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Cablegate: Thaksin Foes Draw Thousands to Anti-Government

VZCZCXRO9794
PP RUEHCHI RUEHCN RUEHDT RUEHHM
DE RUEHBK #1021/01 0920808
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 010808Z APR 08
FM AMEMBASSY BANGKOK
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 2494
INFO RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS PRIORITY
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 0566
RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING PRIORITY 5777
RUEHBY/AMEMBASSY CANBERRA PRIORITY 8531
RUEHUL/AMEMBASSY SEOUL PRIORITY 4430
RUEHWL/AMEMBASSY WELLINGTON PRIORITY 2254
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 BANGKOK 001021

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

DEPT FOR EAP/MLS; NSC FOR PHU

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM KDEM TH
SUBJECT: THAKSIN FOES DRAW THOUSANDS TO ANTI-GOVERNMENT
PROTEST IN BANGKOK

REF: BANGKOK 972 (CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT BLUES)

SUMMARY
-------

1. (SBU) The anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy
(PAD) mobilized a higher-than-expected 11,000 demonstrators
at its first post-coup rally held on March 28 at a renowned
Thai university. PAD leaders joined with prominent academics
to protest the new Thai government's policies and oppose
recently-announced plans to amend the constitution. There
were reports that a confrontation with a smaller group of
government supporters at a nearby counter-demonstration
briefly turned violent; however, police successfully kept the
two animated crowds apart. PAD declared the event a success
and vowed to organize more protests, suggesting that the 2006
coup and the new constitution have done little to heal
divisions in Thai society. End summary.

RETURN OF THE PAD
-----------------

2. (U) Approximately 11,000 anti-government demonstrators led
by a reinvigorated People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) held
their first rally in nearly two years at Bangkok's renowned
Thammasat University on the evening of March 28. PAD leaders
at the largely peaceful protest railed against the policies
of the People's Power Party (PPP)-led government and
denounced plans to amend the constitution (reftel). Prior to
the September 2006 coup, PAD organized massive
anti-government rallies in Bangkok that attracted as many as
150,000 demonstrators. PAD suspended their protests
following the coup, declaring success after the ouster of
former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

3. (U) Leading PAD members and outspoken anti-Thaksin
academics railed against the PPP-led government during the
rally, which lasted approximately five hours. Chief among
the PAD's complaints were the transfers earlier this year of
prominent bureaucrats in sensitive positions, including a
prominent Justice Ministry official overseeing a criminal
case against Thaksin. PAD opposed prospective amendments to
the constitution, accusing the PPP of abusing its power to
avoid its dissolution for alleged election fraud. PAD also
blamed the PPP for selfishly plotting to use the amendment
process to grant amnesty to members of the former Thai Rak
Thai executive board who are constitutionally barred from
holding elected office. The organizers mocked Prime Minister
Samak Sundaravej and Thaksin in an hour-long Chinese opera
spoof, complete with elaborate costumes, poetry, and original
music. The event's keynote speaker, PAD leader and media
mogul Sondhi Limthhongkul, called Samak a "dictatorial
capitalist" and claimed his government was "Thaksin's regime
in disguise."

SURPRISE TURNOUT
----------------

4. (SBU) Organizers had originally billed the event as an
educational opportunity for the public to learn of the
government's purported failings. PAD also hoped to lay the
groundwork for future protests. PAD seemed unprepared for
the higher-than-expected interest, however, and the
5,000-seat auditorium which hosted the event was completely
filled one hour before the event's official start time. An
estimated additional 4,000 enthusiastic protesters packed an
overflow area in the auditorium's balcony, and occupied most
of the remaining open space in the dangerously overcrowded
room. Organizers hastily arranged to broadcast live images
of the event on smaller projection screens surrounding the
auditorium for an additional 2,000 people who were unable to
enter the auditorium. Most protesters appeared to be
middle-aged and middle-class Bangkok residents; many wore
PAD-themed anti-Thaksin clothing apparently distributed at
pre-coup PAD rallies.

NOT ENTIRELY PEACEFUL
---------------------

BANGKOK 00001021 002 OF 002

5. (SBU) Interior Minister Chalerm Yoombamrung had boasted in
mid-March that the PPP would mobilize a counter-protest to
oppose the PAD rally. The counter-rally was abruptly
canceled on March 26, ostensibly to forestall a violent
confrontation between the PAD and anti-PAD groups.
Nevertheless, at least 300 boisterous anti-PAD demonstrators
had gathered in a field several meters from the University
campus by the afternoon in an allegedly impromptu
counter-rally. These demonstrators verbally attacked PAD
leaders and Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, whom
they accused of masterminding the coup which ousted Thaksin.
Some of these protesters identified themselves to Embassy
observers as Bangkok taxi drivers and provincial farmers from
Thailand's Northeast, but did not specify who had organized
their rally.

6. (SBU) At approximately 7:00 p.m., there were reports that
some anti-PAD protesters threw bottles and other objects at
nearby PAD demonstrators and threatened to enter the
Thammasat campus. Security officials reacted swiftly,
closing the university gates and rerouting pedestrian traffic
half a kilometer away from the protest site. PAD
demonstrators inside the campus and the nearby anti-PAD group
exchanged heated words well into the night, and the
atmosphere remained tense until the protesters began to
disperse on their own accord. One media outlet reported that
at around midnight Friday, unknown individuals threw stones,
water bottles, and urine-filled containers at a bus filled
with PAD protesters affiliated with a Buddhist sect whose
leader, Chamlong Srimuang, is a core PAD member. Eight
people were reportedly injured, and one person was reportedly
taken to a hospital for treatment.

COMMON THEMES
-------------

7. (SBU) Despite the combative atmosphere, the two groups
voiced surprisingly similar messages. There was no love lost
for the new constitution by either the PAD or anti-PAD
groups. However, while the PAD criticized the constitution
for not having gone far enough to prevent the return of
Thaksin, anti-PAD demonstrators claimed the charter's
provisions were specifically targeted against the PPP. Both
groups also denounced the 2006 coup leaders -- the PAD felt
they had not prosecuted Thaksin sufficiently, while the
anti-PAD group felt they had gone too far.

JUST THE FIRST ACT
------------------

8. (U) In interviews with the press, PAD organizers hailed
their return to the streets as a resounding success. PAD
spokesperson Suriyasai Katasila claimed the large turnout
indicated widespread support for PAD's anti-government
message, and called on citizens to protest the government's
plans to amend the constitution. PAD announced it would hold
another rally in late April, and called for additional
support from the public.

COMMENT
-------

9. (SBU) Although the majority of the Thai electorate is
arguably tired of confrontation, the strong turnout at the
PAD rally indicates that the 2006 coup and the 2007 elections
have done little to resolve divisions in Thai society. The
first pre-coup PAD protests initially drew much smaller
crowds than the March 28 rally; however, they grew rapidly in
size following the disclosure of allegations that Thaksin
abused power for his own financial gain. Barring a similar
galvanizing event, it is unclear whether PAD leaders can
mobilize protests on as massive a scale this time around, but
their early success in attracting disaffected citizens
indicates the government cannot ignore them entirely.
JOHN

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
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