Abhisit should not overlook red menace

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2011, 12:00am

Has Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva just let the 'red genies' out of the bottle? Last week, seven co-leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the movement that represents the anti-government 'red shirts', were released on bail. They had been detained for nine months on terrorism and other charges related to the violence during the anti-government protests in April and May last year.

The release of the so-called 'enemies of the state' is significant for many reasons. Two days after the release, Abhisit told the media that the election is likely to be held by June. He said that 'the latest polls show we are ahead [everywhere] except the northeast'. The northeastern region is known to be the stronghold of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Unmistakably, the release could be seen as part of a political concession, to ensure a relatively peaceful political atmosphere needed for an election soon. Thus, setting free key red shirt leaders could serve to guarantee that the movement would not sabotage the planned election.

Also, the release may mean the government no longer perceives the red shirts as an imminent threat. The opposition party, Peua Thai, with its intimate links to the red shirt movement, is in disarray and the Democrat Party appears to have a good chance to win the next election.

Moreover, the recent appointment of the new army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha - a known anti-Thaksin, anti-red-shirt figure who once reportedly said that a coup was still an attractive option if the political situation got out of hand - has effectively kept the anti-government forces at bay. Putting trusted people in key positions helps the Abhisit government feel assured and thus willing to give political space to its red shirt nemesis.

The release may also be a way to reduce the pressure that was put on the government by the ultra-nationalist 'yellow shirt' People's Alliance for Democracy. The alliance has been exploiting the Preah Vihear temple issue to delegitimise the Abhisit regime, apparently to gain political points before the election.

While the government may hope the release diverts public attention from the yellow shirts' nationalist agenda, this strategy could prove highly risky. Abhisit could face a two-fronted war, with both the yellow and red shirts seeking to destabilise his government. Jatuporn Prompan, a Peua Thai MP who is also a red shirt, accused Abhisit during a recent parliamentary debate of concealing the fact that he is also a British citizen. The red shirts claim that it would mean Abhisit could be tried in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed during last year's state crackdown on protesters in Bangkok.

Thus, it would be naive for Abhisit to believe that the red shirts' power is dwindling, and that freeing its leaders will have little impact on the movement. Clearly, the red shirts' willpower is still strong, and will become increasingly so now that their leaders are out of jail.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies