After the PAD’s attempt on 7 October 2008 to create a level of unrest thought to be sufficient to prompt the military to stage a coup was foiled, Army Commander-in-Chief Anupong Paojinda came under heavy attack by Sondhi Limthongkul’s propagandistic media empire. He was portrayed with a chain around his neck holding a sign saying, “Give up all hope in me. My fire is already gone” (Phuchatkan, October 10). Sondhi himself barked that Anupong was not on the side of the people, but “stood on the corpses of the people.” Moreover, he accused Anupong of being, “a tool of the Thaksin regime that did harm to the monarchy” (Phuchatkan, October 11-12, 2008). This kind of reaction was to be expected from Sondhi-too great was his disappointment in the army’s perceived failure to help the PAD in its crusade to topple the government of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat. Pro-PAD individuals have been spreading the rumor that Thaksin had paid 50 million baht to Anupong for not staging a coup.
It might be interesting to look at what two major newspapers had to say in their Sunday analyses following the events of 7 October. They aim to provide readers with an orientation concerning what the events were all about, including their possible causes and implications.
The mass circulation Thai Rath (October 12) headlined its page three analysis, “Paving the way for special power. Both camps try to bring the battle to a quick decision.” The authors set out to reflect on the conditions that had led to the events. First, after Somchai Wongsawat had succeeded Samak Sundaravej as prime minister, the PAD vowed to keep on its protests at Government House, because they saw Somchai-being a brother-in-law of Thaksin-as even worse a nominee than Samak. However, his humble manners and polite way of talking had clearly mitigated the political tension. He had announced from the beginning that he would emphasize reconciliation and negotiation to solve the political crisis. As a result, people had started feeling encouraged that peace might return to the country.
According to Thai Rath, Somchai did not only talk but also took action accordingly. He visited Prem Tinsulanonda, entered into talks with the PAD via Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, and agreed to amend article 291 of the constitution to pave the way for a Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) and political reform. All political parties had agreed on establishing a “CDA 3.”
In the account provided by Thai Rath what happened next is crucial. Unexpectedly, PAD leaders Chaiwat Sinsuwong and Chamlong Srimuang were arrested. This prompted the PAD to move and block the entrances of Parliament on the night of 6 October in order to prevent the government from making its policy statement on 7 October. As a result, the police tried to break up the protest by firing teargas, leading to injuries and deaths. This ended all negotiations. In addition, the CDA 3 would not materialize, because the Democrat party had called off its participation.
But Thai Rath doesn’t stop there. From this article’s perspective, the people have to accept that the government is legitimate, because it has come into power according to the constitution, and the King had appointed it. It had to declare its policy before it could start administering the country. The PAD wanted to prevent this from happening, thus the attempt to disperse the protestors and the spilling of blood. It was about creating a situation that would make the military seize power. Luckily, General Anupong still remained firm in leaving politics to solve their own problems. At the same time, the Appeals Court has lifted the more serious charges, including insurrection, against the PAD leaders, while the Administrative Court had issued a temporary order for the police not to use excessive force in dispersing protestors. Therefore, a recurrence of the events has become less likely.
However, the question remained whether the events would not have happened if Chaiwat and Chamlong had not been arrested. The police had known fully well that the Appeals Court would announce its ruling about the arrest warrants of the nine PAD leaders on October 9. Why did they not wait until then? The police had known about the possible consequences, yet they still proceeded with their arrests. Moreover, the police could have chosen softer means to disperse the protestors. But the government chose to let the police use a harsh approach. [The paper did not say what those softer means might have been.]
It looked as if there had been a hidden agenda. Negotiations had come to their end, and the attempts to initiate political reform and a CDA had to be suspended. According to Thai Rath, it looked as if somebody wanted to kill the negotiations, to eliminate the climate of reconciliation and compromise, to increase the divisions in society, and to boost the hatred amongst people in the two camps that have conflicting political views. What were the reasons for this game? “We think that this is a game by people behind the two camps to gain advantage by the use of special powers gained via the military. One camp is far away and wants to kill cases pending in the courts. Another camp wants to uproot the ‘old politics’.”
In conclusion, Thai Rath seemed to suggest that either Thaksin Shinawatra or Sondhi Limthongkul (or both) had tried to instigate a military coup in order to protect their respective interests. That is, the situation was still framed as a fight between the wills of these two people, who have been slugging it out since the second half of the year 2005. Thai politics with all its institutions and constitutional structures (not to mention the sovereign-the people) is reduced, it seems, to a boxing ring in which two heavyweights vie for the championship.
Matichon newspaper targets Thailand’s “educated class.” Thus, its circulation is much smaller than that of Thai Rath. Matichon‘s page three analysis (October 12) was headlined, “Black ‘October.’ ‘Thailand’ back to the stalemate again. ‘Somchai’ government is destined to die.” As other papers before it, Matichon drew a rather mistaken comparison to the “Black May” of 1992 in which dozens of unarmed demonstrators were shot and killed by the military on Rajadamnoen Avenue. That event led to the intervention of the King and, as a result, to the end of the Suchinda government. Many hold that, at that time, Chamlong Srimuang willfully risked the lives of the demonstrators by leading them towards the military lines.
Much in the same way as Thai Rath, Matichon also started its article by recounting the good deeds of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat in trying to bring reconciliation to the country. However, following the events, the people had become afraid and suspicious of the police. “Whether the violence was started by the police or by the people, the final result is that it has overshadowed the hopes that would make the nation’s people reconcile.” The Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship had regrouped. The Somchai government had lost its position to administer the country. Wherever he will go, he would have to avoid confronting the “clapping hands.” All his government could do was to appoint two committees, one for investigating the event, and one for considering ways of compensation for those injured or killed.
“The Somchai government is already destined to die! Although there is a government, it is as if there is no government.” Thus, there were calls for Somchai to resign or to dissolve the House. However, these solutions could not solve the country’s problems, because there was no guarantee that the political crisis would not return. “Don’t forget that the PAD has already rejected any prime minister from the People Power party, while the PPP MPs make up the majority in the House.”
According to Matichon, the dissolution of the House would lead to a new general election, with the result certainly being that the “same old faces” would be elected to the House again. In this context, the recent reshuffle of provincial governors and other high-ranking civil servants at the Ministry of the Interior showed that the PPP government had not given up their fight. Thus, an election would lead to a stalemate again.
Obviously, Matichon did not expect its supposedly educated readers to do too much intellectual work on Sunday. Thus this rather low-key article that provided little encouragement. On the other hand, it probably reflected the feeling of hopelessness many readers might share after their, perhaps false, hopes following Somchai’s start as prime minister have been dashed by the events of 7 October. Few people will have any idea about what is to be done to get out of this political malaise, especially since they had elevated the PAD and demonized the PPP government so much in the past few months. Interestingly, Matichon only mentioned Somchai’s resignation or the dissolution of the House as options, and then immediately discounted them as viable solutions. Constitutional and political reform had also lost their potential after the clashes. As Matichon pointed out, the situation was as if there was no government. Readers might then be inclined to think that this void could only be filled by another military coup-only that the paper was too shy to say so. And what should follow after the coup? On the opposing page, its columnist found clearer words, “The time has come that the bureaucrats have to show what is right or wrong. Do not allow the tyrants or cheating politicians to use their power according to their free will.”