'Final Battle' puts PAD in precarious spot

Thai party People's Alliance for Democracy is in "precarious situation" after it failed to prevent NBT staff from broadcasting siege of station, writes Nattaya Chetchotiros

Bangkok Post
Thursday, August 28, 2008

By Nattaya Chetchotiros

Two days into the "Final Battle" and the People's Alliance for Democracy appears to have failed to gain full advantage from its opening salvo. With the storming of the National Broadcasting Service of Thailand (NBT) television station and laying siege to Government House and several ministerial offices, the alliance has alienated numerous non-core supporters.

Firebrand co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul tried to absolve the PAD of its actions by saying: "When people throw water at one another, someone naturally gets wet." He stressed its provocative display was an inevitable step by telling thousands of supporters that if he could go back in time, he would do it all over again.

The PAD's precarious situation stems from its failure to prevent NBT staff from broadcasting, despite seizing the station. Mobile broadcasting units relayed television footage around the country of dozens of masked men -- armed with guns and other weapons, according to police charges -- storming into the TV station. The reaction was mostly one of revulsion by people who feel the PAD overstepped the line this time.

Mr Sondhi and another PAD leader, Suriyasai Katasila, attempted damage control and asked for time to check on whether the initial intruders who broke into the station at dawn on Tuesday were genuine PAD members.

The second attack on the station most definitely was carried out by PAD supporters and were led by an organiser, Amorn Amornrattananon.

Mr Suriyasai is clearly worried as the initial intruders allegedly used threats of physical violence to prevent NBT journalists from doing their jobs. A good proportion of PAD's legitimacy and popular support are at stake.

Throughout the second day of the "battle", one card the PAD tried to play to its advantage was the issue of the arrest warrants. If all five PAD leaders plus coordinator Suriyasai were taken to jail, the threat was raised of a huge mass of PAD supporters turning out and putting maximum pressure on the government.

Such an uprising would pose a huge challenge to Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who has shown he cannot solve any problem peacefully. Mr Samak's usual reaction is to issue threats about the patience of the government running thin or about clearing the streets by any means. It is a highly dangerous game to use force to disperse a protest.

Dealing with a mass protest is never easy. The PAD has assessed its situation and decided it still has an edge over the government. Over the past 95 days, the alliance has virtually given an intensive course on politics to its supporters. Some of the information it has dispensed may be viewed as dubious or biased, but the constant stream of dialogue has drawn the attention of millions and kept them coming back.

The determination of the NBT staff to remain on air is a thorn in the PAD's side. Its editorial department is now housed in the Thai Army headquarters on Chaeng Wattana road. The station continues to broadcast the views of people who disagree with the PAD's actions. It has a wider coverage than the PAD's sattellite and cable-based ASTV.

When PM Samak temporarily lost his seat of power at Government House, he wasted little time in commandeering the army's command centre. The veteran politician quickly invited all army commanders and the national police commissioner to his regular cabinet meeting, while delegating the burden of dealing with the protesters to the Interior Ministry and the police.

The PM is shoring up his position with the military. He reportedly did not make any alterations to the military reshuffle list.

Even though he would have liked to appease army chief Anupong Paojinda by having him sit as Supreme Commander concurrently, he did not object when the incumbent Pol Gen Boonsrang Niempradit proposed Pol Gen Songkitti Jakrabat instead.

So, for now, the army is on the PM's side.

The PAD expects its "Final Battle" to culminate on day three -- today. As the police have so far shown restraint and resisted efforts to disperse the crowd by force and shoulder the consequences, the PAD is pinning its hopes on some men in green sharing its goal of toppling the government, which they see as a nominee of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The one officer whom they believe has the capacity to achieve their ultimate goal is First Region Army chief Lt-Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, but he cannot intervene in the situation. With the failure of the Sept 19 coup administration still haunting the country, the military's hands are tied and it cannot roll out the tanks and re-exert its power again -- unless the situation truly demands it.

The problem is that while the majority view of the situation is that it is not yet at the stage where such radical action is required, the PAD believes it is long overdue.

The PAD cannot push any harder than it has. For the PM, it is a matter of how long he can maintain his restraint and not order a crackdown on the crowd.

For the moment, the battle of wits is a draw. Each side will have to gauge its next move and counter-move. Although the army is seen as siding with the PM now, Mr Samak cannot afford to make one bad move as he will lose the military's support.

Nattaya Chetchotiros is President of the Thai Journalists Association and Assistant News Editor, Bangkok Post.