Monday, June 11, 2007

Anti-junta demonstrations in Bangkok reached their largest point yet on Saturday night, when between 10,000 and 15,000 protesters marched from Sanam Luang to the Royal Thai Army headquarters to call for the resignation of Council for National Security chairman General Sonthi Boonyaratglin.

Yesterday, Sonthi, the leader of last year’s coup d’├ętat, rejected the protesters demands, saying he would remain as chairman of the military’s governing body in the best interests of Thailand, and that he wasn’t doing the job for personal gain.

“And I doubt the motives of these people who are organizing the rallies,” Sonthi was quoted as saying by The Nation newspaper.

The demonstrations continued yesterday, albeit smaller, with crowds estimated at 3,000. The organizer is People’s Television (PTV), a satellite television station that supports ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Organizers have vowed to continue the demonstrations until the junta gives up power.

The protest movement has grown over the past two weeks, after the junta partially lifted the ban on political activities, and since a Constitutional Tribunal ruling that dissolved the former ruling Thai Rak Thai party, which was led by Thaksin, and banned 111 of the party’s officials from politics for five years.

The government has tolerated the protests, if only just barely. Text messages were sent out by the junta to mobile-phone subscribers, asking them to stay away from the protests. Police have surrounded the demonstration venue, Sanam Luang, an open field near the Royal Palace in Bangkok, an in effort to keep the demonstration contained.

But Saturday night, the 1,000-strong riot force, using only shields and no other weapons, was unable to keep the crowd, estimated at up to 15,000, in place. “We could not repel them and that has to be fixed,” Manit Wongsomboon, commander of Metropolitan Police district 1, was quoted as saying by the Bangkok Post.

Sonthi said he did not view the situation as serious or see a need to impose a state of emergency.

“There is nothing to worry about, they [protestors] can come, but everything will be within the rule of law,” he was quoted as saying by the Thai News Agency.

General Pongthep Thetprateep, spokesman for interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, said the premier agrees.

“The PM is following the situation closely. No one wants to impose a state of emergency. It is the last resort. If they do not listen and assault officials and destroy things then it may be necessary. There is a better way out right now,” Pongthep was quoted as saying by The Nation.

Surayud, the head of the military-installed government, yesterday appealed for acceptance of the Thai Rak Thai’s dissolution by the public. He said several major policies implemented by the populist government of Thaksin would continue, including a low-cost medical scheme.

“We must thank the Thai Rak Thai party for creating and implementing projects which benefit poor people, but at the same time we must accept the verdict of the Constitution Tribunal on dissolving this party because it had committed several political blunders,” Surayud said in an address on television and radio.

Surayud had harsh criticism for Thaksin.

“The rule of law came under fierce attack from the powerful, the rich and cronies. Corruption washed through our government,” Surayud said. “Even Thaksin accepted that this was the case when he told Time magazine’s readers around the world a few months ago that ‘corruption in Thailand won’t go away, it’s in the system’. What shameful words for any ex-prime minister of our country to say, especially one who had promised to wage a war against corruption.

“I would like to ask you this: Do we want to allow those people with ill intentions to steal our nation’s wealth day-by-day? I don’t think we do.”

At the Sanam Luang rally on Saturday night, former senator Kraisak Choonhaven was attacked by around 70 demonstrators.

“You are not on our side. Go away,” one of the demonstrators shouted at Kraisak, according to a report in today’s Bangkok Post, which also published photos of the attack, showing one demonstrator launching a flying kick at the senator as he was rushed away by aides. The senator, a critic of ousted premier Thaksin, received some bruises.

“This is the rudest demonstration I’ve ever seen,” Kraisak was quoted as saying at a press conference by the Post. “Crowd control police had to exercise extreme patience in dealing with such a misbehaved mob.”

A new constitution, which the Constitutional Drafting Assembly began debating today, is being drawn up. One of the provisions of the draft charter is that once it is enacted, the Council for National Security will be no more.

The drafting assembly, which has been fractious, must approve or reject the draft in 25 days. If the draft is approved, a national referendum, scheduled to be held in mid-August, will be held. If the draft is rejected, the Council for National Security could choose a an old constitution. Most likely, that would be an amended form of the 1997 “people’s constitution,” a military spokesman was quoted as saying on Radio Thailand by the Bangkok Post.

Among the controversial points in the draft charter, is a provision to make Buddhism the state religion, a move that critics say could further galvanize Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand.

The drafting body disagreed on motions about Buddhism and the creation of a national crisis council, and the motions were dropped.

As the constitutional assembly begins, a hunger strike is taking place by Buddhist monks outside Parliament House.

The Constitutional Drafting Assembly chairman, Noranit Sethabutr, told the Thai News Agency that the body “would have to find the best and most peaceful way to push through the draft.”

In the wake of the dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai, a new anti-junta party has formed, with around 60 former Thai Rak Thai lawmakers as leaders.

The movement has been referred to by various names, including Khon Rak Thaksin Mai Oaw Padejkarn (Supporters of Thaksin Against Dictatorship) or literally, “Love Thaksin, No Dictatorship,” or simply, Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship.