BANGKOK – Despite the fact that Thailand’s poisonous political situation has calmed remarkably in the 18 months since the dominant Pheu Thai Party came to power and named Yingluck Shinawatra prime minister, occasional strains still bubble to the surface.
There are still sideshows. Thus last weekend, 40 to 50 military officers gathered in front of the building of the royalist ASTV-Manager newspaper in Bangkok, protesting its harsh criticism of the army and the ‘slandering’ of the armed forces chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
ASTV-Manager remains the mouthpiece of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the so-called Yellow Shirts who delivered years of chaos in their crusade to drive Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin, from the premiership and eventually out of the country.
Soldiers from the 1st army region first assembled on Jan. 11 after the paper compared Prayuth’s most recent outburst, in which he called it a “lousy newspaper,” to a “woman in her periods.” The troops staged a second protest the next day at the same spot, threatening to repeat the protest until the paper apologized. However, yesterday afternoon it was Prayuth himself who delivered a half-hearted apology.
The show of force after a public tit-for-tat when the paper attacked the armed forces for their handling of the border conflict with neighboring Cambodia over the ancient Preah Vihear Hindu temple. The International Court of Justice will hold hearings in April, after Cambodia requested the court to reinterpret aspects of the 1962 ruling in their favor. A decision is expected in October.
ASTV-Manager is controlled by Yellow Shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul, who was nearly killed in an assassination attempt in April of 2009 when gunmen shot out the tires of his car and fired more than 100 M-16 and AK-47 rounds at the car. The attackers escaped when Sondhi’s followers in another car opened fire on them.
Sondhi miraculously escaped but suffered a serious head wound although he survived the surgery, which involved removing several bullet fragments embedded about half a centimeter deep in his skull. It has never been determined who did the shooting although Sondhi’s son and PAD spokesmen have speculated that a faction of the military or police might have been behind it.
Sondhi has repeatedly complained that he has been bankrupted by lawsuits and other expenses stemming from his Yellow Shirt leadership although he apparently has enough resources to keep his media empire going. At that, he is at one with much of the other Bangkok-based corporate media, especially television stations.
“They appear to be pushing the anti-government agenda to near-libelous extremes,” said a Bangkok source. “Their financiers are more worried about Pheu Thai’s “populist” policies affecting their profits than any genuine economic or political concerns, and I’m sure they despise the yellow shirts as vehemently as they do the red shirts. But Sondhi feeds off the situation to keep his anti-democracy movement going and, probably more important from his point of view, stay out of jail.”
The Yellow Shirts have been rendered largely quiescent, first by the magnitude of the Pheu Thai electoral victory and partly because Yingluck’s government has delivered a smorgasbord of populist policies that have driven public debt-to-GDP ratio from just under 40 percent to 44 percent, expected to rise to 51 percent by 2019, an explosion of spending on infrastructure in the wake of 2011’s flooding as well as public welfare schemes that have kept sentiment in check.
Apart from the paper’s regular anti-democratic diatribes, the Preah Vihear temple conflict has remained a potent vehicle for rallying supporters. The last PAD protest over the temple conflict was in early 2011, following another deadly clash at the border between Thai and Cambodian troops. The yellow shirts have called for open war with Cambodia, principally because Cambodian leader Hun Sen has publicly embraced Thaksin.
In the run-up to the international court hearings – during which the PAD has urged the government not to accept anything at all over concern about losing sovereignty – the Yellow Shirts’ news outlets are repeating their diatribes against Cambodia, the court and the army, They also began criticizing Prayuth, which deteriorated ultimately into the soldiers’ protest, who see not only their army chief being attacked but also the institution of the armed forces as a whole.
Prayuth told reporters earlier that the soldiers were free to hold such rallies because they were trying to protect the armed forces, not just him.
“If [the PAD] were the government, I would have to listen to it. But since it is not, I have no idea what to do with it,” Gen Prayuth told reporters during a visit to the border area earlier in the week.
Generally, the reactions by Thai journalists on the incident were swift and clear, with the Thailand Journalists Association calling on the army to respect freedom of the press. If the army feels the media have violated its rights, it can file a complaint with the National Press Council, the statement said.
The issue of press freedom is extremely touchy in Thailand. The government has cracked down severely on Internet comment ostensibly directed towards King Bhumibol Adulyadej and members of the royal family and his entourage. However, the crackdown has been interpreted by human rights organizations as aimed at any kind of political dissent whether it has anything to do with the king.
The government has used the lese majesty law often in conjunction with the Computer Crimes Act of 2007 to block all manner of content. According to the Washington, DC-based Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, some 75,000 Internet URL addresses have been blocked in Thailand since 2007. – by Saksith Saiyasombut, a Bangkok-based blogger