Rally needs public support to succeed
The recent anti-dictatorship movement may have to encounter an inconvenient truth in its forthcoming rally on Wednesday if the number of protesters is not as big as it had hoped. This possible setback is from the movement's misguided strategy.
It is speculated unless there is a strong provocation from the state or unbecoming incident, the number of protesters joining the planned rally will be about the same as the two previous demonstrations, at Democracy Monument and Sanam Luang, which saw about 20,000 to 30,000 people.
Such figures, much fewer than what the movement leaders wanted to see, are not strong enough to bring back their momentum.
Core movement leaders hope the chosen date, Oct 14, which marks the 47th anniversary of the student-led uprising which ousted Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn as prime minister in 1973, would be the perfect time to draw in a bigger crowd. Yet it is unlikely to be so.
This is primarily because they have failed to keep their priorities right by sticking to their demand on the charter amendment. By adding the demand for a reform of the kingdom's highest institution, the movement risks losing public support, and the movement leaders know it. During a press conference on Thursday, the leaders tried to give the impression they are open to more political groups joining to pressure the government.
Arnon Nampa, a key movement leader, said it is pressing for three demands: the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a new charter and monarchy reform.
Mr Arnon, who is a human rights lawyer, said the movement has also changed its name from the Free People Group to Khana Ratsadorn, or the People's Group, to entice more political factions. Anyone wishing to oust Gen Prayut can just walk in and be accepted. It is the same for those who want a new constitution. All are welcome in the movement that still maintains its demand for monarchy reform.
But is it true that the movement's new name represents openness? Khana Ratsadorn is the name of the group of young, Western-educated elites who in 1932 staged a coup that replaced the country's absolute monarchy system with a constitutional monarchy. The name the group chosen speaks much about its identity that resonates anti-monarchy sentiment.
In this sense, the use of such a controversial name means the movement prioritises its charter demand after monarchy reform. If the group thinks they would have a strengthened movement in doing so, its members have to think again.
While it is true that the push for the 10-point demand including monarchy reform during the movement's Aug 10 rally at Thammasat University's Rangsit campus eased the social taboo of criticising the monarchy, bringing out the extremely sensitive topic into the open, well, that's that.
To think the monarchy reform issue would be a magnet that draws more people to their rally is unrealistic. Things could be different if they focused instead on the failures of the government that result in economic hardship, unemployment and the delay in budget disbursement.
Even the state's foot-dragging in the charter amendment process -- with its formation of a panel to study the process and a proposed referendum -- could make for a stronger case for the public.
It is quite unfortunate the movement leaders failed to recognise this. Making the charter amendment a strategic demand adds legitimacy to the rallies as it is evident the government only takes demonstrations as a political game, without the intentions to bring an end to the political crisis.
Without a decisive move after the charter fiasco late last month, the leaders have missed a chance to push for their cause, now that the government can control the situation. In addition, they should realise that their aspiration for monarchy reform, which causes a deep divide in the country, needs more time. This is definitely not a mission the movement can win overnight, given the country's social structure and public belief in the institution. The leaders have to look at the big picture for long-term goals, gradually fostering the people's political participation.
Another reason why the upcoming rally may not have strong public support is the Pheu Thai Party, which has just been restructured. Steered by Khunying Potjaman na Pombejra, ex-wife of Thaksin Shinawatra, the opposition bloc leader has adopted a new tactic, focusing on parliamentary role, and not street protests.
There are rumours the new tactic is the result of negotiations between the party and its powerful figures to isolate the anti-dictatorship movement. Under the deal, red-shirts are to stay away from the rally. At the same time, the powers that be are well aware Gen Prayut is a magnet for trouble. The longer he stays in power, the more difficult the situation is for those on top of political echelons.
More importantly, it is rumoured the deal goes so far that Pheu Thai would have a chance to form a government, instead of Palang Pracharath. Now we have to see if the rumours have any truth to them: How the Pheu Thai will change and whether red-shirts will distance themselves from the rally. Without strong red-shirt participation, the rally cannot prolong, thus there is no bargaining power. At the same time, a lack of consistency on the part of the anti-dictatorship movement is a dilemma. Before all this, it called for the PM's resignation and the dissolution of the House and the military-appointed senate. Now that the senate issue has been dropped, their demands are not solid.
With the Senate, Gen Prayut can make a comeback after his resignation. However, the PM has no reason to resign as he now has an advantage and can use the charter amendment as his trump card.
The demand for the House to convene an extraordinary session to consider Section 256, which stipulates the formation of a charter drafting panel, other demands carry no weight as the government can argue the House will reopen in the next 16 days. Besides, House Speaker Chuan Leekpai promises he would table the charter amendment to the House. At the same time, he ensures a charter amendment bill proposed by civil group iLaw could be placed on parliament's agenda.
If the anti-dictatorship movement wants to regain strength, it must keep relevant demands: the PM and the Senate must stop foot-dragging in the charter amendment bid and the formation of the amendment panel through the amendment of Section 256. This is the only way to bring the country out of its political conflict. The other demand will only weaken its movement.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.