With the ongoing protests escalating again, anti-election protesters spread out across Bangkok this week in their much-touted “shutdown”, further putting pressure on the caretaker government of interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and to cancel the elections scheduled for February 2. Various factions inside the protest movement have also mobilised. One group in particular drew attention after this threat on Monday:
Protesters announced they will close the entrance of Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (Aerothai) on Ngam Duplee road and also the Stock Exchange of Thailand on Ratchadapisek road if caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra refuses to resign before the deadline on Wednesday. Aerothai is in sole charge of all communications between aircraft and air traffic controllers in Thailand.
The blockade would be carried out by the Students and People Network for Thailand’s Reform (SPNTR). Uthai Yodmanee, a core leader of SPNTR, said Monday morning that if Ms Yingluck did not resign and leave the country by the given deadline, his supporters would close access to both sites.
He said the stock market has to sacrifice because Thai investors are still ignoring the situation and the protesters viewed the stock market as the “heart” of the Thaksin regime, because former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was still able to manage the capital markets from overseas.
“SET, air traffic control targeted“, Bangkok Post, January 13, 2014
A similar threat was also made the night before by Nittikorn Lamlua, a senior advisor to the faction, adding that it would be solely under the responsibility of this group, not of the main protest leaders. A spokesman for the main protest leaders, in an attempt at damage control, almost immediately issued a denial that any protesters would target Thailand’s air traffic control or any other public transport system. However, Uthai was seemingly unfazed by their main allies’ apparent disapproval and reiterated his threats on Tuesday night:
(…) the hard-line movement Students and People Network for Thailand’s Reform (STR) yesterday confirmed it planned to blockade the Stock Exchange of Thailand and the offices of Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (AeroThai) if caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra did not resign.
STR coordinator Uthai Yodmanee said the group would wait until 8pm tonight [Wednesday] – its deadline for Yingluck to step down. “If Yingluck does not resign by then, the STR will block the stock market and the Aeronautical Radio of Thailand office,” he said, adding that STR leaders were designing a strategy on how to blockade the two places.
Any disruption of AeroThai’s services could cause chaos for civilian aircraft, including domestic and international passenger flights, scheduled to land in Thailand, as well as those flying through Thai airspace, Uthai said.
“AeroThai and SET are in protesters’ sights“, The Nation, January 15, 2014
It seems that the protest leadership is losing control over the most hardline and militant wing in their movement, which has previously already been at forefront of this protests’ most volatile and chaotic actions.
The so-called “Network of Students and People for Reform of Thailand” (NSPRT) – or in Thai กลุ่มเครือข่ายนักศึกษาประชาชนปฏิรูปประเทศไทย (คปท.) – is led by Uthai Yodmanee, a student union leader at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok. The 32-year-old’s political activity goes back as far as 2006, when he was involved in anti-government protests led by the “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD), also known as the yellow shirts, demanded the ouster of then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (source). In May 2007 (after the military coup of ’06), he reportedly laid flowers at the Constitutional Tribunal, thanking them for dissolving Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party (source).
He also joined the rubber farmer protests last year, which in part turned violent. The anti-Thaksin stance would become a constant in Uthai’s political activism. It is reported that he has close ties to fellow southerner Thaworn Senniam, who resigned as deputy leader of the opposition Democrat Party in order to lead the anti-government protests.
The NSPRT came on the scene last year when rallies led by the opposition Democrat Party and others targeted the government’s amnesty bill drafts last August, but failed to gain momentum and were slowly fading in support, which led to one anti-government group’s relocation of their rally site. That was when the NSPRT took over that stage and was seen as a political fringe group for the first time. With the rewritten amnesty bill draft passing parliament in late October, the anti-government protesters were reignited, which led to the anti-government rallies that are still going on until today.
Another central figure of the NSPRT is the faction’s senior member Nititorn Lamlua, a “human rights lawyer” of the Lawyers Council of Thailand and previously attached to the PAD. His most recent activism before the protest targeted the government’s 350bn Baht water management scheme ($10.6bn), which has been criticized for its non-transparent process among other complaints.
As the Thai academic Aim Sinpeng correctly observed, “nationalism, anti-mega projects and anti-corruption underlie some of the main motivations” for both men and the NSPRT.
What also distinguishes the hardcore faction are their extreme actions during the protests. Nititorn led a rally to the United States Embassy in mid-December after previously threatening to storm it. The US State Department statement earlier supported the “democratic process in Thailand,” essentially endorsing the February 2 elections. At the embassy, Nititorn bizarrely suggested that the US ambassador Kristie Kenney should leave the country. “If she needs to leave the embassy, she’ll have to go by helicopter because she has badmouthed the protesters,” he was quoted as saying. The NSPRT also attacked the Election Commission’s registration center in Bangkok in late December, where two people were killed in the clashes with police and have later temporarily seized the building.
With the deadline imposed by the NSPRT looming and the uncertainty over what will happen next in the “Bangkok shutdown”, the questions are if this fringe group will actually launch an(other) attack designed to incite chaos – this time severely threatening to disrupt Thailand’s air safety – and whether or not the main leaders have any control over their hardliners. As recent events have shown, there are small groups among the protesters that are prone to spark violent escalations and the NSPRT is one them.