THE PRESIDENT of the Privy Council broke his own precedent last week: He started talking in public without being asked. General Prem Tinsulanonda walked up to a group of waiting reporters and declared: “You don’t have to pose the question. I will talk to you about Jiew.”
When the usually reticent “Pa Prem” initiates a conversation on a particular subject on a certain personality, the whole country stops to listen.
“Jiew” – General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh – had just joined Thaksin Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party as its “chairman”. Prem was disappointed – nay, upset was more like it.
The Privy Council president had previously deliberately delivered a message of warning: “Think very carefully before you decide to join Pheu Thai. You might be labelled a traitor if you do.”
Under normal circumstances, Chavalit would have heeded such a direct admonition. So, when he declared his decision “to move from a neutral stand to take sides”, Jiew knew his mentor would feel betrayed. But, despite his age, Chavalit’s political ambition got the better of him.
Prem’s normal refusal to make public comments in a political storm was often open to interpretation. But when he decided to break his famous silence, it was almost like a thunderbolt. You could almost hear a heartbroken general cry out for vindication.
Chavalit knew he couldn’t counter with a tit-for-tat response. After all, he might have to change tack again if politics takes a new turn.
“Pa Prem used strong words against me because of his real concern for me. I know he loves me. I want to tell Pa Prem: Please don’t be mad at me.”
Of course, not many political observers here will take Chavalit’s conciliatory, flowery response too seriously. He isn’t known for meaning what he says, especially when he says nice things about people on the other side of the political fence. As the song “You Always Hurt the One You Love” says:
You always hurt the one you love,
The one you shouldn’t hurt at all,
You always take the sweetest rose,
And crush it till the petals fall.
But never for a moment assume that Prem’s “Jiew” is so naive as not to realise how serious Prem was with his rare, public statement about political loyalty, personal concern and betrayal.
Deep down, Chavalit will probably try to console himself by telling his lieutenants something to this effect: “Pa Prem wasn’t really hitting out at me. He loves me too much to hurt me. Perhaps his real target is somebody else.”
He doesn’t have to name names, of course. There is little doubt that that “somebody else” is only waging a proxy war. It’s both a political war at the national level, as well as a war of nerves between old friends.
Didn’t Chavalit realise that his decision to join Pheu Thai could constitute the “last straw” in their long-cherished relationship?
Of course, he did. The red shirts and Pheu Thai have made Prem the focus of all anti-government activities. Chavalit also knows that Thaksin Shinawatra has made Prem his personal crusade, on the grounds that he believes Prem was behind the September 2006 coup that ousted him.
Prem has denied Thaksin’s accusations all along. And he thought he could at least trust Chavalit to be on his side – or at least remain “neutral” if he didn’t want to get involved in a political face-off.
Jiew has in a way forced the issue into the open. For the first time in Thai political history, in this national charade, none of the major characters, usually left untouched at least publicly for the sake of tradition and stability, have been spared.
The only words left unsaid so far between the two protagonists are: “I won’t be at your funeral.” But then, sometimes, some feelings are better left unsaid until the right time.