Thailand’s political climate could be heating up again after the Prime Minister’s Mongolia speech has caused strong reactions, especially from anti-government groups. A new online group now has now claimed the ‘Thai Spring’ moniker to denounce the government, but it has very little to do with its bigger counterpart in the Middle Eastern revolutions.
When Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra went to Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator in late April, many were expecting yet another trip abroad to drum up economic ties with foreign states and private investors. However, speaking at a conference of democratic countries, she addressed some very sensitive issues for the first time since the beginning of her tenure in 2011.
In her speech, Yingluck praised her brother and former prime minister Thaksin’s political achievements (while deliberately overlooking his faults and wrongdoings) during his rule, acknowledged the red shirt protesters who “fought back for their freedom” and gave “their lives defending democracy”.
She also condemned the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin and said “elements of anti-democratic regime still exist” and are still working against her, explicitly mentioning “the so called independent agencies have abused the power.”
For once, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – until then always striking a conciliatory tone and a soft approach – made a politically committed speech and was ready to take sides. She did not shy away from sad truths (e.g. the military drafted constitution of 2007), while highlighting her government’s populist policies and those of Thaksin – something she could have done much earlier.
The strong reactions by her political opponents suggest Yingluck has struck a nerve: the controversy around the misogynist insult by a Thai Rath cartoonist and the ill-advised lawsuit against him by the PM and the even more ill-advised rampage by the ICT minister were just one of many different verbal flash points following her speech.
This week, another front has opened up in the reactionary fallout to Yingluck’s Mongolia-speech:
A new website has been launched, Thai Spring, where people can voice their opposition to the Yingluck Shinawatra government, retired police officer Vasit Dejkunjorn and former senator Kaewsun Atibodhi said on Thursday.
Describing himself as a person who adheres strongly to the principle of a democratic administration under the monarchy, and who has experienced many political eras in Thailand, Pol Gen Vasit said he was aware there are groups of people trying relentlessly to undermine the highest institution in the country.
Those people have a plan to take over Thailand and change its administrative system, and he would not stand by and allow this to happen, he said. (…)
“It is a website, <http://www.change.org/users/thaispring>, where they can sign in and express disapproval of the prime minister’s speech in Ulan Bator. “More than 10,000 people have signed on to the website so far to express their opinion that in delivering that speech the prime minister acted wrongly. (…)
Pol Gen Vasit called for the government to review its role, otherwise the “Thai Spring” movement would develop, in the same way that the “Arab Spring” phenomenon had led to anti-government protests by huge numbers of people.
“Anti-govt ‘Thai Spring’ website opened“, Bangkok Post, May 16, 2013
The two men behind the campaign, Vasit Dejkunjorn and Kaewsun Atibodhi, are noted ultra-royalists and anti-Thaksinites respectively. Vasit has attended several pro-monarchy rallies in the past, while Kaewsun often publicly slammed Thaksin on the stage of the yellow shirts gatherings and investigated against his administration after he was appointed to a post-coup committee. So, it’s pretty clear where these two are coming from politically – as is their the often regurgitated claim of the Yingluck-Thaksin campaign to overthrow the monarchy.
What stands out in this case are the means of their protest: this ultra-conservative group is starting their anti-government campaign online. Unlike what is erroneously reported, “Thai Spring” does not have a self-hosted website (yet) but is rather a group on the Thai section of Change.org, an online petition platform that normally avoids overly politically partisan campaigns.
The petition itself called “ร่วมลงชื่อปฏิเสธปาฐกถาอูลานบาตอร์ของนายกรัฐมนตรี” (“Petition to Denounce the Prime Minister’s Ulan Bator-Speech”) has at the time of writing reached over 14,000 signatures and have explained in a long open letter how PM Yingluck is just a puppet of the exiled Thaksin, how they’re going turn the country upside down, and how all the media in their pockets, comparing at lengths the PM, the government, the ruling party to Kim Jong-Il and North Korea*. Of course, they also claim to speak on behalf of all Thai citizens.
No doubt the attention-grabber here is the name ‘Thai Spring’ this group has hijacked in order to mimic the ‘Arab Spring‘, which has fundamentally changed several Middle Eastern and North African countries and is still ongoing after over two years. But looking at the two sides here, they couldn’t be further apart from each other**:
The ‘Arab Spring’ was in part sparked by a disenfranchised youth stifled with high unemployment and fed up with decades-old authoritarianism. On the other hand, these men behind the so-called ‘Thai Spring’ represent an elitist, reactionary force that see their vision of Thailand endangered by Thaksin Shinawatra – who without a doubt is not a democrat either, but (unwittingly) enfranchised a largely neglected rural population with political conscience – and want to stop it with all non-democratic means at all costs (e.g. endorsing a military coup), even at the cost of democracy itself!
This could signal yet another political (re-)entrenchment, as the opposition both in and outside parliament have been clearly agitated by Yingluck’s speech, which could be seen as a battle cry for a stronger push in the upcoming political challenges later this year such as the charter amendments, the reconciliation bills, but also the court verdict in the Thai-Cambodian border dispute.
The relative calm over the past years could be pushed aside by the reemergence of the heated political polarization and a further escalation between the two fractions that have diametrically opposing visions about the future of Thailand’s rule and its structure. But with the hijacking of the ‘Thai Spring’ by the ultra-conservatives it has already been made clear: this spring does not signal a fresh new start.
*On the comparison to North Korea, here’s another quote from the open letter: “If you pay a visit to North Korea you will witness the omnipresence of portraits of the leader. In Thailand it is the same. These two likeminded families have thus been sending their followers and subordinates to infiltrate all strata of their respective societies.” Hmm…!
**More on the (un-)likelihood of an ‘Arab Spring’-style uprising Thailand hopefully in a future post.