Pitak Siam rumour mill hums

Pitak Siam rumour mill hums

Gen Boonlert Kaewprasit's sudden decision to call off the anti-Yingluck Shinawatra government rally at the Royal Plaza on Saturday less than nine hours into the demonstration was a surprise to everyone.

The abrupt end has led to a spate of rumours. Was he paid by fugitive ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra? Were there conflicts in the Pitak Siam leadership? Or was it about the safety of his wife and children as Gen Boonlert, or Seh Ai, is known to be a family man. Perhaps the most convincing rumour was that Gen Boonlert received a phone call from his friend Gen Surayud Chulanont that forced the retired general to halt the rally. The decision was followed by Gen Boonlert's announcement that "Seh Ai is dead," as he stepped down as the Pitak Siam leader.

But Gen Boonlert has denied all those rumours.

"No one made such an order," Gen Boonlert said, insisting that neither Gen Surayud nor anybody else forced him to end the rally.

Gen Boonlert said he did not want to see any casualties as a result of the rally. The injuries came quickly, as only a few hours into the rally police used tear gas on the protesters. Moreover, officers were seen perched on high buildings around the rally, prompting fears of snipers or M79 attacks against protesters _ especially under the cover of night.

"I am not a bloody type who will step on dead bodies to get power," Gen Boonlert said. "I am a gentleman and I keep my word. As the number of [total] protesters did not meet the expectations _ though many may have been blocked from entering _ I will quit and will never lead any [further] demonstrations," he announced.

Although his role as Pitak Siam leader is over, Gen Boonlert said he will participate in activities aimed at protecting the monarchy _ though he is not interested in any further leadership positions. He has also resigned as president of the Foundation of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School, claiming he doesn't want to cause a divide in the army.

"I am hurt," he said. "I no longer want to have anything to do with the army as it failed to help people who were oppressed by the police. If we are to protest further, we will need weapons. We can no longer fight with our bare hands. Is that what we want to do?"

He admitted the main reason he called it quits is that the army ignored him. He said he made a phone call to 1st Army Region commander Lt Gen Paiboon Khumchaya when police fired tear gas at the protesters. The 1st Army Region headquarters is located nearest the rally site, and he hoped the army would step in to protect the protesters.

However, the commander's assistant initially refused to put him through. Only when he called Lt Gen Paiboon's direct line, did he reach the commander, who shrugged off his request.

"We are discussing it," Gen Boonlert was told.

However, Gen Boonlert said he lost contact with the commander that day. His attempts to reach army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha also failed, and though he managed to reach deputy army commander Dapong Rattanasuwan, the latter was not helpful.

"Nobody answered my calls," Gen Boonlert said, adding that he asked the military to intervene to stop police from hurting protesters.

"But since no one stepped in, I had to stop [the rally]. I wouldn't put people's lives at risk."

There were reports before the protest that someone had assured Gen Boonlert that the army commander would side with the protesters "when the time has come".

Meanwhile, there were rumours that Gen Prayuth's subordinates were among the protesters. Some even said an order had been made for the military forces from Kanchanaburi, Prachin Buri and Sa Kaeo to be prepared to step in.

"I am disheartened that the military did not help the people," Gen Boonlert said. "I tried to call many commanders but they did not respond. Some just avoided me and never answered my phone. This is painful. Much more painful than when I was a defeated faction in a failed coup," he said, referring to the March 26 coup attempt in 1977 in which he led two battalions from Kanchanaburi into the capital. The coup, led by the late Gen Chalard Hiransiri, was aborted when forces from other military units stayed put.

Rumours that the military would step in during clashes also spread during the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD)-led demonstrations against the Somchai Wongsawat and Samak Sundaravej administrations. But they simply evaporated.

It was obvious the government had overestimated Gen Boonlert's Pitak Siam movement and the political groups affiliated with the PAD by enacting the Internal Security Act in three districts. The government subsequently lifted the act on Tuesday as the protest came to an abrupt end.

The overestimation may stem from the link between Gen Boonlert and Gen Surayud as well as Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, especially after Phajun Tamprateep, a long-time close aide and personal secretary to Gen Prem, said he would join Saturday's protest.

This led to another rumour about the mobilisation of ammart (elite groups) capital, totalling six billion baht, in a bid to topple the government; as well as a plan to kidnap Ms Yingluck.

The rumours resulted in an enormous security surge with an order for officers from 51 companies of infantry, cavalry and artillery units to stand ready. The security beef-up was then connected with rumours of another coup.

But Gen Prayuth ruled out that possibility. "Should the military come out when two sides clash? No, that's not possible," he said. "We have to abide by democratic rules."

There are lessons in this event for everyone and those lessons should be learned so that history doesn't repeat itself.

Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

Wassana Nanuam

Senior news reporter

Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

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