No longer friends, it seems
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No longer friends, it seems

ABOUT POLITICS: Former UDD chairman Jatuporn Prompan was once a staunch Pheu Thai supporter; now he’s one of the party’s leading critics | Uttama Savanayana and Sontirat Sontijirawong’s PPRP return looks like a marriage of convenience ahead of upcoming polls

(From left) Jatuporn: Takes aim at Pheu Thai; Uttama: PPRP’s pick for economic affairs
(From left) Jatuporn: Takes aim at Pheu Thai; Uttama: PPRP’s pick for economic affairs

During the heyday of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the movement’s epitome was characterised by what many came to know its chairman Jatuporn Prompan for — feisty, unrelenting and vocal.

Mr Jatuporn has retained most of those qualities, except that he has now turned the tables on the party, which has always been the UDD’s closest ally, the Pheu Thai Party.

The UDD chairman fought alongside red-clad protesters who rose up against the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration, which came to power in December 2008.

One of the reasons the UDD gave to justify this was a ruse it alleged was employed to woo a political faction led by Newin Chidchob away from the People's Power Party (PPP).

That faction subsequently joined the Democrat Party-led bloc in successfully voting for Mr Abhisit to be prime minister, succeeding Somchai Wongsawat, who came from the PPP.

The government, however, vehemently denied the accusation, saying Mr Abhisit, who was the leader of the Democrats at the time, had won parliament’s mandate to become the premier fairly.

It shrugged off its opponents’ claim that it was formed inside the barracks, an insinuation its creation was made possible with the military’s blessing.

Two major UDD protests in 2009 and 2010 rocked the Abhisit administration. At one point, Mr Abhisit’s motorcade came under attack from protesters in the Interior Ministry’s compound, although the premier emerged unscathed.

The UDD was dispersed in 2010 by a military operation to retake Ratchaprasong intersection in the heart of Bangkok’s commercial district.

The movement insisted scores of its members died after allegedly being fired upon by the military as they took refuge in a temple. Some UDD protesters were charged with torching the CentralWorld shopping complex during the chaos that ensued during the military crackdown.

Mr Jatuporn was among the protest leaders who stood at the forefront of the UDD rallies and has faced a slew of criminal charges in connection with them since.

The UDD has retained close ties with Pheu Thai, which succeeded the PPP after it was dissolved for electoral fraud, and is accused by critics of being the party’s fighting arm. The movement is known to command vast and deep-rooted support from people, mostly in the provinces, who are also zealous backers of the party in general elections.

Some observers believed Mr Jatuporn, given his activism and service steering the UDD, would be rewarded with a cabinet seat in the Yingluck Shinawatra government which replaced the Abhisit administration in 2011.

But instead, another UDD luminary, Nattawut Saikuar, got the reward. The UDD co-leader with exceptional oratory skills was named deputy agriculture minister.

Mr Jatuporn missed out on cabinet appointments and was perceived to have not been in the Pheu Thai inner circle, who were the power brokers.

The UDD, with Mr Jatuporn at the helm, regrouped in late 2013 and early 2014 to counter mass protests by the yellow-clad People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which demanded the ouster of the Yingluck government for its bid to impose what it called a wholesale amnesty.

The PDRC said the government was trying to push it to benefit fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled the country in 2008 before he was convicted by the Supreme Court of assisting his then-wife, Potjaman — while still in office — to purchase prime land in Bangkok at a discount.

The political turmoil of 2014 degenerated into constitutional gridlock that was broken by the National Council for Peace and Order, headed by then army chief Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, in a coup in May of that year.

Mr Jatuporn was detained by the military for a while in the aftermath of the coup. After that, he kept a relatively low profile until last year when he appeared on a stage with other co-founders of the so-called Kana Lomruam Prachachon (Melting Pot Group), which rallied against Gen Prayut clinging on to power.

Mr Jatuporn is now aligned with some former leading figures of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which spearheaded street protests against the Thaksin Shinawatra administration back in 2005-2006.

The observers said it was hard to imagine Mr Jatuporn teaming up with former PAD core members considering the UDD originally came into being in 2006 partly as a counter-movement against the PAD.

In forging the unlikely friendship, Mr Jatuporn has also turned against Pheu Thai, chastising the main opposition party for forsaking its supporters.

He said it was worth noting that although Pheu Thai received substantial support at the polls from constituents who counted red shirts among them, these supporters never banded together to protect the party after a coup.

This also applied to the time when Thaksin was overthrown as head of the Thai Rak Thai-led government in a coup led by army chief Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin on Sept 19, 2006.

Thai Rak Thai was later reborn as the PPP and then Pheu Thai.

Mr Jatuporn said Pheu Thai found itself completely defenceless and alone in times of crisis because it did not value its supporters and deserted them after taking power.

The party’s ties with the people appeared to diminish after the last election. Such was a pattern that can be traced back to the TRT and the PPP, he said.

Back to where they came from

Two former key Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) figures made a head-turning return to the ruling party this week.

On Monday, the former leader, Uttama Savanayana, and former secretary-general, Sontirat Sontijirawong, rejoined the party with PRRP leader Gen Prawit Wongsuwon welcoming them with open arms and jobs.

Mr Uttama, also a former finance minister, was put in charge of the PPRP’s economic affairs while Mr Sontirat, a former energy minister, is overseeing both economic and political issues.

Their return came more than two years after they left the party along with Suvit Maesincee and Kobsak Pootrakul in late-June 2020 following intense power struggles within the party.

Known as the See Gumarn (Four Boys) group, their fate was decided when PPRP executives turned on them by quitting en masse from the party’s board to force a leadership change.

The “coup” was engineered by the Sam Mitr faction, which was said to be eyeing the energy portfolio. Gen Prawit, who was then the party’s chief strategist, then became its leader.

All four later resigned from the cabinet along with economic czar Somkid Jatusripitak who led the government’s economic team.

As things ended badly, speculation was rife that they would return with a vengeance, possibly setting up their own political party to contest the next election.

Mr Uttama and Mr Sontirat burst back on the political scene in April last year to form the Sang Anakhot Thai Party (SATP) that later appointed Mr Somkid as party chairman in what was seen as a precursor to naming him the party’s prime ministerial candidate.

Following changes to the election system, the SATP was anticipated to follow in the footsteps of the Chart Pattana and Kla parties by forging a partnership with Thai Sang Thai (TST), which is led by Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan.

Things have not gone according to plan for both parties, obviously. Their merger never came to fruition.

On Jan 27, Gen Prawit met Mr Uttama and Mr Sontirat for talks about their return to the PPRP, and a few days later, a red-carpet welcome was extended to the pair. Mr Uttama claimed Mr Somkid had no objection to the move, which would help the country move forward and reduce political conflict.

While admitting there were differences within the party that when his group left the PPRP in 2020, Mr Uttama refused to call it a conflict. PPRP secretary-general Santi Promphat, on the other hand, described the situation back then as “a difference of opinion”.

Considering their exit from the party, some observers view their return as “swallowing their pride”, while others say that under current circumstances, it was the best possible move.

With the SATP not equipped to contest the polls, Mr Uttama and Mr Sontirat are in need of a new home to get back in the game, and the PPRP is also searching for strong hands in economic affairs to boost the party’s profile.

Between the PPRP and the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party, the ruling party looked more promising, and Gen Prawit had already shifted into high gear, according to observers.

The PPRP is now tempting voters with a pre-election pledge to raise monthly allowances for state welfare cardholders to 700 baht and a promise to cooperate with all sides to end conflicts and steer the country towards the best possible goals.

The UTN, on the other hand, is late to the party and apparently has no policy to show except having Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as its prospective prime minister candidate as he is popular in the “conservative camp”, say observers.

“Gen Prawit has been on the offensive, which means we’re seeing a real fight,” said Stithorn Thananithichote, a political researcher at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, who predicts that if the PPRP can keep up the momentum, it may capture as many as 80 House seats.

Mr Stithorn is also convinced that when the time comes, Gen Prawit will make sure the party reaps the full benefits of the pair’s economic expertise.

However, the academic said it would not be surprising if the PPRP and the UTN joined hands in forming the next government. Gen Prawit might even step aside to make way for Gen Prayut’s return as prime minister.

His view is reflected in the latest opinion survey by Nida Poll on the rivalry between the PPRP and the UTN.

About 38.4% said it was highly likely that the two parties would be in the same bloc, while 30% considered it a likely scenario. About 18.3% ruled this out completely, and 11.7% said it was unlikely.

About 46.5% of 1,310 people said the generals have not split and are merely competing in politics. This is compared with 9% who believed their relationship had ended.

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