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Monday, April 20, 2009

Asia Times Online: Smoke, mirrors and lies

UDD Demonstration at Sanam Luang. Bangkok. 19t...Image by adaptorplug via Flickr

Smoke, mirrors and lies
By Shawn W Crispin

Apr 17, 2009
Asia Times Online

BANGKOK - As the smoke and debris settle on Thailand's recent street chaos, the propaganda wars have begun in earnest as competing sides look for a tactical edge in the political conflict's inevitable next round. So far it appears Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's embattled coalition government has won the upper hand.

Exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra has in interviews told foreign news outlets - including the BBC and CNN - that the Thai military killed and secretly carted away the bodies of an undisclosed number of his red shirt followers on April 13, when troops cracked down on anti-government protests in a pre-dawn operation on the streets of Bangkok.

The government and military have maintained that nobody was
killed in the melee, though scores were injured and taken to hospital.
Thaksin has claimed a conspiracy of censorship among local broadcast and print media, the former largely controlled by the state, but the latter offering a wide array of pro- and anti-government coverage and opinion, including of the recent protests.

Thaksin and his spin doctors have bid to co-opt the potent symbolism of the bloody May 1992 military crackdown, when over 200 pro-democracy demonstrators went missing and nearly 17 years later activist groups claim are still unaccounted for by the military.

During that past crackdown, the military blacked out the local broadcast media and pressured print publications to censor their coverage. The night of the crackdown, many media members were rounded up at central Bangkok's Royal Hotel and held in virtual detention while soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. After their release, reporters saw blood and bullets, but no bodies, in the streets.

This time, local and international media were present and filmed the exchange, with some reporters even embedded with the troops. International wire agency and local print reports, which included graphic images of bloodied protesters and reports from hospitals that received the injured, have not corroborated Thaksin's claims. The influential Bangkok Post ran a front-page story lauding the military for professionalism and restraint.

The exiled Thaksin's apparently bogus claims underline his movement's vigorous propaganda efforts to sway international opinion in his favor. His claims also hint that his United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group was tasked with creating a situation of anomie specifically aimed at luring soldiers into opening fire on their red-shirted supporters to galvanize international support for his supposed pro-democracy cause.

Reports that Thaksin's family members left the country days before the unrest reached its chaotic crescendo would also seem to belie UDD co-leader claims that the rallies organically spun out of control, driven by stick-wielding and Molotov cocktail-hurling mobs imbued with the spirit of democratic change. So, too, does a national reconciliation bill tabled before the recent unrest by the Thaksin-affiliated opposition Peua Thai party, which suspiciously and perhaps still ominously includes an amnesty clause for political actors and acts committed from the September 19, 2006, coup to May 5 of this year.

Democratic spin
The exiled Thaksin and his in-country media operatives had before the recent street chaos achieved some success in selling to international audiences their UDD movement as a pro-democracy cause. They have consistently claimed Abhisit's elected coalition government was installed by behind-the-scenes military maneuvering and that a wider aristocracy has long retarded Thailand's democratic development.

That message has been dutifully perpetuated by Thaksin's foreign media advisors, including the Hong Kong-based Samuel Moon, who claims on Thaksin's Building a Better Future Foundation's website to have worked for the Economist, Dow Jones and, through his own company, in partnership with Businessweek. Certain of those media groups have shown strong editorial sympathy for Thaksin's supposed democratic cause.

One UDD organizer told this reporter that he had "virtually written" The Economist's critical cover story about the Thai monarchy, which was banned by authorities from entering Thailand. The same source had previously worked as a fixer for foreign broadcasters in Thailand, including al-Jazeera, and has been in consistent contact with Asia Times Online to provide the UDD's side of breaking news events.

Many foreign reporters have perpetuated the simplistic notion put forward by Thaksin's spin doctors that Thailand's is a rural poor versus urban elite struggle, with the billionaire Thaksin the champion of the former. To be sure, that perception became a reality in the minds of many Thais after being bombarded relentlessly with Thaksin's pro-poor messages over state-controlled television, where over 80% of Thais receive their news, during his six years in power.

His actual spending policies, including government-backed corporate bailouts, in baht terms heavily favored indebted Sino-Thai industrialists and property developers over the poor rural farmers he showered with village development funds and a cheap health care scheme that was largely in place before he assumed power and heavily marketed by his top advisors.

Longer-term observers have rightly couched Thaksin's pro-democracy claims within the former leader's established anti-democratic history, including his propensities for cracking down on the press, bypassing parliamentary processes and undermining the independent checking and balancing institutions by the 1997 constitution he and his supporters now claim to promote. Thailand's conflict is more accurately portrayed as a struggle between competing elites, both able to mobilize disruptive masses to their political calls, jockeying for position ahead of an uncertain royal succession.

Thaksin appeared to lose one crucial front in the propaganda war when the US government publicly condemned the UDD's acts of violence in Bangkok. His media operatives were known to be just as active among the Bangkok-based diplomatic community, pressing their pro-democracy claims, in particular to US diplomats.

The United Kingdom cast its diplomatic vote on those assertions last year when it canceled Thaksin's visa after he was convicted on criminal conflict-of-interest charges.

Thaksin's image as a persecuted democrat will have been undermined by recent events, including his wild calls from exile for a "people's revolution" and "national uprising" that sparked the scenes of violence and destruction broadcast across the world.

While some Western governments may have harbored doubts about possible political motivations behind Thaksin's corruption conviction, Thai officials will make a stronger future case with their extradition requests on potential terrorism and sedition charges. The government revoked Thaksin's Thai passport on Wednesday, though the former premier is known to have acquired travel documents from the new independent state of Montenegro.

Conservative counters
To be sure, the conservative establishment Thaksin now claims to be up against has its own, if less sophisticated, political spin machine. Privy Councilor General Pichitr Kullavanijaya claimed to local media days before the UDD ramped up its protests that former US ambassador to Thailand Ralph "Skip" Boyce had shared information with him indicating that Thaksin had laundered 100 billion baht (US$2.8 billion) through Cayman Island bank accounts and was using the funds to organize the UDD's protests.
Thaksin strongly denied the charges and filed a defamation suit against the royal advisor in a Thai court - despite Thaksin's repeated claims from exile that he could not receive a fair trial in the Thai judiciary. Former ambassador Boyce has told numerous people that he has no idea why he was cited as a knowledgeable source about where Thaksin may or may not have made deposits, and that he has no such information.

There was also widespread skepticism that conservative forces may have cooked up the alleged assassination plot against Privy Councilor Charnchai Likitjitta, to counter claims made by UDD speakers the royal advisor, among others, was behind the 2006 coup. Captain Chakkrit Sekhanant, a navy officer with alleged links to another top royal advisor, was released after being named by another military officer supposedly involved in the plot. It wasn't immediately clear that any of the suspects were Thaksin supporters.

Now, even with the UDD's suppression and its top leaders held in police custody, Abhisit has gone underground at an undisclosed location to emphasize to reporters the still grave threat UDD supporters represent to his personal security. The embattled premier has in recent days agreed to speak to certain foreign broadcasters, but only by telephone and not in person because it would compromise the sanctity of his secret location.

Abhisit earlier aimed to assure the international community that his government's installation late last year signaled a restoration of stability after the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) street protest movement had for months paralyzed the workings of government and culminated in the seizure and closure of Bangkok's main international and domestic airports.

The television images of red-shirted protesters violently assaulting Abhisit's car twice in one week, and the UDD's extraordinary disruption of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) summit meeting last weekend, has sent strongly the opposite message. International media universally referred to the ASEAN breakdown as "embarrassing" and "humiliating" for Abhisit's government and an indication of his weak leadership.

The fact that his government has now maintained a state of emergency a full two days after the protests were wound down and swept up, and while crowds rivaling the size of the UDD's recent rallies rollick and hurl water playfully in Bangkok's streets in celebration of the Buddhist New Year, is raising new questions about whether Abhisit or army commander General Anupong Paochinda is really calling the shots.

With all the propaganda, misinformation and image-management dispensed on both sides of the political divide, competing histories of recent events will only obfuscate further the mess and contribute more ammunition to the next round of Thailand's dangerously escalating and wholly unresolved political conflict.

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