BANGKOK – A new mobile-phone ring tone is all the rage among Thailand’s urban youth: “Thaksin! – Ok pai!” (Get out). Human waves continued to yell the mantra at a massive rally in a huge plaza in central Bangkok on Monday, against the dramatic backdrop of the golden spires of the Grand Palace.
What began as a mobile talk show by journalist and media entrepreneur Sondhi Limthongkul in the autumn of 2005, denouncing the corruption and abuse of power of the Thaksin Shinawatra administration, has blossomed into live, via satellite, via SMS and via Internet, people power, a broad-based, pro-democracy movement uniting a cross-section of Thai public opinion.
The massive rally was already on its second day Monday. The organizers, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), have announced that the show will go on until the prime minister resigns. PAD is asking the population to join the rally every night after work.
On Sunday, the Sanam Luang plaza was filled by a huge crowd, with many people sporting the new “official”, white anti-Thaksin T-shirts, with the words “We want Thailand back” in front and “Get out” on the back.
High-school and undergraduate students, trade unionists and teachers mingled with peasants, Buddhist fundamentalists and whole middle-class families with their portable kitchens. On stage, a giant, colorful collage of the masses charging against a Frankenstein Thaksin chewing up a Thai flag would certainly have found its place into a catalogue of revolutionary art. In the crowd, intertwined with Thai flags, all sorts of banners denounced corruption and shady deals. Thaksin also doubled as Adolf Hitler.
The action was non-stop, the crowd kept informed by announcers onstage. Speakers included Thaksin’s mentor and former patron, Chamlong Srimuang, a former Bangkok governor and army general who last week joined PAD. Chamlong is widely credited with launching Thaksin’s career.
Three small parties want the prime minister to set up an independent non-partisan committee dedicated to political reform, or else they say they will boycott the snap election called by the premier for April 2. Thaksin has not said yes or no, he has just promised to assign two underlings to study the matter.
Spokesmen for PAD had to calm the crowds after a reporter from iTV station (formerly a Thaksin company, now a Singaporean company) said on camera there were only 6,000 people at the rally (at the time, there were at least 50,000) – the same pattern of misinformation followed en masse by state-owned media.
Small rallies with at least 2,000 people also went on in most Thai provinces. The crowd was kept constantly informed of murky negotiations between the premier and political parties. It was announced that 200,000 teachers would boycott the April 2 election, if it takes place at all, by not serving as officials at polling stations. And some Thai teachers will start a strike on Wednesday if Thaksin has not resigned by then.
When Thai social critic Sulak Sivalak asked the crowd to have mercy on Thaksin “like we have mercy for our dog”, the roar of laughter was like thunder – similar to when Senator Karun Saingam urged everyone not to pay taxes, a reference to the tax-free sale of the Shinawatras’ Shin Corp to Singapore.
Nine senators onstage denounced the fact that more than 60 senators were paid by Thaksin to appoint members of independent organizations, including the Electoral Commission. During the performance of a satirical Chinese opera, the “Thaksin” character said he had zombie slaves in both houses of parliament. For the benefit of the global media, the crowd is encouraged to also yell “Thaksin! Get out!” in English.
With his back against the wall and deserted by an array of collaborators, Thaksin on Friday dissolved parliament and called a snap general election for April 2 – less than 24 hours after he said he would never do it. Although admitting that the political unrest may affect the country’s economy, his venom was once again directed at his critics: “I can’t stand it when mob rule tries to override the law.” The dissolution was one more dramatic step down from his cascade of previous statements, which went from “I will consider [resigning] in my next reincarnation” to “I will die in office” and then to “I won’t step down until I can find a successor who can run the country and the party.”
The prime minister dissolved the House because government intelligence agencies correctly predicted – for the first time – that hundred of thousands of protesters would start rallying on Sunday, and the rally might last for days.
Thaksin’s one and only remaining line of defense is the ubiquitous quoting of the “19 million votes” he got in the last election about a year ago. Last week Thai polls revealed he would lose at least 10 million votes if an election were held today. If the April 2 elections take place, rural grassroots voters – Thaksin’s base – expect a wall of cash, and so do a coterie of power-hungry, self-serving politicians. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party would certainly win these elections, but by a much narrower margin than in early 2005.
Before dissolution of the House, Thaksin had called for a special joint session of parliament to debate the ongoing political turbulence. But then it transpired that the session would only discuss the response of government agencies – the Revenue Department, the Stock Exchange of Thailand and the Securities and Exchange Commission – and not the heart of the matter itself: the Shinawatra family’s extremely dodgy web of stock transactions from Bangkok to Singapore via the British Virgin Islands.
Thaksin’s credibility was definitely reduced after his family’s tax-free January sale of Shin Corp’s shares to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings for US$1.85 billion. In effect, the prime minister sold his business empire – which includes concession rights for TV broadcasting, a very profitable mobile-phone network and four satellites – to a fund owned by the Singapore government. This was widely interpreted as the ultimate betrayal – a sale of national assets for personal profit.
Bangkok’s urban middle class then drew the line: the “Thaksin! Get out!” mantra means not only that the incumbent has lost his mandate but his policies – dubbed Thaksinomics – also have to go. A significant measure of the prime minister’s desperation is attested by a remark at a recent closed-door session of his Thai Rak Thai party, when he said “even hardened criminals get their sentences commuted to half if they eventually own up to having committed the crime”.
The now broad-based anti-Thaksin, pro-democracy movement had already foreseen he would dissolve the house – so the move was widely interpreted as a desperate tactic to pre-empt the current rally. Once again the prime minister showed up on state-controlled radio and TV blaming everyone but himself. But PAD maintains that only Thaksin’s resignation will do.
One day before the rally, cool, calm and collected in his house in central Bangkok, Sondhi – the man who started it all in September – stressed what Thailand’s people power was all about.
“We want political reform. By having an election through the same system, Thaksin will come back again because he has more money than before, he has state power and he’s able to create more election fraud.
“On Friday, Thaksin went to see the King in the evening, but the head of the Electoral Commission admitted, ‘I knew [about the house dissolution] since the afternoon.'” Sondhi insisted “this would not be a fair election because Thaksin has not been fair since the beginning”.
As far as the opposition is concerned: “The Democrat Party doesn’t want to fall in a trap and give Thaksin the legitimacy of a fight in the political arena. They are saying they don’t accept the rules. Realistically, they also know that if they enter the race they would be clobbered. By announcing the refusal to join the elections, they recognize the alliance to oust Thaksin is gaining momentum.”
And the momentum is now spreading all over Thailand. “When I had a rally in Phuket there were at least 40,000 people,” Sondhi said. “It’s an international city. They told me to say it in English. When I cried ‘Thaksin!’ the whole crowd responded ‘Get out!’ And now the same thing has started in Manila. It’s ironic, isn’t it?”
The snap election elicits a replay of Ferdinand Marcos’ last days in power in the Philippines. “The only difference between the Philippines and Thailand is that the Philippines didn’t have a king to sort this out. It’s not easy for him – but it will be easier with the current deadlock.”
Sondhi sees the current situation as a political stalemate. There’s wide expectation among the Bangkok elite that His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej may step in. “Or the military could step in. They are ready to step in any time now.” What would happen in this case? “We would thank them for the sake of the nation. But we would say, ‘Return the power to the King, immediately.'” Sondhi sees the Thai military needing him to create this intervening role for them.
Suppose Thaksin resigns, then what? “The rally is demanding a neutral prime minister – appointed by the King. And immediate political reform.” In case Thaksin does not resign, the Marcos scenario will keep being played out. Sondhi’s military sources tell him “there is now a strong coordination between the Royal Palace and the military”.
One day before the rally, Sondhi said the breaking point would be 200,000 people in the streets yelling “Thaksin, get out.” It did happen on Sunday, by midnight, according to the organizers. The rally is ongoing. Another 200,000 people may again be on the plaza by the end of Monday, Tuesday, and the day after. The endgame may be closer than anyone – including Thaksin – may think.