Thursday, March 06, 2008

What is Chamlong thinking?

This was a piece I wrote a while back and I never got around to posting it. As Pundit has pointed out some highly critical articles on the PAD lately, I thought this article was worth throwing into the mix:

I've long singled out Chamlong Srimuang as one of my favoured Thai politicians. Chamlong has a history of taking unusual and often brave stances on issues when his peers have simply chosen to jump ship and/or switch sides. For example, he was a key leader in the protests of 1992 against the military dictatorship of Gen Suchinda, even going as far as a public hunger strike. Chamlong of course, received a reprimand from His Majesty The King for his outspokenness against Suchinda and his power ploys.

Srimuang has a military background but unlike most veterans he has chosen to remain aloof from most military politics and instead focus on his religious group, the Santi Asoke affiliated "Dharma army". The group - labelled as 'strange' or even 'cult like' by some - are representative of Srimuang's values, including his celibacy and his vegetarian diet. In my opinion, Chamlong's religious stance is not cause for concern but, conversely, is actually what makes him better than most other politicos. It enables him to take a tougher stance on corruption and cronyism.

But I must confess, I'm getting concerned. When Chamlong first entered the anti-Thaksin group known as the PAD, (People's Alliance for Democracy) it was an excellent move. At that time the leader Sonthi Lithimongkul had provided funding and important contacts to facilitate the group's activism but supporters were only too aware of some of Sonthi's shortcomings, such as the fact that a far from squeaky clean businessman was protesting against another businessman's dodgy deals.

Cynics had suggested that Sonthi's ego would not allow another leader to share power or media time and that this would limit PAD clout. All that changed when Srimuang stepped forward to become joint leader and announced ( in reference to his former partnership with Thaksin) "Thaksin was my mistake". A politician admitting his mistake? Another reason why this man is different.

But my doubts surfaced after the 2006 coup, when Chamlong accepted a position on the Constitution Drafting Committee for the junta. At the time it seemed that perhaps Chamlong and PAD leaders were looking to protect the interests of Bangkokians in the new constitution, but when PAD personnel including Chamlong slowly lost their voice over time, it did not bode well.

And now things are looking even bleaker. The PAD have announced their plans for possible protests at the return of Thaksin Shiniwatra to Thailand this week, and, sitting at the front row of a PAD press conference was none other than the general himself.

Why is this a bad thing? Simple, it's a tactical calamity. While there can be no doubt that the PPP have already raced to subvert justice and ensure a clean return for Thaksin - who will no doubt renege on his promise to interfere in politics - for the PAD to launch protests now would be suicide and simply play into the hands of their opponents. PPP members will play it up as "undemocratic" and "not helpful to reconciliation". Neutrals or undecideds will view it as trouble causing and, most importantly, the protests will attract far fewer activists than last time. When the PAD last hit the streets, many were indignated by the S[h]in Corp sale by Thaksin. This time the only interest is in seeing what happens after he returns. The PAD will receive far less funding, support and interest than last time and as such it will be seen as far less of a democratic movement and more like one of those infamous "invisible hands" we so often hear politicians talk about.

And this is where Chamlong becomes important. The general is held in high regard by many Bangkokians as integral and reasonably honest and open in his movements. For Chamlong to play along with what promises to be mutated and possibly self defeating protests by the PAD will lead many to question his motives. It will be suggested that he has lost his influence or integrity that won him popular support in the first place, and the PAD will go down with him.

It may be that justice will be subverted, it was grossly twisted for MP Pracha Prasopdee to threaten to "drive PAD members out of the country" in the knowledge that such a move would be unconstitutional, but the fact is that now is not the right time for the PAD to hit the streets again. I hope Chamlong realises this and finds another way to speak for PAD members.

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