newsweek about PAD (2008)

This old article from NEWSWEEK about the Yellowshirts (PAD) -allies of the current Thai Govt. gives some good background. The fact that PAD have largely succeeded in getting what they demanded may explain why so many in Thailand are outraged enough to join the redshirts protest.
Bangkok’s Bizarre Power Struggle
By Jamie Seaton and George Wehrfritz

Many Thais believe that a 100-year-old bronze likeness of King Rama V located in downtown Bangkok emits powerful magic. That is why, fully a century after it was cast in Paris, the likeness has become the object of struggle between top government leaders and a band of rightists seeking to oust them. A few weeks ago, anti-government agitator Sondhi Limthongkul, whose People’s Alliance for Democracy has occupied key official buildings for four months in an effort to topple a government he considers illegitimate, accused his opponents of employing wizardry to channel the statue’s protective forces their way. And to reverse that alleged sorcery, he deployed his own mystics to encircle the statue with used sanitary napkins (collected from the PAD’s rank-and-file) to form a shield of menstrual blood.

It’s no secret that Thailand’s democracy is embattled. But what’s less well known is the extent to which its rival camps have fallen back on astrology and mysticism as they seek to best their political foes. After deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned from exile temporarily this year, for example, he toured 99 Buddhist temples in what was interpreted as an effort to garner merit for an anticipated political comeback. A month later, unidentified vandals smashed numerous statues at Phanom Rung, one of the shrines he visited, purportedly to nullify Thaksin’s powers. Sondhi frequently denounces one of Thaksin’s allies as a “Khmer wizard” and was caught on video recently clad in priestly white robes as he sprinkled holy water at a government complex occupied by PAD demonstrators and called on Thais to resist “evil magic.” Bangkok-based political scientist Chris Baker says supernaturalism ebbs and flows in Thailand, but “at times of crisis these things bubble to the surface.”

They did so dramatically this week when the PAD, mounting what it called its “final offensive” to oust a democratically elected government led by Thaksin’s brother-in-law from power, seized Bangkok’s international airport in an effort to thwart Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat’s return from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Peru. Thousands of club-wielding thugs stormed the terminal and blocked traffic on the main airport expressway, stranding thousands of tourists, businessmen and triggering flight cancellations across Asia. “We sympathize with the passengers but this is a necessary move to save the nation,” PAD leader Sondhi said.

The PAD hopes its violent street actions will muster enough power to oust political opponents it can’t beat at the ballot box. Comprised mainly of conservative militarists, Bangkok’s old elite and royalists who see Thailand’s democracy as a threat to its monarchy, the anti-government coalition lost the last election but now seeks to reverse that result by claiming that the victorious People Power Party stole the contest – a claim for which there is scant supporting evidence. What really irks them is that the PPP is unabashedly pro-Thaksin and draws on his immense popularity in rural Thailand to dominate national polls. Their fear is that the party – should it ever fully consolidate power – would quickly return Thaksin to office despite his recent conviction on corruption charges stemming from his 2000-2006 rule.

The PAD’s methods are extreme. They’ve turned occupied government buildings into tent camps guarded by golf club-wielding thugs. They’ve closed several airports – Bangkok International is merely the latest – and urged state-owned airlines, power and transport companies to stage general strikes. Sondhi, a media tycoon-turned political raconteur, claims his movement is solely aimed at defending Thailand’s monarchy against a secret anti-royalist plot by Thaksin and his allies (who deny the claims and profess loyalty to the throne). The PAD advocates a limited form of democracy that, in essence, would disenfranchise rural voters who Sondhi has claimed “lack intelligence and wisdom.” His supporters believe their campaign has a supernatural subtext. Sondhi “uses [mystical] ceremonies to protect people,” says one female PAD supporter who is college-educated and works in an architectural firm in Bangkok. “I believe the spirits can help us sixty percent of the way, but that we must do the rest ourselves.”

Foreign observers agree that Thailand’s political landscape is unstable. As one Western diplomat in Bangkok puts it: “The PAD obviously has effective control of the airport and this is an issue of concern. But is this a general breakdown of law and order? Not yet.” On Wednesday Thailand’s army commander said Prime Minister Somchai should step down and call new elections. The prime minister – who returned from the APEC confab via a military airport late on Wednesday – quickly refused. Robert Broadfoot, managing director of the political risk consultancy PERC, warns that today’s crisis has the potential to “upset the [political] balance in the country,” and that the damage to Thailand’s democracy could take “years to repair.”

Few dispute the claim that Thailand is moving in reverse. Its economy, which grew robustly during Thaksin’s rule, thanks to rural reforms including village-level business loans and free medical care, is back in the dumps. Its multi-billion-dollar tourism industry has been dealt a staggering blow just as it enters the all-important winter holiday season. And the return of supernaturalism in politics, one could argue, marks a sardonic retreat from modernity. Thais revere King Rama V as a great modernizer who abolished slavery, forged diplomatic ties with Western powers and prevented the kingdom’s colonization during his 42 years on the throne. Yet with little apparent irony, today’s leaders seek to channel the powers of a legendary monarch who embraced new ideas using sorcery, holy water and menstrual blood.

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