BANGKOK – Thai Police on Tuesday arrested two Navy Seals officers who admitted to working as armed guards for the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which has staged protests in Bangkok since November. This follows the arrest of three heavily armed Navy Seals on January 16, found in possession of “supporter cards” for the Network of Students and People for Reform of Thailand—a group allied to the PDRC.
Navy Seals commander Rear Admiral Winai Klom-in denied that the Navy was giving support to the PDRC, and said those arrested on Tuesday were visiting Bangkok while on leave. Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly stated that the armed forces are “neutral” in the protracted stand-off between Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government and the PDRC, which is supported by the opposition Democrat Party.
In reality, as the latest incident demonstrates, the military sympathises with the protesters. In January, Klom-in publicly declared that he would not allow the government to use force to break up the PDRC’s rallies, and said the public no longer trusted the country’s leaders. Prayuth has stated that the army is prepared to intervene if violence between pro- and anti-government forces escalates.
Police Major General Thirirat Nongharnphithak told the Nation today there were a “large number of military personnel serving as bodyguards for PDRC leaders.” The paper cited an unnamed source who said that around 60 Navy Seals had formally quit to work for the PDRC.
General Prayuth yesterday ordered increased patrols by soldiers at protest rally sites, at the request of PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban. Military and police checkpoints have been set up at 176 locations. The pretext for the military buildup is a series of attacks on protests in recent weeks by unidentified men armed with guns and grenades. A total of 22 people have been killed since the protests began, and more than 700 have been injured.
In a televised interview on Tuesday, Sonthi Boonyaratglin, a former head of the Thai army, claimed that both the PDRC and the pro-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD)—the so-called Red Shirts—included former soldiers and police officers. He suggested that these elements were responsible for grenade attacks and shootings—an admission which indicates that the attacks may be deliberate provocations aimed at justifying military intervention.
The PDRC and Democrats represent Thailand’s traditional ruling elites—including monarchists and the military—who are deeply hostile to Yingluck and her brother, telecommunications billionaire and former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 led by General Sonthi.
A relatively small group of 300 pro-government Red Shirt protesters surrounded the NACC buildings in northern Bangkok yesterday, while soldiers stood guard. The hearing was forced to move to another location.
So far, UDD leaders have not mobilised the Red Shirts in Bangkok against the PDRC’s anti-democratic campaign. Citing an army source, yesterday’s Bangkok Post revealed that General Prayuth had asked Yingluck “to persuade the UDD not to bring protesters to the capital to prevent a possible confrontation with the PDRC supporters.”
In 2010, tens of thousands of Red Shirts protested in Bangkok and across the country against the military-backed Democrat Party government. The rural and urban poor who made up the bulk of the Red Shirts raised demands for social equality that went well beyond the UDD leadership’s call for elections. The protests were brutally suppressed by the army, which killed more than 90 people and injured thousands.
Every faction of the ruling elite, including Puea Thai, fears the return of widespread protests by the urban and rural masses, which the UDD could be unable to control. Yingluck has assured Thai and international capitalists that she can be relied upon to implement their demands for austerity measures. Her government has made overtures to the PDRC and military to negotiate a truce in order to impose the economic crisis on the working class and rural poor. -By Tom Peters