Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thai Round One goes to the government, sort of

By Nophakhun Limsamarnphun,
Tulsathit Taptim

A long holiday break may be cited as a key factor, but exactly why the red-shirt campaign seems to be losing monentum fast may have to do with the protesters and their leaders having gone into overdrive too soon.

Their time is too short and their goal too high, if not ambiguous. It took the People's Alliance for Democracy months to accomplish relatively easier goals, even with direct or indirect help from the military and the courts. But just a few days into its campaign, the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship went for broke, despite the fact that one of its key demands had to do with an institution close to the monarchy.

"They are pushing for a much more difficult goal with much less time," said PAD leader Suriyasai Katasila. The other DAAD goal is to force the resignation of the government or the dissolution of the House. This is similar to what the PAD tried to achieve in its months-long, sometimes turbulent stand-off with two pro-Thaksin administrations.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, in his TV address to the nation on Thursday evening, admitted that about 100,000 people had attended the DAAD campaign at its peak on Wednesday. But he claimed the numbers had dwindled "by 70 per cent" on Thursday.

Whether or not the numerical decline had to do with some controversial activities is uncertain, but protest leaders on Thursday evening repeatedly declared allegiance to the monarchy and asked demonstrators to watch out for infiltrators who could sow dissent by acts offensive to the highest institution.

Despite hard efforts to differentiate between the monarchy and the Privy Council, the DAAD must have realised that to many Thais the line between the two institutions is very thin indeed. And it didn't help the DAAD that the big message splashed across its main stage at the Government House rally site screamed: "Mandarins get out!" ("Ammart awk pai!").

The gathering at Victory Monument, while not as damaging as the PAD's siege of Suvarnabhumi Airport, proved to be very unpopular. Public outcry was such that in his Thursday address to the red-shirt protesters, Thaksin Shinawatra tried to distance the whole movement from the turmoil. The taxi-drivers who parked their vehicles to block traffic in the area, he said, were only trying to help and acting on their own.

The red-shirt demonstrators occupying Victory Monument were retreating yesterday evening to the Government House rally site. Many taxi-drivers were said to be heading to Pattaya, underlining a shift in the DAAD's immediate targets.

The summit between Asean leaders and their dialogue partners will now have added significance. It could become another forum for Abhisit to accumulate international charisma, or the DAAD could seize the opportunity to embarrass him. Thursday's demonstration at the Royal Cliff Beach Resort was lacklustre to say the least, and, having retreated from the hotel to a nearby mega-store, the DAAD protesters will have their last chance today to spoil Abhisit's international party.

The prime minister was another reason why the red-shirt campaign couldn't quite explode into something big enough to force an upheaval. His calm and eloquent response to Thursday's turmoil and provocation was the last thing the DAAD needed. So far, the government has managed to contain the damage, and round one seems to be ending with a slight points advantage to the administration.

NATION Multimedia

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