Will the bark or the bite be more fearsome on Sept 19?

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THE red shirts’ head honchos have announced quietly that their planned rally on September 19 will be massive, spreading all over the land, with more than 100,000 joining the protest at the Royal Plaza before their next move – which could either be peaceful or messy depending on the circumstances.

Political watchers think that the red shirts’ leaders have exaggerated the figure, and also overrate their potential, judging from their previous performances. The last major rally attracted not even half that number, but it led to the Songkran mayhem, as we all know. Nobody has gone to jail so far for that bloody event, in which two passers-by were murdered by red-shirt thugs.

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This time, the authorities want to invoke the internal security law to prevent possible chaos, which may be caused either by the red shirts or by “third hands”, which will serve as a good excuse for the rally organisers not to take any responsibility. Preventative measures are better than allowing any potential flare-up, or so they think.

That number of protesters is unattainable, if not impossible. All along, the three red-shirt leaders have been suspected of enriching themselves from the funds provided by Thaksin Shinawatra. Those funds have dried up as it has been learned that big chunks of the political investment have been siphoned off to create great wealth for the rally leaders – much to the chagrin of Thaksin and his kin.

The rally on September 19 has been touted as another judgement day. The red shirts are trying to drum up support, but it won’t come easily if the battle cry is without financial inducement. The cost of attending the rally is high for those from the provinces. They need transport, meals, plus a daily stipend. Organising rallies has become a rewarding venture, as the newlyfound wealth of the trio proves.

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What could possibly happen on the day? Well, the red-shirt leaders say they will gather at the Royal Plaza, then march to the residence of General Prem Tinsulanonda, president of the Privy Council. They will spend a few hours spewing filth through their loudspeakers at the elderly statesman, to test his tolerance and that of his supporters. A push-and-shove match with the police in the area is expected, together with some shouting and blows.  

Then the plan calls for a march to the office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, to test the strength of the police on guard. The red shirts have been upset by the office’s ruling that has put former premier Somchai Wongsawat and his clique in legal trouble for years to come. If nothing happens here, they will disperse around midnight.

What’s to gain from this seemingly futile exercise either under the scorching sun or thunderstorms and heavy downpours? The red shirts say the rally will be symbolic. But their words must not be taken lightly. Large number of protesters or otherwise, they have the potential to create havoc just to make the government look bad. It would be more fruitful for the red shirts and Thaksin if there is street violence leading to a military putsch. That’s what they want.

4Prime Minister Abhisit will be here on that day before leaving for the UN General Assembly session in New York the following day. At least he can take full charge if things get out of control. A military coup, as speculated in some quarters, is out of the question, now that commanders are aware what fate awaits them if there is widespread resistance, particularly by the yellow shirts, to such a reckless pursuit of power. 

One advantage for Abhisit is that the man in charge of the police force is someone he can trust. If there is non-cooperation on the part of some police units, the government can call in the military to maintain law and order, or even quell rioting as it did so well during the Songkran disorder.

Is there any other significant aspect to this rally? Yes, political and business cronies of Thaksin face a high risk of jail terms, with three court cases – involving government lotteries, rubber saplings and shady deals with Cambodia over land surrounding the Preah Vihear temple – awaiting verdicts. The prospects of them going free remain quite bleak. 

Will there be unpredictable consequences? It would take more than total chaos, and probably wholesale slaughter, for any attempted coup by military opportunists or half-crazed generals hoping to share the spoils from Thaksin’s frozen assets, to succeed. The country has yet to fully recover from the effects of the previous coup. Madness by some myopic generals would put them on par with the cut-throats in Rangoon.

By the same token, if violence flares up either by design or accident, the red-shirt leaders should realise that they have no excuses. If there are signs of potential trouble, their bail could be revoked as a preventative measure. In that case, they will have to go back to jail – which becomes a more distinct possibility as their final place of residence in the long term if they want to pile up more criminal cases. Thaksin will live in growing frustration and despair over another failure to regain power.

By Sopon Onkgara
The Nation
Published on September 15, 2009

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