Democracy puts limits on protests

Democracy puts limits on protests

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has discovered that seizing the airports and inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of people has costly consequences. (Bangkok Post file photo)
The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has discovered that seizing the airports and inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of people has costly consequences. (Bangkok Post file photo)

Just over a decade ago, friends knew they had to go to either Sanam Luang or Siam Square to find me after work. I was not there selling goods on the pavements, but instead I was being the typical democratic-minded youth looking for fairness from the government that I had not voted for.

As a person who has never skipped an election since having the right to vote, I was among thousands of other like-minded people camping out at these two venues to protest against the authoritative government of then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Then one fine day protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul announced that these peaceful protests were not having any impact on the government and that seizing Government House would be one way of pressuring the government to step down.

Umesh Pandey is Editor, Bangkok Post.

That was the last day I attended the protest led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). I resigned from the protest movement that day. Having known Mr Sondhi personally after he offered me the position of editor of his newly launched but now defunct Thai Day newspaper -- an offer I turned down -- I made sure I let him know that I disagreed with moves that breached basic democratic principles.

Eventually the Thaksin government fell with the coup of Sept 19, 2006. The 1997 "People's Constitution" was one of the best this country has had and offered mechanisms that could resolve political problems without the military's intervention, but alas that was not the case and the military returned to the political foray after 14 years back in the barracks.

Fast forward to 2008, a year after the coup-led government allowed elections to take place, and the PAD was back on the streets again to protest about the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party and a government led by Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law.

Having tasted blood and success from the seizure of Government House, the PAD took what had been a peaceful protest to a new level by seizing the entrance to parliament and then closing down Bangkok's two main airports.

The airport closures made global headlines and tarnished the image of Thailand for years. The crisis from Nov 24 to Dec 3, 2008, created havoc all across the world as passengers had to go to other airports all across the country to be able to head back home or go on with their business.

After the protest was over, some of those who lost revenue came out to file lawsuits against the PAD for damages. One case finally closed this past week when the Supreme Court rejected a petition by key PAD leaders appealing against the lower court's ruling that ordered 13 group members to pay Airports of Thailand Plc 552 million baht in compensation for their role in closing the two airports and causing damage to the firm's revenue.

PAD leaders have said they may set up a donation fund but their ability to collect up to 552 million baht at a time when there is no political conflict that favours the PAD seems like a herculean task.

The losses of AOT, a public company with thousands of shareholders, need to be taken into account. PAD leaders' hopes of negotiating with AOT to lower the payout could also lead to negotiators being sued because the court has given its verdict on the case and the only option remaining for those ordered to pay could be to declare bankruptcy.

Thai Airways International has also sued the PAD for 575 million baht in losses, while Aeronautical Radio of Thailand is seeking 103 million baht.

In January, another court ordered the People's Democratic Reform Council (PDRC), a reincarnation of the yellow shirts, to pay 95 million baht for its occupation of the Energy Ministry during a protest against the Yingluck Shinawatra government in 2013-14. Like the PAD, the PDRC had gone to extremes by seizing Government House. It looks as though a similar fate awaits PDRC leaders as many cases against them are pending in the courts.

Protesting against what one considers to be unjust is the heart of the democratic process and people like Mahatama Gandhi have shown the world what it is to protest and be prosecuted yet not take the law into one's own hands.

With such verdicts by the judiciary, one can be assured that people like me could return to political activism because leaders of anti-government protests would not dare step outside limits to cause damage to the country's economy and well-being.

Umesh Pandey

Bangkok Post Editor

Umesh Pandey is Editor, Bangkok Post.

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