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Red Shirts Sidelined by Thailand's New Government

Red Shirts Sidelined by Thailand's New Government

By Richard S. Ehrlich
August 13, 2011

BANGKOK, Thailand - Thailand's first female prime minister did not give any cabinet positions to her Red Shirt parliamentary allies, despite their role in bringing her to power through their anti-coup insurrection last year which left 91 people dead.

The Red Shirts, officially known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, are now debating among themselves whether or not they have been ignored or exploited, or if they are in a stronger position as outsiders to challenge Thailand's new government if it does not heed their demands.

Newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, 44, appointed her cabinet on Wednesday (August 10).

Her choice for defense minister, retired Gen. Yuttasak Sasiprapa, appeared to ease the confrontation she and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, face from an antagonistic U.S.-trained military which toppled Mr. Thaksin in a 2006 coup.

"I am not going to create enemies, but will look after everybody like brothers. I will not take revenge on behalf of anybody," Gen. Yuttasak said according to Friday's (August 12) Bangkok Post.

Mrs. Yingluck's new government may have been fearful of appointing a civilian as defense minister to oversee the military, and chose a retired general as a compromise.

Gen. Yuttasak, who was Mr. Thaksin's deputy defense minister in 2004, indicated he would not comply with the Red Shirts' demand that he fire Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Prayuth Chanocha, who crushed the Reds' insurrection in May 2010.

Gen. Prayuth, who is eligible to serve three more years as head of the army, staunchly opposed the Reds and Mr. Thaksin, but said he is willing to work with Mrs. Yingluck's government.

Mrs. Yingluck leads the Pheu Thai ("For Thais") party which won a majority in a July 3 nationwide election for Parliament's lower house, and she now heads a six-party coalition ruling this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian country.

She is widely seen by Thais and the international community as a vague, pliant, photogenic figurehead for her self-exiled brother.

Mr. Thaksin, based in Dubai, is said to wield great influence over her Puea Thai party.

Mrs. Yingluck was a top executive at her family's telecommunications firm, and has very little political experience.

She has now sparked concern that she appointed Surapong Tovichakchaikul as foreign minister, despite his lack of extensive international experience, because his real job would be to bring back Mr. Thaksin, or enable him to continue avoiding arrest and extradition while abroad.

Mr. Surapong earlier served as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and his aunt was married to an uncle of Mr. Thaksin.

One day after Mr. Surapong became foreign minister, he reportedly asked Japan's ambassador in Bangkok to grant a visitor's entry permit to Mr. Thaksin, according to Japan's Kyodo News Agency.

"Multiple sources said the Japanese government is apparently considering whether to have its Justice Ministry issue Thaksin a special entry permit," Kyodo reported.

Mr. Thaksin is currently dodging a two-year prison sentence for corruption.

"Under Japan's Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, a foreigner who has been convicted of breaking a law and sentenced to imprisonment of one year or more shall be denied permission to land in Japan.

"But the law makes an exception for those convicted of a political offense, for example, and it says the justice minister make an exemption in certain other cases if he or she finds reasonable grounds to do so," Kyodo said.

Mrs. Yingluck boosted confidence among businesses, however, by selecting the former president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand, Kittiratt Na Ranong, as commerce minister, and naming former secretary-general of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Thirachai Bhuwanatnaranuban, as finance minister.

But at least eight Red Shirt leaders of the 2010 insurrection won parliament seats in the election, and none of them were picked for Mrs. Yingluck's cabinet.

The Reds include many supporters who want to put the previous prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and his political and military colleagues on trial for their role in using deadly force to quell the Reds' increasingly violent insurrection.

"The fact is that there would be no Puea Thai-led government today if it were not for the sacrifice of Red Shirts during the April and May [2010] massacres, and their dedication in maintaining pressure on the Abhisit regime since then," said Ratchaprasong News an extensive Facebook site operated by Red Shirt supporters.

Their "editorial" on Wednesday (August 10) was headlined: "Cabinet Lineup Hints at Reconciliation Agenda, But Have the Red Shirts Been Left Out in the Cold?"

"Red Shirt leaders such as Colonel Apiwan Wiriyachai and Nattawut Saikuer have consistently demonstrated qualities that would have made them excellent cabinet members, particularly within the Defense and PM [Prime Minister's] Office Minister portfolios," it said, noting that they did not get any cabinet posts.

"The new Defense Minister, [retired] General Yuttasak Sasiprapa, is a royalist soldier...likely to revolve around managing the relationship between the new government and the military in order to prevent a coup," the editorial said.

Some Reds vowed to continue demanding justice for whoever killed the 91 people, mostly civilians, during the insurrection.

"I agree with Arisman Pongreuangrong, another Red Shirt activist, who says that we cannot wait," said Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a hard-line Red Shirt and Marxist who fled to Britain in fear of imprisonment after publishing his book titled, A Coup for the Rich.

"A timetable should be set for the freeing of prisoners, and the bringing to justice of those who committed state crimes against the people," Mr. Giles wrote in an analysis posted on the Political Prisoners in Thailand website on Thursday (August 11).

"Having a newly elected Pheu Thai Party government is totally meaningless if nothing changes...if they wish to betray the people who sacrificed their lives for democracy, or those who are currently in jail, then they are not on our side."

Mr. Thaksin, a billionaire who headed a telecommunications empire, gave speeches to the Reds via satellite and huge visual screens which were erected in the street during the 2010 insurrection.

Many Red Shirts yearned for him to be allowed to return to Thailand and recreate his popular 2001-2006 government, though he is legally banned from politics until 2012.

They also wanted a two-year prison sentence against Mr. Thaksin for corruption to be dropped, and $1.2 billion worth of his seized assets to be returned.

Some Red Shirts now boast that their huge numbers and organizational skills provide Mrs. Yingluck with her best protection against another coup, because most Thais do not want another bloody confrontation in Bangkok's streets -- which is likely if the army launches a fresh putsch.

The Reds, however, may find themselves frustrated over attempts to bring politicians and military leaders to trial for the deaths during the anti-coup protests, and discover that the cause will wither under the new government's compromising policies.

"Yingluck probably thinks she will have trouble from people who don't like the Reds, so she didn't choose any," said one financial expert who opposes the Reds and Mrs. Yingluck's election.

"It is good there are no Red Shirt ministers, because the Reds burned Bangkok," she said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of her job.

Tens of thousands of Reds barricaded Ratchaprasong intersection -- Bangkok's wealthiest area -- for nine weeks, protesting against the military's 2006 coup and demanding immediate elections.

When the military used armored personnel carriers and snipers to breech their bamboo barricades, some vengeful Reds allegedly set fire to 40 buildings in Bangkok, including luxury shopping malls, banks, the Stock Exchange and offices.

Mrs. Yingluck hopes to restore Thailand's democracy, reduce political tensions, and improve the economy, and apparently perceives the Reds as too confrontational and unpredictable to hold cabinet positions.

She has expressed support for "reconciliation" on all sides, partly to ensure her own survival against the politicized military which has staged 18 attempted or successful coups since 1932.

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com.

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