Thailand’s yellow shirts change focus, abandon street protests… for now

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 12, 2012

The ultra-nationalist “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD), also commonly known as the yellow shirts, have assembled for the first time since Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister. Yingluck is the sister of their arch-nemesis and former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra.

With the change of government came also the concerns of a return of widespread anti-Thaksin protests, and fears that the current administration ultimately only governs to benefit the big brother exiled in Dubai. In other words, if Thaksin re-emerges, so will the yellow shirts.

About 2,000 to 3,000 “rowdy PAD supporters” (not my words, astonishingly the Bangkok Post’s!) gathered in a convention hall at Lumphini Park, Bangkok Saturday to discuss the group’s future direction. The gathering came amid heated (at times physical) debate over the Nitirat group’s proposals to amend the constitution and the lèse majesté law – both pressing issues where the yellow shirts and, especially when it concerns the monarchy, will ferociously defend.

Given its history of protests, blockades and nationalistic diatribes – and amidst the developments of recent weeks – the following results of the  meeting might be surprising at first sight:

The People’s Alliance for Democracy yesterday backed away from its threat to stage a major Bangkok rally against the charter rewrite in a move hailed by the government as a breakthrough in easing political tensions.

PAD spokesman Panthep Phuaphongphan said the mass rally may be put on the table again if “the conditions are ripe enough for a big political change among Thai people”.

“Under these conditions … the PAD will hold a major rally immediately,” said Mr Panthep. (…)

He said they would start a nationwide campaign as soon as possible about the charter rewrite and the direction parliament has taken on the issue.

Nanta, a 59-year-old teacher from Chon Buri, welcomed the PAD’s resolution, saying the issue was far too critical for the group to handle alone and the public needed to be better educated about the issues.

PAD shelves mass rally over constitution“, Bangkok Post, March 11, 2012

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) will set up a committee to campaign for national reform instead of holding mass rallies to counter the Pheu Thai-led government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, according to PAD spokesman Panthep Pourpongpan.

Panthep said the group would launch protests if the government changes Article 112 of the Penal Code, amends the charter or any laws to waive penalties on Thaksin Shinawatra and his group, and when the time is right.

PAD vows to pursue reforms“, The Nation, March 11, 2012

There have been some politicians and academics who hail this development as a move forward to “ease the political tension”. However, it should be noted that the PAD is neither the same broad alliance against Thaksin seen in 2006, nor the less broad collective who took over government house, then Bangkok’s airports in 2008. Under the Democrat-led government, the ties between the two were steadily getting worse, ultimately broken during the conflict over Preah Vihear.

Another issue that plagued the movement were the financial problems of their founder and main leader, media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul. Rumors of his financial demise were further fueled after his satellite channel and PAD-mouthpiece ASTV were forced off air. In general, Sondhi has been largely low-key in his appearances, even a plea for a military coup was (fortunately) largely ignored (and his outlandish conspiracy theories don’t help either!). And in the latest sign that even Sondhi is not untouchable anymore, he recently was found guilty on multiple accounts of corporate fraud and sentenced to 20 years. However, he was released on a hefty bail and appealed against the verdict.

In a way, this reflects the marginalized role the PAD has in the political landscape today. The Preah Vihear protests at the beginning of 2011 were an early sign of a diminished supporter base and burned bridges with many political allies. Smaller  off-shoot groups were solely there ‘to defend the monarchy’ from whatever perceived threat during the Nitirat discussion and Sondhi himself is still obsessed fixated to fight against his former business partner Thaksin:

Sondhi said , “We have to win this fight. This is not to change the government. The country will survive only if bad politicians are gone,” he said.

PAD vows to pursue reforms“, The Nation, March 11, 2012

Hard-core yellow shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul told the crowd he would continue fighting Thaksin as he had done for eight years. He said he did not believe the government’s promise not to touch on the issue of the monarchy in the charter rewrite.

PAD shelves mass rally over constitution“, Bangkok Post, March 11, 2012

And again, the focus to (re-)”educate” people about their ideas on how to reform the country does raise some questions whether or not the current mindset of the PAD has changed from a past outright anti-democracy position (including the infamous “close down the country for a few years”-approach) to a more moderate one.

The yellow shirts might have taken a step back, but given the controversy surrounding the planned changes and their arch-nemesis Thaksin still looming in the air, a return to street protests is not out of the question.

Note: A sentence mentioning Sondhi’s lastest conviction has been added to this article.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and also on his public Facebook page here.