THAILAND: Government Targets Red Shirts with Harsh Law, Propaganda

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (bangkok)
  • Friday, June 25, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

On Jun. 28, the powerful department of special investigations (DSI) will begin to question 83 individuals and companies named as the alleged funders of the protesters, known as the ‘red shirts’ for their signature protest colour, who had occupied iconic areas of Bangkok for over two months, till May 19.

The wide-ranging powers of the emergency law is pivotal to trace the flow of money linked to the red shirt movement, admits Tharit Pengdit, the DSI’s director-general, who plans to summon the clan of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, former cabinet ministers, retired senior military and police officers and leaders of the red shirts.

Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in exile to avoid a jail term for corruption, served as the political godfather of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the now silenced red shirt movement that attracted tens of thousands of supporters drawn to pressure the Abhisit government to dissolve parliament and call for an early election.

Violent clashes between heavily armed Thai troops and an armed wing of the UDD in April and mid-May resulted in 88 deaths, 80 of whom were civilians, and the injury of some 1,800 people during the period when the troops were ordered to clear Bangkok’s streets.

The emergency law was first invoked in early April to deal with the red shirt dissidents in Bangkok and nearby provinces, and expanded weeks later to cover provinces in the rural, rice-growing provinces of north-east Thailand, where the UDD enjoys wide support.

'We want to make sure that the situation returns to normal. To do so, key security factors and concerns must be met,' says Panitan Wattanayagorn, the government spokesman, in justifying the emergency law. 'We are looking into the money used to support illegal activities, the use of media to create confrontation and the use of arms and weapons.'

'The money trail the DSI is investigating is part of the security factors,' he tells IPS. 'The emergency law enables us to use many agencies to work together before all the cases are forwarded to the courts.'

The emergency law, which has a three-month duration, has enabled the government to wage a lopsided propaganda war against the dissidents to ensure that the Abhisit administration’s version of events is reinforced in the mainstream media.

On the funding front, for instance, the government initially declared that the list of suspects responsible for providing assistance worth millions of dollars to the red shirts had 170 names of people and companies, before it was slashed to 83. Newspapers gleefully splashed these private banking details, made possible because the emergency decree overpowers other laws.

And to drive home the message that the red shirts were more interested in sowing violence on the streets of the Thai capital, 39 leading figures of the UDD have been detained on terrorism charges. Thaksin, in absentia, was slapped with a similar charge in accordance with the government’s narrative — that the red shirts have to shoulder the blame for torching at least 30 buildings and using weapons during the confrontation with the troops.

The red shirt media — built around a wide network of television stations, community radio stations, a clutch of magazines and websites — have been unable to counter this state propaganda drive with their customary bellicose rhetoric. Many have been muzzled by the emergency law, while other operators of the red shirt media admitted to IPS that they have been compelled to remain silent or risk being arrested.

'The emergency law is problematic. It does not allow for the freedom of the press,' says Pitch Pongsawat, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. 'The law has helped to create the image of the protesters as violent.'

That the government is sticking to such a tough line while also promising to heal this South-east Asian kingdom’s political divide through a reconciliation initiative is leaving it open to charges that it is undermining its repeated claims of being a standard bearer of liberal democratic values.

Critics say that the 18-month-old Abhisit administration is proving what the red shirt protesters had said all along — that it was a military-backed administration reluctant to go to the polls to secure its legitimacy. The latter view stems from the role the country’s powerful army chief played in shaping a backroom deal in a military compound in December 2008 to ensure that Abhisit had an alliance of parties to secure a victory in a parliamentary vote.

The government is talking of reconciliation, but the country is witnessing a political transition since the crackdown that points to signs of an 'authoritarian regime' emerging, says Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former cabinet minister in a Thaksin-led administration and a regular speaker at red shirt rallies. 'There is a close alignment between the civilian government, the military, the elite and the mainstream media.'

Even newspapers traditionally sympathetic to the Abhisit administration have begun to sound the alarm that the current use of the emergency laws — giving the military, police and the DSI extraordinary powers to target the red shirts — could prove counterproductive.

'To continue (with the emergency law) now that the (red shirt) rally has been dispersed only raises the question of whether the government wants to hold on to these extra powers simply to quell its ‘enemies’ and strengthen its political advantage,' the English-language daily ‘Bangkok Post’ commented Friday in an editorial.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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