investigators found systematic malpractice and fraud within One-Two-GO. The episode destroyed the prospects for the Rak Chat party.
Sonthi turned his attention to another plan instead, trying to unite various political factions that for years had hawked themselves to the highest bidder. Many of them had been absorbed into Thai Rak Thai during the years of Thaksin’s political dominance, but now their loyalty was available for hire once again. They included Snoh Thienthong’s Pracharaj faction and some small groups linked to notorious provincial criminal families, like Wattana Asavaheme‘s Paknam faction and the Khunpleum mafia family from Chonburi. Sonthi encouraged them to merge under the name Peua Pandin, or For the Motherland, and it quickly became apparent that the party had a remarkable amount of money with which to bribe factions to rally under its banner. Squabbling among the various factions scuppered plans to make Peua Pandin a major political force, and when the party was officially launched at the end of September it was built around only one faction, led by former Thai Rak Thai politician Suwit Khunkitti. Pallop was involved yet again, officially as an adviser to the party. As the elections approached more factions drifted in, lured by the money being offered, and Wattana Asavaheme became party chairman. An article in The Nation on November 16 pondered “the mystery that is Puea Pandin” and noted:
During the past month, the party has become a destination for former MPs, public figures and influential politicians… A group of military figures is said to be financially backing the party.
Boyce also reported to Washington that ”many contacts have indicated that the Motherland Party received support from someone with ties to the military”. Another U.S. cable noted that Peua Pandin was receiving a disproportionately large share of media attention.
It remains unclear whether Sonthi managed to secure funds from the corrupt Ukrainian deal in the end. Boyce thought not:
According to our sources, this APC sale was put on hold by the Defense minister, to be decided by the new government. This does not then appear to be the source of Motherland’s unexpectedly large war chest.
However, the APCs were indeed eventually delivered, although after several years of delay. Whether or not he received the money, Sonthi’s willingness to abuse his position to steal funds to bankroll his political ambitions demonstrated the hypocrisy of the junta’s claims that Thaksin’s corruption was a major reason for the coup. And clearly someone had found a way to make Peua Pandin a very rich party indeed.
The following year, Bhumibol’s cousin Sukhumband told U.S. diplomats that:
Up until the last moment… Sonthi believed he would be able to forge a governing coalition consisting of all parties except for PPP and backing Sonthi’s selection as Prime Minister: Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana Party Leader Chettha Thanacharo, a former Army Commander.
Although Sonthi’s plans had failed, Sukhumband said, the coup leader had ended up considerably richer after 2007, perhaps after making a deal with Thaksin:
We asked whether Sonthi remained active in political circles. Sukhumbhand said he thought not; he believed Sonthi had reached an agreement of sorts with Thaksin — “no war, no peace.” Sukhumbhand also guessed that Sonthi was currently ”enjoying his wealth,” saying he believed Sonthi had become significantly wealthier after the coup.
On October 13, 2007, Bhumibol suffered a stroke and was taken to Siriraj Hospital. His principal private secretary, Arsa Sarasin, told Boyce on October 16 that “the King’s condition was improving, but he would need physical therapy for his right side”. Bhumibol was eventually discharged from hospital on November 7, wearing a pink jacket and shirt, and spurring and suddenly many royalist Thais began wearing pink rather than yellow to show their support for the monarch. Boyce noted in a cable that the fragility of the king’s health was focusing attention on the issue of succession:
The King’s public appearance and departure from the hospital will enable many Thais to put aside, for now, their anxieties surrounding the King’s eventual departure from the scene. However, while some Thais appear psychologically unable to cope with the idea of the eventual death of their revered King, many in the political class recognize that this is a looming prospect that will transform Thai politics.
The cable attempted to disentangle the various laws and constitutional edicts governing the succession. It observed that while palace law did not permit a woman to become monarch, the 1991 constitution and later charters contained provisions allowing the king to amend palace law with relative ease:
This means that the King, on relatively short notice, can make significant changes in the Succession law. This has been interpreted to mean that he could, if he liked, designate his popular daughter to succeed him, rather than his reprobate and reviled only son.
The cable also noted that while Vajiralongkorn was Bhumibol’s designated heir, it was by no means assured that the prince would succeed his father:
The Crown Prince is the designated heir. None of provisions above matter much if he is still the designated heir when the Kings dies — those provisions become relevant only if the Crown Prince is removed from contention somehow. The Palace Law on Succession does contain a loophole that could, at least conceivably, be applied to this case. Section 10 of the law states that: “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.”
This was exactly the plan that Sirikit and her circle had been hatching: they could have Vajiralongkorn declared unfit to rule, possibly using section 10 of the palace succession law, and pass the crown instead to the prince’s young son. Ong Ti would become Rama X, and until he reached adulthood, Sirikit would reign as regent on his behalf.
Boyce’s discussion of succession mechanics, 07BANGKOK5718, references another 2007 cable, numbered 07BANGKOK5522 and entitled “GOSSIP”. That cable is missing from the electronic log of cables obtained by WikiLeaks, which means it was designated top secret and not stored electronically. But the brief reference in the succession cable describes one issue discussed in the top secret despatch:
Ref A detailed reports that 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.
Evidently, the U.S. embassy had been given information that some of Thailand’s senior royalists were conspiring to undermine Srirasmi, and by implication, Vajiralongkorn too. It was further evidence that the succession would be contested.
The extent to which Bhumibol knew of Sirikit’s ambitions and rift with Vajiralongkorn remains unknown. Tej Bunnag, the king’s deputy personal private secretary, told Boyce in November that Bhumibol had clearly signalled that he still regarded the prince as his successor:
Tej explained that the King had very much wanted to participate in the November 5 royal barge procession. Given his medical condition, Palace figures prepared five alternatives for his consideration. When they presented these, however, the King quickly dismissed them. According to Tej, the King said, “I don’t need these; the Crown Prince is my representative.” (In the event, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn took the King’s place on the Suphannahongse barge.) Tej said Palace insiders interpreted the King’s blunt decision as the clearest indication yet of his determination to have the Crown Prince retain his current status as the King’s designated successor.
Tej also revealed that there had been no planning for what would happen when Bhumibol died: the whole subject was regarded as simply too awful to contemplate:
Tej … explained there would be no advance planning for how to respond to the King’s death; the Privy Council would determine what to do after the event. The Ambassador noted the Embassy had heard speculation of a 1,000-day mourning period after the King’s death. Tej said he simply did not know what would happen, but he was able to confirm that the Crown Prince, if he remains the designated successor, would immediately become King, although his coronation ceremony would take place after the mourning period and royal cremation.
Palace officials were so trapped in archaic tradition and so divorced from reality that no arrangements had been put in place to manage the traumatic and destabilizing impact that Bhumibol’s death would have on Thailand. It was an extraordinary attitude, particularly given that the looming succession was one of the fundamental issues fuelling the ongoing political conflict. Thaksin and Sirikit and Prem and all the rest of the key players in Thailand’s pivotal power struggle had long been strategizing their response to the end of Rama IX’s reign. Thais were acutely aware that the day was drawing closer when they would have to deal with Bhumibol’s death. It preyed on everybody’s minds. It fuelled the scheming of the elites. But, officially, it was unthinkable.
In late October, several military documents were leaked to supporters of Thaksin and posted online. They revealed the lengths the junta was willing to go to in its efforts to combat Thaksin and undermine support for the PPP in an ostensibly democratic election. One document was a memorandum sent to General Sonthi on September 14, 2007, from Colonel Chatchalerm Chalermsuk in the junta’s “News and Information Management” section, and with additional material added by Colonel Theerawat Bunyawat, director of the army’s Information Technology Division. It outlined a proposed strategy to turn voters against the PPP by planting false stories in government media alleging that key members of the party were anti-monarchist, that the party planned to introduce a presidential system in Thailand that would challenge the traditional role of the monarchy, and that Thaksin was funding articles by the foreign media that were critical of the monarchy. Some of its recommendations were:
Create news to attack the old power… Spread rumours about the connections between TRT, Singapore, PPP, and the trend towards presidential rule… Spread rumours that Thaksin paid foreign media to run articles attacking the institution.
It also proposed arranging media interviews for ostensibly neutral commentators who would say that voting for PPP would be a waste of time because it would only cause turmoil and provoke another military coup. And it suggested promoting national stability by telling television stations to produce programmes illustrating the perils of disunity, ”using examples like the loss of Ayuthaya to Myanmar”.
The most interesting of the leaked documents was a transcript of a meeting held in army headquarters on September 21, 2007, for General Sonthi’s farewell speech (he was stepping down as junta chairman to take up a position in Surayud’s cabinet). The initial speech at the meeting was given by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, commander of the First Army. Prayuth, an unreconstructed ultra-royalist and member of Queen Sirikit’s inner circle, told the assembled gathering that the struggle against Thaksin was just the latest phase of the military’s conflict with communism, a war to secure the hearts and minds of the people:
It is our duty, as soldiers of the king, to understand these matters, to understand the war for the people, both in the era of the Cold War and the era of populism… So all of us must contest with them to win the grassroots back for the king… Our most important aim is that all the masses in the territory must be ours.
Sonthi then addressed the audience, taking up the same theme and saying the military had to adopt a new strategy to ensure it won the support of the people. He concluded:
The army’s task from now on is to win over the people at every level and in every area to turn to support the army and be loyal to nation, religion and king.
It was a fascinating insight into the paranoid, outdated and simplistic thought processes of the top military leadership. General Anupong Paochinda, who took over as army commander in October 2007, admitted to Boyce that the documents were genuine.
During the year following the September 19 coup, the junta had rebuilt the defunct national security agency ISOC into a vast military apparatus operating beyond government oversight. ISOC had played a central role in the propaganda campaign for a “yes” vote in the referendum, in trying to root out support for Thaksin in the rural north and northeast, and in trying to sabotage the PPP’s prospects in the upcoming general election. With the end of official military rule approaching, the junta rushed through legislation that would preserve ISOC’s extensive powers and maintain the army’s bloated political influence even after democracy was supposedly restored. Reversing the trend of improving professionalism and depoliticization since 1992, Thailand’s royalist junta was intent upon putting the military permanently at the centre of power. As the U.S. embassy reported:
Critics have publicly labeled ISOC a power grab by the Army, or an attempt to institutionalize military governance. One subset of this criticism alleges that the new ISOC will allow the CNS to maintain control even after a democratic government is elected later this year.
The Internal Security Act, a security law formalizing ISOC’s role, was approved by the cabinet in June 2007 after a secretive drafting process, and sent to the rubber-stamp National Legislative Assembly. The U.S. embassy gave details of the proposed legislation in a June 25 cable:
The draft Internal Security Act approved by the cabinet on June 19 would significantly expand the powers of the military through its proxy, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC). Under this new law, the Army commander would serve as Director, ISOC, and have the authority to order curfews, searches and seizures with little oversight…
Since the 2006 coup, senior government officials have highlighted the need for enhanced legal frameworks to cope with both separatists in the South and potential political upheaval throughout the rest of the country. Recent rallies by anti-government demonstrators and threats of further actions by supporters of ousted PM Thaksin appear to have driven the latest push for this security law…
The expanded authorities provided to the ISOC Director are likely to generate much … controversy. While the Director of ISOC may authorize the arrest or detention of a person who “conspires to commit danger to the internal security,” this action must be approved by a court of law. Those detained under ISOC authority can be held for a reoccurring period of seven days, up to a total of 30 days. Other authorities granted the ISOC Director include the ability to: — order searches (in some cases requiring judicial approval) — establish curfews — block public assembly — seize assets, documents or evidence relating to an act harming national security — place suspects into “reeducation” sessions not more than six months in length —order employers to collect and maintain biographic information on their employees — regulate the purchase, sale, or possession of “any material…used to create a threat to internal security”
The draft security act was widely denounced in Thailand as profoundly dangerous to democracy. It languished for months as the military and bureaucrats tinkered with the draft. There was disquiet even among some senior military officers about the proposed powers that ISOC would have, and they shared their concerns with the U.S. embassy:
In addition to human rights activists highlighting concerns over the possible impact on personal and political freedoms, some in the military have told us privately that the draft Act is flawed. Lieutenant General Surapong Suwana-adth, Director of Joint Intelligence at the Royal Thai Supreme Command and one of the key players in establishing the new ISOC, told us that the original intent was to provide such a legal framework to deal with security threats. For example, Thailand needed a legal structure to respond to a terrorist attack, Surapong explained. Despite the genuine effort early on to draft a bill to provide a legal structure in times of crisis, Surapong said hardline elements in the government have hijacked the Act as a means to maintain power after elections… “Hawks” have taken advantage of the power seized in the coup to enshrine into law a permanent role for the military to influence politics, Surapong explained.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a controversial academic who had close links with the Democrat Party and the military, and had worked as an adviser to Surayud, also conceded that the security law was an attempted power grab by the army:
Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn; Associate Professor at Chulalongkorn University, advisor to PM Surayud, and a leading security analyst, explained to us that the Act was an attempt by the military to regain a prominent role in Thailand. The military desired a return to a more dominant position because the 1997 Asian financial crisis had caused the Thai military’s budget to be cut and Thaksin had favored the police, Panitan explained. Now the military was in a position of control and is worried about the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party doing well in the election. The military wants tools to deal with the situation, Panitan said.
At the last minute, with the junta’s authority about to end, the National Legislative Assembly approved the Internal Security Act late in the evening of December 21, in one of its final actions before being dissolved. A few modifications had been made in response to criticism, but the military had achieved its aim of institutionalizing a major political role for itself and gaining extensive powers to impose its will on Thailand. As Boyce commented:
While few doubted the need for Thailand to develop a legal framework to respond to internal security threats, the manner in which the ISA passed has raised concerns about the post-election influence of the military.
Near the end of Ralph Boyce’s tenure as U.S. ambassador in Bangkok, he co-hosted a gala dinner in honour of King Bhumibol. With the king still recuperating following his stroke, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn presided at the event, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans played Dixieland classics to more than 600 high-society guests. Boyce, meanwhile, was sitting next to Vajiralongkorn’s wife Srirasmi, and struggling to make small-talk. He was probably unaware that she and the crown prince were already estranged, but he had of course seen the salacious video of Srirasmi at Foo Foo’s birthday party. And sometime during dinner, he began chatting to Srirasmi about dogs. It turned out to be an unfortunate faux-pas:
I mentioned to Srirasm that, during the state dinner hosted by the King for former President Bush in December 2006, the King had appeared most energized when discussing animals; he had spoken animatedly about his most well-known dog, Thongdaeng, and others. I mentioned having heard Princess Sirindhorn had a large dog, and I asked Srirasm if she knew the breed. Srirasm appeared immediately to freeze up; her body language changed, and she said curtly that she knew nothing of Sirindhorn’s affairs. (Comment: Her reaction was interesting, given a widespread, longstanding perception that Sirindhorn may somehow edge out the Crown Prince as successor to the King. End Comment.)
Boyce did, however, manage to discover one interesting piece of canine information from Srirasmi:
Srirasm also confirmed that the Crown Prince’s miniature poodle, Foo Foo, currently holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal.
The snappily-dressed Foo Foo was present at the dinner, and made himself the centre of attention:
Foo Foo was present at the event, dressed in formal evening attire complete with paw mitts, and at one point during the band’s second number, he jumped up onto the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses, including my own. The Air Chief Marshal’s antics drew the full attention of the 600-plus audience members, and remains the talk of the town to this day.
Boyce paid a farewell call on Vajiralongkorn at his Sukhothai Palace three days later. The crown prince was doing his best to be polite and say the right things, but some of his remarks demonstrated the emotional gulf and breakdown in communication between Vajiralongkorn and his father King Bhumibol:
We began by talking about the Embassy-sponsored Preservation Hall Jazz Band event which he and Royal Consort Srirasm had attended on November 10. Interestingly, the Crown Prince was unaware that King Bhumibol had participated in a two-hour jam session with the band the following day (November 11). He was pleased with news of the session, saying it would have been invigorating for the King “after all he has been through” lately. He added that the King often preferred to communicate through music rather than speech, noting that musicians have a common bond that transcends language. (Note: According to the musicians, the King was able to speak normally and showed no sign of serious impairment from his recent mild stroke. End Note.)
Bhumibol and Vajiralongkorn had barely spoken for years. Among the king’s immediate family, only Princess Sirindhorn remained close to him. His elder sister Galyani was critically ill in hospital, close to death. Lonely and ill, the old king was estranged from his wife and had a difficult relationship with three of his four children. Now, at the end of his life, the adoration of his people seemed to be slipping away too.
The December 23 general election was a stunning success for the People’s Power Party: it won 233 seats, not far short of an absolute majority, with the Democrat Party far behind on 165 seats, and Peua Pandin winning just 24. Given all the efforts by the junta to undermine support for Thaksin and pump money into Peua Pandin, it was a remarkable result. Efforts by the generals to prevent other parties forming a coalition with the PPP also failed. Once the scale of its victory was clear, several smaller parties indicated their willingness to work with with the PPP. In further evidence of his chronic meddling, Prem summoned Chart Thai leader Banharn and Peua Pandin leader Suwit to his residence for talks on the night of the election, but failed to persuade them to renounce working with the PPP, despite months of assurances by Banharn that he would never join a pro-Thaksin government. Any hopes among the junta and royalists for a grand anti-Thaksin coalition quickly fell apart.
After two years of uncertainty, including massive demonstrations, an annulled election, a caretaker government, a military coup, a junta, an interim government and a new constitution, we are pretty much back to where we were in 2005. There has been no resolution of the issues that provoked the crisis in the first place. The rule of law and accountability for elected officials have not been strengthened, the corrupting role of money in the political process has not been reduced, the relationship between politicians and the royal institutions, including the Privy council, has not be clarified. After a strategic pause, the same conflicts that led to the political crisis are likely to re-emerge…
John noted that the PPP’s election victory represented a significant setback not just to the military, but also to the palace:
The 2007 election provided a useful indicator of the limits of Palace influence. Plausible rumors in the period leading up to the election claimed that Queen Sirikit sought actively to block the return to power of pro-Thaksin forces. We may attribute the failure of such efforts to divisions within the royal family, or to the lack of mechanisms to effectively convey Palace views to the public while maintaining plausible claims that the Chakri dynasty plays an appropriately apolitical role. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the monarchy carries enormous influence but, even when some of its core interests are at stake, lacks full control over the course of events. While the King likely could send blunt signals to achieve virtually any short-term outcome he desires (as in 1992, when he pushed General Suchinda from power), such intervention could transform the role of the royal family in ways that open it up to criticism and, over the long run, jeopardize its current lofty standing.
PPP’s victory in the election marked a setback for the coup leaders. But the failure to block Thaksin’s political comeback did not represent capitulation by or marginalization of the royalist oligarchy. With the return to power of a pro-Thaksin government, we may once again see a situation in which a party championing populism and drawing its strength from the countryside moves to accumulate power and prestige at the expense of the Palace and its Bangkok-based blue-blood allies. A fundamental tension between these two camps remains, and it could lead to further bitter conflict, prompting public or private calls for military intervention.
On January 2, 2008, the palace announced the death of Bhumibol’s older sister Galyani. She had been artificially kept alive for weeks, and may have died some time before the formal annoucement. It was another emotional blow to Bhumibol, leaving him with only one genuinely close confidante left in the world, his daughter Sirindhorn. And it was another reminder to Thais that Bhumibol’s death might not be far away. John observed that the succession posed enormous problems for Thailand’s royalist elite:
For the royalist segment of the Bangkok-based political class… there is no clear path to perpetuating the monarchy’s preeminence after the King’s death.
John was still still unaware that many leading royalists were increasingly turning to Queen Sirikit as their supposed salvation, as Bhumibol’s growing decrepitude and disengagement removed him from the scene. Her rift with Vajiralongkorn and her ambitions to reign as regent after Bhumibol’s death profoundly altered Thailand’s political dynamic, and this was to become increasingly apparent as 2008 unfolded.
Samak Sundaravej and his cabinet were formally sworn in by King Bhumibol at a palace ceremony on February 6, 2008. The quality of the cabinet was depressingly low, even by Thai standards, partly because so many leading figures from the old Thai Rak Thai party were banned from politics. Everybody knew that Thaksin viewed Samak as a puppet, and little effort was made to conceal this fact. John recounted telling remarks from Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama at a dinner hosted by the Russian ambassador with British envoy Quinton Quayle also in attendance:
In a discussion of the foreign policy structures and mechanisms of our governments, Amb. Quayle asked the FM how much direction he took from Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Commerce Mingkwan, since nominally the Foreign Minister reports to the DPM. Noppadon laughed, stating that although he and Mingkwan are longtime friends, he does not take any direction from the DPM. “I am fortunate. I am pretty independent in my work. I don’t have to take instruction from anyone, and I only report to Mr. Thaksin.” When he saw the stunned silence around the table, he quickly added “and, of course, the Prime Minister. But that goes without saying.”
But Samak’s pugnacious personality and controversial past quickly caused problems for his party. A February 8 interview with Al Jazeera was particularly embarrassing. Samak dismissed the 2004 Tak Bai incident in southern Thailand, saying the 78 young Muslim men who died had been weakened by not eating or drinking all day, adding “nobody killed them”. He attempted to dismiss the October 1976 massacre at Thammasat University too, claiming it was “dirty history” to suggest that scores of students were killed:
Only one guy died, in Sanam Luang, because somebody beat them and burned them… Nobody died in Thammasat University.
Samak became abusive towards interviewer Aela Callan when she challenged him on his outlandish claims. His behaviour illustrated how Thai elites believe they can rewrite history to serve their own ends, denying the basic facts of what really happened.
In comments to Eric John on February 12, Anand Panyarachun pronounced himself disgusted with Samak and with Thai voters:
After an exchange of pleasantries, Anand expressed in strong terms his dismay with the December 2007 election results and with the administration of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. He called this “the least trustworthy government ever,” deploring the influence of figures outside of the formal government (read: deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra and his associates). Citing Samak’s false claim to the international media that only one person died during a period of political upheaval in 1976, Anand deplored Samak for having “no respect for the truth,” and he characterized Samak as having politically self-destructive tendencies…
Thai voters who had elected the PPP government were “gullible” and “damn stupid,” Anand despaired…
In a revealing moment, Anand quipped dismissively that Samak’s administration’s only claim to legitimacy was that his party had won the election. Anand clearly does not believe that Samak and his crew are capable of good (much less wise) governance. Time may prove Anand correct, but he nevertheless should acknowledge that a peaceful transition back to rule by elected leaders is a positive and necessary step back toward political normalcy — even if the Thai majority’s preference differs from Anand’s.
The elderly royalist was blind to the irony that he, too, had no respect for the truth and clung to a fairytale version of Thai history. His comments were revealing, showing how little respect he really had for democracy and the wishes of Thailand’s people.
The nightmare facing Anand and the ultra-royalists worsened on February 28 when Thaksin Shinawatra returned from exile abroad, prostrating himself on the ground outside Suvarnabhumi Airport as thousands of supporters cheered and wept. As John commented, “even though Samak Sundaravej is Prime Minister, Thaksin is the political superstar”. The royalists were increasingly alarmed, and increasingly afraid.
Thaksin’s return to Thailand galvanized the forces arrayed against him, and reawakened the Yellow Shirt mass movement. At the first PAD rally since the 2006 coup, several thousand Yellow Shirts gathered at Thammasat University on March 28. Sondhi Limthongkul denounced Samak’s administration as “Thaksin’s regime in disguise” — a perfectly reasonable accusation, except that the PPP was not even bothering to disguise itself. A U.S. cable on the rally reported that:
Most protesters appeared to be middle-aged and middle-class Bangkok residents; many wore PAD-themed anti-Thaksin clothing apparently distributed at pre-coup PAD rallies.
But the 2008 incarnation of the PAD was to prove very different from the Yellow Shirts of 2006. It had become a far darker organization, increasingly extremist and violent. As McCargo wrote in Thai Politics as Reality TV in the Journal of Asian Studies in 2009:
As time went on, the PAD became captives of their own rhetoric, unable to converse with others, let alone back down or make compromises. Rather than seek to build broad support for their ideas, core leaders made vitriolic speeches —for which Sondhi set the tone — in which they denounced anyone critical of, or unsympathetic, to their actions. Such megaphone posturing served to alienate potential supporters, and to strengthen the PAD’s dangerous sense of themselves as an in-group of truth-tellers and savants, whose nationalist loyalties were not properly appreciated or understood. This self-presentation had distinctly cultic overtones, and Sondhi’s own language became increasingly demagogic.
One reason for the PAD’s gruesome mutation in 2008 was the growing panic and anxiety felt by Thai royalists as they struggled to cope with the wrenching realization that Bhumibol’s reign was coming to an end. The Yellow Shirts proclaimed their undying love for the king, but it was the flipside of that love that transformed them into a baying apocalyptic death cult: they were utterly petrified about what would happen once Rama IX was gone. To quote McCargo again:
Thailand was firmly in the grip of “late reign” national anxiety, which formed the basic explanation for the otherwise illegible performances and processions of the PAD.
A second reason for the PAD’s drift towards ultra-royalist proto-fascism was Queen Sirikit’s deepening involvement in the anti-Thaksin movement. In a speech in the United States during 2007, Sondhi Limthongkul had explicitly boasted of royal support, saying that he had received money and a special gift from the palace during 2006, and that afterwards royalists like Prem Tinsulandond, Sonthi Boonyaratglin and Suraud Chulanont had taken him much more seriously. The gift, according to what Sondhi told his allies, was a blue scarf given personally to him by Sirikit’s sister Busaba. It was a signal of Sirikit’s support. Also, according to a U.S. cable in April 2009:
Contacts have told us that Sondhi privately told other Thais that Queen Sirikit directly supported his efforts.
And with the queen now estranged from the crown prince, her support for a robust ultra-royalist movement in Thailand was now even stronger.
In March, Sirikit was hospitalized with bronchitis. During her time in hospital she had an angry confrontation with her son Vajiralongkorn, reported in a U.S. cable the following year:
In 2008, the Queen and the Crown Prince had a shouting match at a hospital during the Queen’s brief hospitalization, with the Crown Prince angrily berating her in front of ladies-in-waiting… Several of the key ladies-in-waiting reportedly now refuse to be present when the Crown Prince visits the Queen.
Sirikit and her royalist allies were determined to prevent Thaksin consolidating his influence in Thailand, because this could decisively tip the balance in favour of Vajiralongkorn when Bhumibol died, and prevent Sirikit squeezing him out of the succession. With the king’s health clearly tenuous there was no time to lose. Sirikit’s circle had to strike quickly to assert their dominance. Two particularly active acolytes of Sirikit were heavily involved in stoking tensions during 2008: First Army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha and minor royal Piya Malakul. Discussing rumours that that the two men could be plotting another coup, Eric John described Piya as “a very odd character who could well be screwy enough to be drawn into a misadventure of this kind”. The royalists openly raised the spectre of a republican plot once again, claiming Thaksin wanted to destroy the monarchy. John discussed these worries in a cable on May 24:
The King himself is old, frail and ill, and the monarchal institution is weakening with him. The love for the Thai king is very personal — fostered by a concerted effort by the Palace for sixty years — and does not extend, at all, to his son and presumed heir. Whoever controls political power when the King dies could be in a very strong position to sway the destiny of the country — to preserve the monarchy or to turn Thailand into a republic. For the military and the royalists, it is a cause of deep concern to have known anti-monarchists… in important government positions. Threats to the monarchy tend to provoke an irrational overreaction from the military.
In fact what worried the ultra-royalists was not that Thaksin would seek to turn Thailand into a republic, but that he would ensure the succession passed to Vajiralongkorn, a development that would decisively undercut the influence of the traditional monarchist elite. They were terrified that an unholy alliance of Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn would come to dominate Thai politics for decades to come.
On May 19, a Buddhist holiday in Thailand, Queen Sirikit paid a visit to the Wat Chana Songkram temple in Bangkok in the company of army commander Anupong Paochinda and First Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, one of her closest confidantes. As Eric John noted in a cable to Washington:
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.
Queen Sirikit and her supporters were preparing for war.
There was no organized republican movement in Thailand, but since 2006 a growing number of Thais had been questioning the role of the palace and the behaviour of the network monarchy, in particular Prem Tinsulanonda. This was a direct result of the behaviour of Prem, Surayud, royalist generals like Sonthi and Saprang, and indeed Sirikit herself. John discussed this trend in his May 24 cable:
Although the King is genuinely beloved and respected, he and the institution of the monarchy have been subject to criticism regularly over the years. Even academics from ”good” families and universities have gotten into trouble for their “leftist,” anti-royal views. Yet, there is a feeling that the situation is different, and more serious, this time. In the first place, the internet and other independent media make the spread of such views so easy. The discussion of the King’s role in Thai politics has left the classroom and academic journal, and is accessible to anyone. This is dangerous both because it facilitates the gathering of support for these views, and it mobilizes opponents who are outraged to read such scandalous reports.
In response, the royalist establishment resorted increasingly to the lèse majesté law. In March, PPP cabinet minister and former government spokesman Jakrapob Penkair was accused over comments he had made about Prem and the patronage system at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand the year before. Thaksin and Samak conspicuously failed to defend him and he eventually resigned on May 30. BBC journalist Jonathan Head was accused also for comments during the same event. In April, activist Chotisak Oonsong and his girlfriend were charged for failing to stand during the playing of the royal anthem before a movie screening in Bangkok in September 2007. In late April, the Metro Life 97 radio station, part of Sondhi Limthongkul’s media empire, broadcast Chotisak’s home address. As the U.S. embassy commented:
In the last six months, lese majeste complaints have been filed or threatened against a wide range of figures, including a cabinet minister, a former Royal Thai Police Chief, a BBC journalist, and an activist. These cases do not involve direct assaults on the monarchy; some involve slights as minor as skipping royal ceremonies or not standing for the royal anthem in a movie theater…
Jakrapob is facing accusations that he criticized the monarchy during an August 2007 panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) after his release from prison. The accusations are based primarily on his English statement about a clash between democracy and “the patronage system,” which has been interpreted by some as referring to the patronage of the monarchy.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat Party leader (and formal leader of the parliamentary opposition), personally took up this issue, calling publicly for Jakrapob’s resignation and saying Prime Minister Samak must take responsibility for any damage inflicted by Jakrapob’s remarks. The Democrat Party filed a motion to impeach Jakrapob. Finally, under heavy fire, Jakrapob announced on May 30 that he would resign from the government.
The Police major who filed the complaint against Jakrapob also filed a complaint against Jonathan Head, the BBC correspondent who moderated the FCCT panel discussion at which Jakrapob made his remarks. We met on May 15 with Head … who told us that he had received word from a figure associated with the Palace (NFI) that he would not be charged with lese majeste. However, Head later told us that, on May 27, police officers arrived at the FCCT and questioned board members about his and Jakrapob’s case; they questioned FCCT President Nirmal Ghosh for three hours, and they threatened to seize FCCT computers and documents. Head told us that the police told his (Head’s) staff that the police viewed his case as serious not just because of the panel discussion, but also because of articles about the Crown Prince Head had written for the BBC website.
Intriguingly, a later cable revealed that Anand Panyarachun had assured Head that the lèse majesté accusations against him “would go away”.
From the start, Samak’s government focused its attention on securing constitutional amendments that would strengthen its position and weaken efforts to attack Thaksin. This was initially the focus of the campaign by the Yellow Shirts to topple the government. Samak’s dismal record of undermining democracy helped the PAD cast its campaign as a struggle against dictatorship. In his book Thailand Unhinged (also published in Thai as เทวาสายัณห์: มรณกรรมของประชาธิปไตยแบบไทย), Federico Ferrara identifies the choice of Samak to lead the PPP as “one of the most damaging mistakes Thailand ever made”:
Aside from being a veteran Bangkok politician with no currency in the provinces and few of the personal qualities that made Thaksin a folk hero among the underprivileged, Samak had made his name as an ultra-conservative, having previously shilled for the military and the palace by playing an active role in support of the brutal crackdowns of 1976 and 1992. Samak’s historical ties with the military and the monarchy, however, earned the new government no sympathy from generals and palace insiders, determined as they were to destroy Thaksin and his proxies whoever they might be. At the same time, Samak’s disturbing record gave the resurgent PAD a chance to portray its campaign as the continuation of the struggle for democracy that had famously claimed the lives of hundreds of people in 1973, 1976, and 1992.
The PAD resumed street protests on May 25 with a rally at Democracy Monument attended by around 10,000 people. A few hundred opponents gathered to shout abuse, and a few threw excrement and urine at the Yellow Shirt crowd. The PAD supporters attempted to march on parliament and Government House, and after being stopped at the nearby Makhawan 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. The PAD was seeking to provoke violent confrontation from the outset, and initially Samak seemed to take the bait, vowing to clear the bridge on May 31. As the U.S. embassy recounted:
PM Samak ratcheted up pressure on the demonstrators in a Saturday morning TV broadcast, in which he said that demonstrators would have to move from the site, or the security forces would move them. The PM’s comments, made at some length, appeared to be a response to the call by the leaders of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) demonstration for Samak to resign. The PM’s sabre-rattling provoked a predictable reaction from the PAD. Although some PAD leaders apparently supported a more temperate response, the overwrought statements by media firebrand Sonthi Limthongkul and former Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimeuang drowned out more sensible voices. Sonthi and Chamlong reportedly urged the crowd to be ready to “defend themselves,” vowed to face death if necessary, and generally tried to spin their supporters up and raise the tension levels. News media featured pictures of the PAD guards (of which there are perhaps 100), armed (rather pathetically) with sticks and the occasional baseball bat, wearing motorcycle helmets and carrying homemade wooden shields. Reports indicated that over 10,000 demonstrators were at the site by evening, up from the few hundred that participated in the rally during the day.
In the end Samak backed down, and a long, damaging stalemate began.
Soon, the Yellow Shirts seized on another issue to stoke popular opposition to Samak’s government. 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 adminisrations, 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 PAD saw an opportunity to attack the government by claiming — entirely inaccurately — that Samak’s administration was “selling Thai territory” to Cambodia. As former diplomat Pavin Chachavalpongpun wrote in his article Temple of Doom: Hysteria about the Preah Vihear Temple in the Thai Nationalist Discourse:
The conflict over the Preah Vihear Temple conveniently erupted at a time when the anti-Thaksin leaders seemed to be struggling to keep up the momentum of their demonstrations. The stoking of nationalist sentiment, therefore, largely stemmed from the inability of the opposition to legitimize its course of action and produce a coherent substantive political platform. Waging war with Thaksin from this vulnerable position, the PAD and the Democrat Party were too willing to play the nationalism card to strengthen their own political cause in the power game.
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” and added:
This ruling will likely reinforce the impression of Thaksin supporters that the Court is ill-disposed toward Thaksin and his allies.
Nationalist Thais continued to try to escalate tensions with Cambodia, and on July 15 a senior monk and two other right-wing protesters made a deliberate incursion into the disputed territory. Both sides sent more troops to the area. Meanwhile, not content with Noppadon’s resignation, the PAD began pursuing treason charges against Samak and his cabinet.
Thaksin’s opponents also stepped up their efforts to convict him and Pojaman on corruption charges over a 2003 deal. Pojaman also faced separate tax evasion charges. On June 25, three members of Thaksin’s legal team were jailed for six months over a June 10 incident in which a court official was given a lunch box containing a two million baht bribe. In a meeting with U.S. diplomats on July 7, one of Thaksin’s main lawyers, Manida “Mickey” Zimmerman, complained of widespread judicial bias and said the bribe incident appeared to be entrapment:
Although the three members of the legal team have denied involvement or claimed inadvertant delivery of the snack box, Micky admitted to us that the lawyers involved in the incident had provided the money as a payoff to court officials. She complained, however, that they had done so at the request of a court official, who appeared to be part of a scheme to entrap the team…
Micky considered the “entrapment” of these members of the legal team to be part of a wider offensive against Thaksin and his allies.
The embassy commented that the politicization of the judiciary coud have dangerous 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 23, Thaksin visited Eric John at his Wireless Road residence “to bid farewell”. He told the U.S. ambassador that the country was on the verge of a political deal in which Thaksin would be pardoned for any crimes and would have his frozen assets restored to him in return for renouncing politics and agreeing to live mostly abroad:
Thaksin related that King Bhumibol had received Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej for an audience on July 22. At that audience, Samak had received approval for the creation of a government of national unity, which would entail each party holding positions in the cabinet in proportion to its number of seats in the House of Representatives. Thaksin appeared to presume — but not to consider it certain —that Samak would remain as Prime Minister. The Democrat Party — the second largest, currently the sole opposition party — would receive some Deputy Prime Minister positions, as well as Ministerial portfolios. Thaksin estimated the new government of national unity would last up to one year; during that time, the parliament would undertake a constitutional reform process.
Soon after the government’s formation, Thaksin added, a wide-ranging pardon would be issued. This was necessary in part because Thaksin and his wife would be convicted in ongoing court cases, most notably the “abuse of power” case. Thaksin attributed this upcoming conviction to the judiciary’s bias against him, alleging that King Bhumibol had conveyed to at least one Constitutional Court Justice during a royal audience that the Court should, in Thaksin’s words, to do whatever was necessary to eliminate Thaksin.
The upcoming pardon would allow Thaksin to regain control over his frozen assets, Thaksin said. In return, however, he would have to renounce politics forever and focus instead on his business activities, while residing primarily abroad. Thaksin told the Ambassador he was willing to abide by these conditions. He added that, before his departure overseas, he hoped that the King and Queen might receive him for separate audiences; he said he would, on those occasions, make sizeable donations to each of them. (Note: We presume these donations would be directed toward foundations, not to the King and Queen per se. End Note.) …
Thaksin added that he believed that he still had a good relationship with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. The Crown Prince, however, had explained to Thaksin (at an unspecified time post-coup) that he would be unable to meet with Thaksin for an extended period of time, because of Queen Sirikit’s antipathy toward the former Prime Minister.
It was an extraordinary tale, suggesting there had been high-level discussions between Thaksin and the network monarchy to strike a deal that would end their antagonism. As John commented:
Many key elements of the plan Thaksin outlined remain unclear to us. Would the pardon of which Thaksin spoke entail a legislative or royal act? Would it cover the 110 former Thai Rak Thai party executives who, along with Thaksin, were stripped of their political rights in May 2007? Would the threat of further party dissolutions somehow be lifted? What sort of constitution would an amendment process produce? Nevertheless, if a plan along these lines does materialize, it may provide some valuable breathing room and calm the current volatile and highly adversarial political environment.
We doubt, however, that either side in the long-running dispute between Thaksin and the Palace will act in good faith, or expect the other to do so. We note that Thaksin has already repeatedly pledged publicly that he has retired from politics, but he appears deeply involved in governmental affairs. It is nearly inconceivable that Thai politicians will stop consulting Thaksin, requesting his financial support, and trying to tap into his popular support for their own gain. And, if Thaksin is pardoned and has his funds released, it is unclear how the Palace would ensure that he upholds his side of the bargain.
Abhisit’s secretary Isra Sunthornvut told U.S. diplomats the Democrats were unaware of any planned national unity government and would only consider such a plan if instructed by the king:
Isra told us there were currently no plans for the Democrats to join a “government of national unity”, and it was difficult for him to imagine the formation of such a cabinet. Isra assured us that politicians would not come to such an arrangment by themselves, although, if instructed to do so by the palace, they would obey.
One sign of a possible deal was the surprise appointment of Bhumibol’s deputy principal private secretary, Tej Bunnag, as foreign minister on July 27. Tej, a palace insider, immediately travelled to Cambodia to seek to lower tensions over Preah Vihear. The U.S. embassy reported that his appointment may have been directly ordered by Bhumibol:
An Australian diplomat told us on July 29 that King Bhumibol had directed the hurried appointment of palace advisor Tej Bunnag as Foreign Minister, and this appointment reflected the King’s serious concern over both the Preah Vihear tension and Thailand’s chairmanship of ASEAN.
But despite indications a deal could be in the works, legal proceedings against Thaksin continued and the Yellow Shirts escalated their campaign to bring down the government. On July 31 Pojaman was found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to three years in jail. She was freed on bail while awaiting appeal. Clashes between PAD protesters and Thaksin supporters became more frequent and more violent. Samak sought a truce, as a U.S. cable reported:
During an August 5 audience with the King, PM Samak proposed a government campaign for reconciliation and political unity that would run from August 12 (the Queen’s birthday) until December 5 (the King’s birthday) and be chaired by the Crown Prince, according to press reports. The prospective impact of Samak’s initiative on public gatherings is unclear, but PAD supporters have complained publicly that the reconciliation effort is a partisan ploy to put political pressure on PAD to stop its demonstrations.
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. Thaksin Shinawatra was officially on the run. If there was ever a serious prospect of striking a deal with the royalists, it appeared to have collapsed. The U.S embassy commented:
Thaksin alleged that the Thai judiciary was treating him unfairly, complained that Thailand remained under the influence of the “dictatorship” that took power after the 2006 coup d’etat, and cited threats to his physical safety. He also professed loyalty to the royal family…
The recent tax evasion conviction of Potjaman reinforced a widespread perception among the Thai political class that the courts, with encouragement from the palace, were determined to marginalize Thaksin, and that he would likely be convicted in his ongoing abuse of power trial. (Comment: We have not sought to assess the merits of these cases, and we … do not mean to second Thaksin’s assertion that the courts are biased; however, many Thais might assume that Thaksin and his lawyers have sought to influence the judges and that it would take special determination to rule against the Shinawatras, even if the evidence supports conviction. End Comment.) Thaksin had previously refused to return to Thailand during the post-coup Surayud administration, claiming at that time that it was impossible for him to receive a fair trial prior to the restoration of a democratically-elected government. His refusal to submit to the courts’ judgment under current conditions may strike some Thais as suspect, although there may be few who do not already hold strong views, pro or con, about the polarizing former Prime Minister.
In response, arrest warrants were issued for Thaksin and Pojaman, and the authorities announced their extradition would be sought.
Back in Britain, Thaksin’s ownership of Manchester City was running into serious problems. The club had climbed as high as third in the English Premiership in November 2007 but had since fallen back after a poor run of form. In April, Thaksin told club manager Eriksson he would fired at the end of the season, provoking a mutiny among players and fury among City fans. It emerged that Thaksin had only come up with about £12 million of the £47 million promised to Eriksson to buy new players, and had ceased funding the club. Thaksin’s football venture was falling apart. Eriksson was scathing about Thaksin’s leadership in comments after their falling out:
In the beginning it was good with Shinawatra, but he didn’t understand football – he hadn’t a clue. He thought beating Manchester United twice in one year was normal. ‘Tell the players they must be more aggressive’, he said. When we won he invited me for dinner. When we lost he didn’t even say hello.
The royalist campaign against Thaksin was provoking a growing backlash. 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.
While Darunee’s remarks had been particularly inflammatory, the sentiments she expressed were increasingly common in Thailand, as Thaksin ally Jaran Ditapichai and PAD leader Somkiat Pongpaiboon told U.S. diplomats:
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.
On July 29, union activist Jittra Cotchadet was fired by underwear manufacturer Triumph International for alleged disrespect to the monarchy: in an appearance on a TV talk show to discuss abortion rights she had worn a T-shirt designed by Chotisak Oonsong with the slogan:
Not standing is not a crime. Thinking differently is not a crime.
Jittra was widely denounced in Yellow Shirt media. After Triumph fired her, three thousand of the firm’s five thousand employees walked out in protest, and set up a protest camp outside the factory gates.
The anti-monarchist feelings unleashed by the 2006 coup were spreading, and were being expressed with increasing openness. As Jaran said, it was an unprecedented phenomenon in Thailand’s modern history.
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. There was widespread surprise that Nicolaides was detained over a paragraph in a book that almost nobody had read. It seemed a curiously counterproductive move.
Back in Thailand, efforts to defuse tensions over Preah Vihear were damaged by some aggressive Thai troop movements. Clearly, not everyone wanted the situation peacefully resolved. As Nick Nostitz wrote in volume one of Red vs. Yellow:
Nationalist polemics dominated the debate. One Thai Ranger lost his leg from stepping on a mine, another lost his life in a later confrontation with Cambodian troops, and several Cambodian soldiers were also killed as well. Yet this Cambodian border episode appeared to be only a tool in the real battle — what was to be fought over was power in Bangkok, and who would command the future direction of Thailand.
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 two linked issues in particular: the creeping extremism of the Yellow Shirts, and their increasing association with Sirikit rather than Bhumibol:
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. Stories that the Queen personally donated 50,000 baht ($1,700) recently to the PAD are running through the Bangkok rumint mill. Arsa Sarasin, the King’s Personal Private Secretary, emphatically rejected this link in an August 29 conversation with Ambassador; while acknowledging the protesters were attempting to associate with the palace, he stated: “It is not true. The King and Queen are not involved.”
Arsa’s denial was unconvincing, given the obvious links between leading royalists and the Yellow Shirts. As McCargo wrote in Thai Politics as Reality TV:
Indirect monarchical support for the antigovernment movement took place largely behind the scenes. Among the supporters and backers of the PAD were various MRs and MLs (minor princes and princesses), along with relatives of privy councilors and big-name bankers. Preeda Tiasuwan, jewelry trader and former leader of the group Businessmen for Democracy, was a key financier of the PAD — and a close personal friend of Anand Panyarachun. Piphop Thongchai, one of the core leaders of the PAD, was a member of the Anand-Preeda inner circle. In a remarkably bold statement at a public meeting on September 6, one member of this circle declared that the extraordinary actions of the PAD were justified in the special “late reign” circumstances that prevailed.
It was another hint of the centrality of the succession to the political conflict. Eric John’s cable also noted that in PAD’s 2008 incarnation:
The numbers of participants remained a fraction of what they had been in 2006, however, with a narrower and more aggressive agenda driven by Sondhi and Chamlong.
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.
Nostitz, who spent more time than any other foreign journalist among the Yellow Shirts and their UDD opponents, wrote in volume one of Red vs. Yellow that:
The new PAD was now martial in its appearance, and resembled more a militant cult than a protest group. Over the following months opponents were viciously attacked in vitriolic speeches from the stage, even former members who had distanced themselves from the post-coup PAD received such treatment. Protesters and guards were kept on constant alert and in a state of paranoia by purposely spread misinformation about attacks that were supposedly about to be immediately launched by either police or UDD…
Journalists who had published critical articles or worked for news outlets that were deemed unfriendly by the PAD were threatened, followed and photographed by PAD protesters. The PAD could no longer attract the same number of supporters as before the coup… But what they lacked in quantity, they now replaced with radical fanaticism.
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 forcing 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.
Samak did not take the bait, although this was partly because he knew he could not count on the support of army commander Anupong Paochinda. Anupong was a man with split loyalties: he was part of the Queen’s Guard military clique and had joined the 2006 coup plotters, but he was also in Thaksin’s Class 10 military network. During 2008, he seems to have attempted to remain genuinely 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 did not declare a state of emergency and 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.
On August 29 the Yellow Shirts raised the stakes yet again, 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. Police moved to clear protesters from the streets around Government House and set up a cordon around the compound. Nostitz, who was present, reported that:
The orders were that the police were to use minimal force, and they complied amazingly well. There was very little usage of batons, and no excessive force that I could detect. There was a bit of pushing around with protesters. A few bloody heads. Most of the injured I could see were older people who simply lost consciousness. One collapsed directly next to me.
The police took care to paste copies of their court orders at every tent, saying they were being confiscated by the state, before they dismantled the structures. The police confiscated a weapons cache from the PAD guards — countless clubs, swords, machetes, iron bars, golf clubs, several dozen bullets, and an empty gun holster. The police also found one large sack of “Bai Kratom”, an illegal drug that the PAD guards and “Naclop Srivichai” (Srivichai warriors — the elite PAD bodyguard unit) were accused of having indulged in for its stimulating effect.
The police operation was a success, but suddenly unravelled after high profile visits to the PAD camp by Democrat Party leader Abhisit, thirty senators led by Rosana Tositrakul, and a senior military officer, General Pathompong Kesornsook, in full military uniform. They appeared intent of finding evidence of police brutality. The PAD protesters then took advantage of police hesitancy to surge out of Government House and retake the area that had been cleared. Police retreated, and the court orders demanding PAD leave the area were later withdrawn. An attempt by police to restore order and clear protesters occupying Government House had been undermined by leading royalists. Nostitz describes the incident in Red vs. Yellow as heralding “the destruction of lawful society”.
As September began, violence flared in Bangkok between the PAD and the UDD, provoked this time by the pro-Thaksin side. On the evening of September 1, thousands of UDD supporters, many of them wearing red, gathered at Sanam Luang, and a plan was hatched for them to march on Government House and confront the PAD. After midnight, a disorganized UDD mob headed down Rajadamnoen Avenue. Straits Times journalist Nirmal Ghosh was on the scene:
The pro-government crowd, many wearing red shirts and red headbands, marched quickly towards the Makkawan bridge and was met by a double row of police in full riot protection gear but without batons.
The police let the crowd through. Then they simply walked away, watching from a distance as the almost medieval battle erupted.
Some in the crowd, armed with two by fours and rods and slingshots, began to run towards the PAD’s sparsely guarded outer perimeter. The PAD guards manning the perimeter ran and the crowd chased them, throwing aside metal barriers. The men were screaming with rage as they ran at the PAD…
But as the few dozen young men in the vanguard of the pro-government crowd neared the PAD just after 1am, the close ranks of the PAD suddenly roared and came running out in a full charge, plowing into the pro-government crowd who were not only outnumbered but also ill-equipped to defend against the charge.
Simultaneously a volley of gunfire erupted from the PAD…
A pitched battle ensued where the two rival mobs met, with many at the rear of the pro-government crowd running helter skelter as they realised the PAD had the upper hand and heard the gunshots.
After an initial shot, more shots were heard at random intervals as the struggle surged back and forth for about two or three minutes. The shots were clearly coming from the PAD ranks…
Bullets zinged into the trees above me and another journalist from Bloomberg; we were the only foreign journalists there…
The street was strewn with rubble from the battle. Broken glass and flower pots crunched under my boots.
The pro-government crowd appeared stunned at being shot at by the PAD. ‘We brought sticks and knives to a gunfight,’ one man said.
A U.S. cable summarized the events of that night:
An eye-witness told us that police put almost no resistance when the UDD group, armed with metal pipes and traveling via truck and motorcycles from their initial Sanam Luang rally point, approached two lines of police that separated them from the PAD’s Makkhawan Bridge rally point. Media eyewitnesses identified several MPs from the ruling PPP party coordinating movements of the UDD group. PAD supporters, with wooden… clubs and other weapons, then converged on the UDD once they had passed through the police lines. The witness told us that the UDD demonstrators retreated once gunshots were heard; both sides later denied they were responsible.
One UDD supporter, 56-year-old Narongsak Krobthaisong, was killed in the violence, and more than 40 people from both sides were wounded. In response, Samak finally declared a state of emergency. Anupong, however, declared the military would use emergency powers sparingly and did not seem inclined to clear the PAD out of Government House. A coup seemed unlikely, despite efforts by the Yellow Shirts to provoke one by deliberately stoking violence, but the military was failing to give full assistance to a democratically elected government.
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. Samak had lost his legitimacy, beset by multiple court cases and the violence in the streets of Udon Thani and Bangkok against civilians. The only way out of the current political impasse was for Samak to resign or the House to dissolve. But Samak refused to leave; he had lied to coalition partners about his August 30 audience with the King, had dismissed Opposition Leader Abhisit’s suggestion during the August 31 parliamentary debate to call new elections which pro-Thaksin forces would win again, and had even rejected his own wife’s and daughter’s prostrate entreaties to resign for the good of the country. Samak therefore had to go.
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.
Siddhi acknowledged that neither Anand nor Anuphong were on board yet. Anand said he would need to review a proposal in detail before accepting. Even though Anuphong thought Samak must go, Siddhi said Anuphong was reluctant to push in part because he disliked the PAD, especially leaders Sondhi and Chamlong. Siddhi said he had challenged Anuphong — was he prepared to lose his principles in support of the monarchy because he did not like 3-4 people? Most importantly, it was up to the King to indicate what he thought of the plan. Siddhi would brief; the King would stay aloof, but provide his reaction. “What will happen will happen.”
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. 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.
On September 9, the judiciary intervened again as part of the concerted network monarchy effort to topple Samak. 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. As the U.S. embassy explained:
The Constitutional Court ruled that PM Samak had violated the constitution’s conflict of interest provisions in Article 265 barring the Prime Minister from having outside business interests. Six judges considered Samak to be the ”employee” of his cooking show; three others considered Samak to be a business partner of the studio — both are not allowed by the constitution. While there was no evidence that Samak benefited greatly in financial terms from the cooking show arrangement (Samak claimed he rejected payment for the shows once he became PM, and the producer only paid for Samak’s driver and the food used in the show, reportedly between $60-$150 per show), the justices spoke forcefully on the constitutional principle of preventing conflicts of interest.
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) and it widened Thailand’s divisions even further. It was clear to Thaksin’s supporters 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 opt 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, Somchai Wongsuwat was nominated as the next prime minister. A quiet man whose main career had been as a judge, he would have been an inoffensive choice except for one major issue: he was Thaksin Shinawatra’s brother-in-law. This made him totally unacceptable as far as the PAD was concerned. Somchai became prime minister on September 18.
In a meeting with 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.
It was further evidence that Bhumibol and Sirikit had differing agendas and that the network monarchy was increasingly following the dictates of the queen, not the king. A U.S. cable on September 19 also discussed possible links between Sirikit and the Yellow Shirts:
An expatriate with close ties to the Queen’s circle assured us on September 17 that the PAD had “handlers” (presumably people with royalist sympathies) who, with relative ease, would be able to direct an end the PAD’s rallies at the appropriate time.
Bhumibol’s principal private secretary, Arsa Sarasin, meanwhile, insisted to John that the protesters were “not backed by the King at all” but did not comment on Sirikit’s behaviour.
On September 28, PAD and UDD supporters fought each other in Chiang Mai with fists, clubs and slingshots. Somchai attempted taking a more conciliatory approach with the PAD and Prem, and the PPP brought in another aged political relic, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, as a deputy prime minister wo could negotiate with the Yellow Shirts. But the ultra-royalists around Sirikit were in no mood for compromise.
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. And 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 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 part of the PAD’s strategy 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 this was the PAD plan. 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 nearby parliament building, erecting barricades with razor wire and booby traps. PAD guards with slingshots, metal bars, golf clubs, ping pong bombs and clubs patrolled the perimeter. Their aim was to prevent Somchai’s policy statement the following day.
The stage was set for the deadly confrontation of “Black Tuesday”, October 7.
At around six in the morning, police began their effort to disperse the Yellow Shirts. Nostitz recorded the events of the day in a detailed photo-essay:
Police had one of their loudspeaker lorries and first issued a warning that protesters should disperse as they would be attacked, and teargas would be fired. Police constantly mentioned that in this conflict nobody could possibly win, that they were all Thais, and should not fight each other.
The protesters did not disperse and soon after the attack started with a barrage of teargas grenades.
It started from both Ratchawithi Rd. and Pichai Rd. (where I was). I saw teargas grenades blowing up with strong explosive power when they got caught in the tires of the barricades. Some tires even flew a few feet into the air. Protesters quickly ran off, and I followed police in just after the first lines. There was a bit of hand to hand fighting, nothing too severe, a few handheld teargas grenades were thrown (I guess so, I am not an expert on such things) by police. Also the few remaining PAD protesters threw some explosives, maybe firecrackers or their own ping pong bombs. 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.
Soon ambulances picked him and the other injured people up. In Government House was an injured radio journalist, his back partly exposed, bleeding and heavily burned. A Border Patrol Police officer comforted him.
Things then calmed down. I spoke with several police officers over the injuries. They were all shocked. The grenade squad explained that under certain circumstances the grenades can have high explosive power; when, for example, people are tightly packed close to each other.
The police action allowed the prime minister to begin his policy speech, but the cost had been high, with several people wounded by exploding tear gas canisters, and perhaps also by PAD explosives. 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.
In mid-morning, the Yellow Shirts suddenly counterattacked, trapping politicians and officials inside parliament:
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. At 1700, PAD allowed civil servants and journalists to leave the parliamentary compound but attempted to keep MPs, Senators, and Ministers inside.
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 only convincing explanation for his death is that he was transporting explosives and they detonated prematurely, probably while he was handling them.
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. She 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 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.
It remains unknown how Angkhana died: the two possible scenarios are that she was hit by a tear gas canister which then exploded, or that she was killed by a PAD bomb, which she may have been carrying unwittingly. As Nostitz reported:
The death of Angkahana 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.
Besides the two deaths, hundreds of people were wounded. Three police suffered gunshot wounds and two were stabbed with flagpoles. Some protesters were badly maimed by tear gas explosions. The death toll was lower than the two dozen the PAD had hoped for, but they had succeeded in ratcheting up tension and bitterness.
Coverage of the unrest, in Thai newspapers especially, was heavily slanted in favour of the PAD, denouncing the alleged brutality of the police. But in fact, the PAD had deliberately provoked and exploited the violence, as a U.S. cable made clear:
Despite headlines filled with pictures of injured PAD demonstrators, the reality of the October 7 clashes is that both sides initiated action. 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.
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.
Several royalists insisted the only way out of Thailand’s worsening political strife was royal intervention. Prasong Soonsiri was quoted in a U.S. cable:
Democrats, many Senators, academics, and Army Commander Anupong favor dissolution with new elections. However, elections would almost assuredly return similar results, if anything strengthening the showing of whatever post-Thaksin political force competes; Thaksin confidently predicted a landslide to Ambassador September 23. Such results would lead Thailand back into a balance of forces similar to the current one. Prasong Sunsiri, a co-leader with Chamlong of the May 1992 anti-military protests and the primary drafter of the 2007 constitution during the military-installed interim government, told the Ambassador in a October 9 meeting that the same “cast of characters” would return to power if a new election were held…
Prasong suggested during the meeting with the Ambassador that, as in May 1992 following a violent military clampdown against anti-military demonstrators, intervention by King Bhumibol may be necessary in order to lift Thailand out of the current political stalemate. Prasong admitted that was it was very difficult to predict what would happen in the coming days and weeks but projected that an extraordinary event could likely be the only way out of the conflict. Others, citing Queen Sirikit’s increasingly transparent patronage of the PAD cause, have suggested she too could send a signal to PAD to declare victory and vacate Government House; there is no indication she plans to do so.
Sirikit indeed had no plans to try to promote harmony. Her next move shocked Thais. It was an undisguised declaration of war.
On October 13, 2008, Queen Sirikit abandoned any pretence of being above politics, and paraded her partisan colours by presiding over the funeral of slain Yellow Shirt protester Angkhana Radappanyawut. The U.S. embassy described it as an “extraordinary step” and “the strongest public signal to date of her support for the People’s Alliance for Democracy”, noting that “the Queen almost never attends funerals of commoners unless they have rendered extraordinary services to the monarchy”.
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.”
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.
It was nothing less than an open declaration of war.
The Yellow Shirts seized on Sirikit’s gesture as proof of explicit royal backing for their cause. As the U.S. embassy observed, the queen’s deeply divisive intervention put the palace itself in serious potential danger:
Once the Queen signaled her willingness to preside over the cremation ceremony of Angkhana, an extraordinarily unusual development, the PAD had every incentive to let that event dominate the news cycle, which strengthened the PAD’s claim to be supporting (and supported by) palace elements. In overtly embracing the PAD, the Queen risks politicizing the monarchy in a manner which may prove especially unwise at a time when challenges associated with royal succession are looming.
Palace sources provided conflicting accounts of what Bhumibol thought about his wife’s antics. Privy councillor Siddhi Savetsila, by now ardent apologist for the PAD, claimed the king was fully in favour of the move, 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.
Piya Malakul, another confidante of the queen, had a different story, telling the ambassador that Sirikit’s decision had been an unfortunate blunder. He lamely tried to claim it did not signal any political partisanship on Sirikit’s part, but it was clear that much of his account was fabricated in an effort at damage limitation:
Ambassador met privately at the Residence on November 4 with Piya Malakul, a close advisor to Queen Sirikit who in the past has also served as a confidant of the King. Piya remarked that he regretted the Queen’s October 13 appearance at the funeral of a PAD supporter. He claimed the Queen had been emotionally affected when she learned that one victim of the October 7 violence was a young lady about to be married, and that she had told her father she was going to the protest to defend the monarchy. Initially, the Queen had wanted to send Princess Chulabhorn to the funeral. It was only at the request of Chulabhorn and Chulabhorn’s companion, Chaichon Locharernkul, that the Queen decided to go herself. Piya said there was no intention for the Queen to involve either herself or the monarchy in political matters, but, unfortunately, some members of the public could interpret the funeral appearance differently. Piya said the Queen later reached out to seriously injured police officers in an attempt to show her neutrality, but this signal went largely unnoticed.
A third version came from Singha tycoon Chutinant Bhirombhakdi, who told John that Bhumibol had indeed been against Sirikit’s decision to preside at the funeral:
We also met on November 5 with Chutinant Bhirombhakdee, the well-connected scion of a wealthy family with close palace ties. Chutinant had a leading role in the Constitution Drafting Assembly established by the leaders of the 2006 coup; his wife, Piyapas, has the royal title of “Mom Luang” and works closely with the Queen. 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.
The violence of October 7, and the overt support shown to the Yellow Shirts by Sirikit and the royalist establishment at the PAD funerals on October 13 and 14, left Thailand more bitterly divided than at any time since the tumultuous 1970s. The royalists had failed to land the knockout blow they hoped for, but remained determined to engineer the overthrow of Thailand’s legitimate elected government, by fair means or foul.
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.”
Like most of the royalists, Anand appeared to believe Thailand’s troubles could be solved by somehow making Thaksin go away:
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 exporing 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.
Hounded out of the country by royalist efforts to eradicate his political influence, facing jail if he ever returned home, Thaksin was increasingly angry and embittered. But even at this stage, he retained some respect for King Bhumibol. His disdain for Queen Sirikit and her military allies was clear. And his warning to the military that another coup would not be bloodless shows he was already thinking about strategies of resistance and confrontation. Always a fighter, he was even prepared to take on the army, if he had to.
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 Bhumibol had become, and how he had lost control of an increasingly extremist and aggressive royalist movement.
During October, following the divisive violence of October 7, King Bhumibol 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.”
Protest leaders have called for the prosecution of people who insult the monarchy. One leader wants to abandon Thailand’s popularly elected Parliament for one in which a majority of members would be appointed.
Some academics have said the plan would enhance the power of the country’s military and monarchy at the expense of the poor.
“There are a lot of political problems,” the princess said. “I told my friends, colleagues just to do what is their duty.”
The story was ignored by most of the Thai media, with Khao Sod the only mainstream newspaper to report Sirindhorn’s comments. Sondhi Limthongkul gave 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.
Within days, the queen sent a very different signal. Sirikit, who had never been close to Sirindhorn, overtly aligned herself with the PAD by presiding at Angkhana’s funeral. She must have been aware of her daughter’s comments and she chose to contradict them. This in itself was startling: despite decades of infighting, the leading royals have usually been extremely adept at maintaining a public pretence that everything is harmonious. For Sirikit and Sirindhorn to send opposing messages was a sign of serious discord in the palace.
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. The king was telling the Yellow Shirts that enough was enough. He wanted Thailand to step back from the brink, instead of plunging deeper into internecine conflict.
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 Makhawan 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 seems 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 ultra-royalist allies in the establishment and military. The palace had long been divided, with the king and queen maintaining rival networks of influence, and sometimes disagreeing over governance and succession, and after 2006 onwards a clear rift reopened between Bhumibol and Sirikit. Perhaps sensing the damage that the coup had done to his legacy, and eager to pretend that he remained above politics and committed to constitutional rule, the king made it known that he would not support another coup, and that he disapproved of the PAD disruptions of 2008. His frail health also reduced his ability and inclination to actively intervene in events. Sirikit, on the other hand, had always been more activist and aggressive than her husband, and her ambitions of reigning as regent after Bhumibol’s death now made her an even more determined player in Thailand’s power games. Supported by a clique of royalist generals from the Queen’s Guard who had come to dominate the military hierarchy, and by elderly royalists like Prem and Anand who wanted to prevent Vajiralongkorn becoming king, Sirikit openly sailed into battle, to Bhumibol’s dismay. And so two competing signals were sent to the network monarchy from the palace in October 2008. King Bhumibol distanced himself from the PAD, told the military not to mount another coup, and sent a message via his trusted proxies that the Yellow Shirts should end their campaign of provocation and go home. Sirikit signalled that the PAD had her full backing, and that her network was fully committed to the battle against Thaksin. It had never been clearer that there was discord in the palace and Thailand’s king and queen were at odds.
It was also very clear that 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 too was sending a signal to Bhumibol and the king’s inner circle: their time was over. Sirikit was 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. Instead, 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 suddenly marginalized and irrelevant, ignored by royalists who claimed to revere him, and mocked and insulted by a clown like Sondhi Limthongkul.
The immense power he once wielded through simple words and gestures and hints was suddenly gone, melting away as his death neared and much of the network monarchy shifted its allegiance to Sirikit. Once his reign had unmistakably entered its dying years, with the prospect of royal succession now a looming reality rather than a feared but far-off time of turmoil, even those elite Thais who claimed to revere Bhumibol became focused on positioning themselves for his demise. 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 many royalists 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 Thaksin’s vengeance, but perhaps Sirikit could. And so, after 2006, the network monarchy danced increasingly to Sirikit’s tune. She had no interest in emulating the caution and compromise that had been defining characteristics of Bhumibol’s reign: Sirikit believed she was the reincarnation of a warrior queen who charged into battle on an armoured elephant. Elite royalists consumed by apocalyptic end-reign anxiety regarded her as their guardian angel.
At the end of his life, Bhumibol was learning another lesson on the fragility of his power. As his vitality and health waned, so too did his influence. Thailand’s elites were increasingly preoccupied with positioning themselves for the looming succession. Their focus was on the tumultuous time that would follow Bhumibol’s death, not on honouring his wishes in the last years of his life. Millions of Thais claimed to love the king so much they would die for him, and yet Bhumibol was unable even to persuade the royalist Yellow Shirt 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. The frenzied hyper-royalism that Bhumibol had fostered during his reign to preserve the prestige and primacy of the palace had grown so monstrous and fierce that the king could no longer control it. He became another victim of the forces he had unleashed.
As Thailand’s royalists grew ever more militant, extremist and inflexible, their nemesis Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters also adopted an increasingly hardline and confrontational stance. A grenade attack on the Yellow Shirt encampment around Government House in the early hours of October 30 wounded 10 PAD guards, two of them seriously. The body of another man was found the same night near the camp, shot and beaten, probably by the PAD guards; police had seen the man walking drunkenly towards the Yellow Shirt camp earlier. Bombs exploded outside the homes of two prominent judges, one on October 21 and the second on October 30. As the U.S. embassy noted:
Both judges are viewed by the Thaksin-camp as royalists connected to one of the Privy Councilors trying to engineer the downfall of the Somchai administration.
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. As The Nation reported:
The statement and its possible underlying meaning have triggered strong criticism by his opponents, who viewed the remarks as a probable attempt to “pressure” the monarch.
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 comments 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.
If the 2006 coup had been the catalyst that caused many Thais to begin questioning everything they thought they knew about the monarchy, Sirikit’s attendance at Angkhana Radappanyawut’s funeral was the last straw that confirmed their worst fears. They had been deceived and betrayed. The palace was not their protector, it was their enemy. Particularly in the pro-Thaksin strongholds of north and northeast Thailand, ordinary people began openly abandoning their reflexive support for the monarchy. Most had been instinctive royalists until the 2006 coup, and had undergone a profound ideological shift, not because they were incited towards republicanism by political leaders wanting to challenge the palace, but because it became impossible to ignore the dissonance between the fairy tales they had been taught to believe and the reality they could see for themselves increasingly clearly. For many, Sirikit’s sponsorship of Angkhana’s funeral was what finally shattered their faith in the monarchy beyond repair.
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.
Thais used simple codewords to refer to the royals in online discussion:
Articles on the Same Sky website utilized the moniker “XXX” to refer to the King, “Mama Blue” for the Queen, alluding to her rumored ownership of a stolen Saudi blue diamond, and “O” to refer to the Crown Prince, drawing from the Thai word for his official title. Thanapol believed such thinly veiled references kept him on the safe side of a fine line that United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) supporters have crossed in recent public comments. “UDD publicized in speeches, without self-censorship, what has been spoken privately for years,” Thanapol added, saying that he would delete any UDD speeches posted to his site.
Prachatai Executive Director Chiranuch indicated she also relied heavily on shifting euphemisms to retain a modicum of ambiguity/deniability. References to Queen Sirikit “went from ‘Queen’ to ‘Q’ to ‘Mama Blue’ to ‘Fat’ and now ‘Jie’ (from the Chinese word for older sister),” she explained.
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 a BBC correspondent 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.
Years of bitter political conflict between the traditional royalist elite and the populist political juggernaut built by Thaksin Shinawatra had ripped open an ideological fissure between those Thais whose paramount loyalty was to the king and the growing number who believed sovereignty resided with the people
(TO BE CONTINUED)