Regular readers of New Mandala will be aware of our interest in Caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, his opponents and their on-going battle for political control. Today, and only for our readership, I have provided an eye witness account of a massive pro-Thaksin, pro-government, pro-civil service, anti-drugs rally that was held in Chiang Rai’s municipal district on the afternoon of 15 August, 2006. As the Thai press begin to cover this rally, I will try to provide updates that give a feel for their analysis and description. For now, you can read about this rally here with New Mandala. Pictures and lots more text are over the fold.
Thaksin Rally, Chiang Rai, 15 August
Wandering the streets of Chiang Rai early on Wednesday morning, I already knew that Thaksin was planning to spend this week in northern Thailand. His trip – which originally included plans to distribute livestock and land titles – marks a divisive new chapter in the lead up to the October election. The fight is definitely on.
Walking aimlessly through town, I saw a banner, of the inexpensive type so common in Thai provincial politics, that read: “The Chiang Rai Municipal Authority welcomes H.E. The Prime Minister Police Captain Thaksin Shinawatra”. It dawned on me – Thaksin was obviously going to use this road. I asked a friendly bookshop owner where Thaksin was speaking and he pointed me, quite innocently, in the wrong direction. After a while I did eventually come across the place where Thaksin would be speaking. From outside the sturdy gates and across the moat, I could clearly see a big stage and a sign on the sports ground of Samakkhi Witthayakhom School, which said, in part: “Chiang Rai Province – Unite Thai forces across the nation to eliminate narcotic drugs“. An enormous image of Thaksin, in a striking pink shirt, was also clearly visible – even from two hundred metres away.
I asked a drink vendor when Thaksin would arrive and she said that 4 pm was the time. I went and got a hair-cut (no need to look scrappy at such an important event), went back to my room, readied my cameras, put on a clean shirt and ate a sandwich. This was obviously going to be a huge pro-Thaksin rally. I had to be prepared.
Arriving back at the school, legions of yellow-shirted, national flag-waving and buoyant Chiang Rai locals were already there. It was still only 3 pm. Many thousands of people were crammed into the meager shade surrounding the sports ground. Many were drinking the purified water provided free by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment’s Department of Water Resources. The sun was beating down, the umbrellas were out in force – it was one of those hot Northern Thai days.
In this relatively quiet period, I wandered the sports ground, chatting to Thaksin supporters and taking pictures of the numerous pro-government, anti-drugs, pro-Thaksin and pro-Thai Rak Thai banners. The quiet was only broken by the student performances on the stage. With its hip-hop dancing and traditional northern Thai musical ensemble, the pre-rally entertainment only drew a small crowd out of the shade. It was far too hot and sweaty. Everybody else just sat and waited, for hours and hours.
As Thaksin’s arrival neared, and despite the best efforts of the master of ceremonies, the majority of the crowd could still not be coaxed out of the shade. Talking to people it became obvious why they were staying put. Everybody I talked to said that this was not their first Thaksin rally. They knew the drill – he would be late, very late. Many were, however, surprised that I had never seen the man in the flesh. I said that I spent a lot of time in other regions of their country. This explained it, in their eyes. Their refrain, and their common justification for the rally, was that the Prime Minister: “Hak chao Chiang Hai, hak meuang hao” (Loves Chiang Rai residents, loves our hometown).
Becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow movement of the crowd, the MC, in his mix of Thai and Northern Thai, continued to exalt “rattabaan kong hao” (Our government). He justified the Prime Minister’s visit by saying that the rest of country understands how important Chiang Rai is for the onтАСgoing interdiction of narcotics. “Our province is connected to two other countries – Burma and Laos. That’s why we matter in the fight against drugs. Chiang Rai matters”, he rallied.
With the MC now repeatedly calling out the names of Chiang Rai’s districts, and the groups from each area responding with cheers, he told people to put their umbrellas away “because it doesn’t look good – the Prime Minister is almost here”.
45 minutes later, dozens of vehicles arrived at the far end of the sports ground. Excitement rattled through the crowd. Thaksin had arrived.
The police and soldiers now became more aware and I noticed that all of the tallest buildings had police scouting the rooftops and hanging out of windows. Binoculars and rifles were their standard issue. The Caretaker Prime Minister’s safety is obviously a major concern. He isn’t popular with everyone. In a country where political violence remains common, I am sure the police worry every time he speaks to such a big crowd.
Before making his way through the crowds to the stage, the Caretaker Prime Minister listened to a private presentation on the fight against drugs and inspected a display by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. After accepting hundreds of roses from adoring fans, and navigating a very well guarded corridor through the crowd, Thaksin, his delegation, and dozens of photographers and cameramen, ascended the stage. There were cheers from the crowd, lots of waving of flags, and a perceptible rush forwards. Just like at a rock concert!
Adding to the excitement was the presence of Sam Yuranand Pamornmontri, Thai Rak Thai MP for Din Daeng in Bangkok, government spokesperson, and sometime screen star. The women love him, and he even graciously accepted roses from his fans. By the looks of it, he is a real asset to the Caretaker Prime Minister’s entourage. If I were Thaksin, I would take him everywhere.
As these pictures hopefully make clear, I was positioned just off center and was right at the front, against the stage. “Spitting distance” – as some would say back home. Once the media scrum cleared, it was a great position for taking pictures and soaking up the atmosphere.
To kick off formalities, the Governor of Chiang Rai, surrounded by senior officials, gave a short welcome and anti-drugs speech. He praised the government for its fight against narcotics, “which destroy our youth and our nation”. The Caretaker Prime Minister then presented Thai flags and Royal yellow flags to Nai Ampoe (a rank of district-level Interior Ministry official, often translated as “Sheriff”) and police chiefs to commemorate their contribution to the fight against drugs on the auspicious occasion of the 60th anniversary of the King’s coronation.
After this presentation, the Caretaker Prime Minister took to the lectern and gave an impassioned speech. It ranged from “The War on Drugs”, to his political opponents, from universal Thai devotion to the King to the supremacy of “the people” in Thailand’s democracy. He repeatedly mentioned “luuk kon jon” (poor people’s children), “satru kong pom” (my enemies) and “the importance of Chiang Rai for eradicating drugs“. He complimented the Chiang Rai people on being so attractive particularly compared to a few years ago. He credited this improvement to the war on drugs and their healthier lives. He also favorably compared their attractiveness to his own “stressed” face. The crowd enjoyed his self-deprecation and compliments.
But by far the biggest cheer and most excitement was generated by Thaksin’s unexpected mid-sentence switch from formal, Prime Ministerial, Central Thai to the Northern Thai of the villagers who made up most of the audience. Speaking in Northern Thai, the Prime Minister’s thick accent and local origins drew many adoring sighs. After talking about the lives of poor people in Northern Thailand, the Prime Minister wrapped up his half hour effort. Standing among their number, and surrounded by a sea of Royal yellow shirts, Thai Rak Thai banners and cheering fans, it was clear to me just how much some people still respect their crusading Prime Minister.
As quickly as he arrived, the Caretaker Prime Minister was readied to be whisked off stage. But just before his minders had him to the steps, Thaksin caught sight of my 6 foot 2 frame and pale face in the crowd. He leaned over and yelled to me, “Did you understand what I said?” Shocked, but not willing to let the moment slip, I yelled back, “Yes sir, I understood”. He replied, “Excellent”, and was then hustled away to his convoy and away from the massive crowd.
The crowd then dispersed quickly and only the litter, left behind by thousands, remained. Drink bottles, plastic cups, newspaper, posters, and even battered paper flags all lay discarded on the sports field. Outside the school, hundreds of pick-up trucks were waiting to ferry the crowd back to their homes in the rural districts of Chiang Rai. It was very well organised and very smooth. I am sure Thaksin’s many opponents would probably have hated every aspect of it.
This rally, with its advertised anti-drugs theme, could not help but become a pep rally for the government and its embattled leader. In fact, one of the most common phrases, among the crowd and from the stage, was “hai gamlang jai” (give encouragement). At a time when the Thaksin government, its legitimacy and its potential legacy, hang in the balance, it seems that “encouragement” from the masses continues to be the best fuel for this political juggernaut. Giving speeches to thousands of adoring fans – one of whom heckled the Prime Minister “to keep fighting for us poor people” – is a key part of Thai Rak Thai’s effort to retain power. In Chiang Rai, Thaksin’s light has not faded.
Translation of sign in picture: “How ever many elections, we (always) vote for the Thai Rak Thai party”
Even his critics admit that Thaksin survives because of support from his rural base. At this rally in Chiang Rai, “the people”, or at least those who were “organised” to attend, showed their “encouragement” for their leader and his policies. With their Royal yellow shirts and with their tri-colour flags, this Northern Thai Prime Minister has retained a remarkable level of adoration among “his people”. Only time will tell if this is enough to keep his self-appointed role as defender of the nation and its many poor.
On a personal note, and as a novice on this political beat, I can say that nothing eclipses the excitement, fun and heat of a Northern Thai pep rally, Thaksin-style. As the photos confirm, the rally was quite a spectacle!