BURNING ISSUE

A FINAL ATTEMPT TO 'MALL' THE PM


Siam Paragon, the capital's 'hi-so' heart, is an interesting choice of venue for the anti-Thaksin rally's final pre-poll stand

Bringing out the mattresses and pitching tents, the anti-Thaksin rally will tomorrow establish its last foothold at Siam Paragon shopping mall, from where it will try to deliver a knockout punch to the embattled prime minister, who stubbornly clings to his post even as the country is slowly ripped apart.

Moving its protest from Makkawan Bridge to Siam Paragon would seem a wise move by People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) leaders Chamlong Srimuang and Sondhi Limthongkul, who are desperate to do anything to stop this weekend's election.

The decision most likely fell to Chamlong, the PAD's main strategist.

They have already besieged Government House for two weeks and now they're off to the Kingdom's newest upmarket shopping grotto from tomorrow until Friday.

Siam Paragon is a symbol of capitalism, a place where money does the talking.

And it's also one of caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's favourite shopping haunts.

Plus it's easy to get there via the BTS.

And so the protesters, once labelled by Thaksin as a "stupid mob", might yet become a "hi-so mob" if enough people join in. The people who frequent Siam Paragon have deep pockets by necessity. It also attracts businessmen, foreign tourists and teenagers.

Protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul has described Siam Paragon as the "perfect location presented by heaven" for the demonstration.

Sondhi said Siam Paragon would provide demonstrators with a comfortable spot under the shadow of the BTS Skytrain tracks, numerous places to eat, good free toilets and entertainment centres if people want a short break from rallying.

"It will be the world's first demonstration in which protesters stay overnight at a shopping centre," said Sondhi.

It seems the PAD has two goals in moving the rally to the upmarket shopping complex.

Firstly, it wants to stoke the fires of the current political climate, seemingly intent on forcing Thaksin to declare a state of emergency.

There will also likely be a confrontation between people who support the PM and those who don't.

Last Sunday protesters clashed with a taxi driver who was blowing his horn at protesters marching along the street in front of Siam Paragon.

Many expect Thaksin to order policemen to arrest key leaders of the PAD or use force to break up the rally.

But Thaksin may not be drawn into that course of action, because Army commander-in-chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin has already sent him a warning signal, suggesting any use of force would reflect badly on him.

Instead, Thaksin has so far opted to stay calm and wait for election day to roll around.

That tactic seems to be working, as he has managed to survive the past few weeks.

In moving to the shopping precinct, the PAD is also looking to draw more attention from business owners, who represent a powerful lobby that has yet to voice its opinion on the PM. Until now, only a handful of businessmen have made it clear they do not support Thaksin.

Chamlong, for one, thinks the business owners can help the protesters and there are a lot of business owners who don't like the PM or his policies.

But in reality a three-day presence in front of Siam Paragon might cause real havoc for businesses in the area.

Even during Sunday's march past Siam Paragon traffic was paralysed for more than four hours.

Imagine what it will be like for three days and three nights.

Shoppers are likely to avoid the place, worried about traffic, general chaos, or even violence.

And if the business owners don't want business damaged, they might just join the anti-Thaksin rally.

While it seems a smart move, the PAD must be prepared for an eventual backlash.

If the rally makes trouble for business owners they may become annoyed with the protesters.

But political observers suggest if businesspeople only look at the short term, then they're missing the real problem before them.

Who knows how many of them will vent their anger at the ballot booth if the April 2 election goes ahead?

For the PAD, although the strategy carries risk, it represents the lengths they will have to go to if they are to win this battle.

Jintana Panyaarvudh

The Nation

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