January 30, 2013 00:00
By Attayuth Bootrsripoom
Yesterday's rebel red-shirt protest caught many political observers by surprise. The rally drew a little over 1,000 people and had failed to get the blessing of the movement's leaders, but it will likely put the government in an awkward position.
The group, calling itself the “January 29 Front – Free Political Prisoners” – demanded the release of “political prisoners” and accused the government and red-shirt leaders of ignoring their plight to protect their grip on power. By “political prisoners” they meant people detained either for participation in the political unrest in 2010 or for lese majeste.
In its statement, the group said the ruling politicians and red-shirt leadership had made no sincere effort to “return justice to the political prisoners, although the power that you gained directly resulted from the fight of the red-shirt people”. They also urged the government to pass the constitutional amendment proposed by the Nitirat group of academics that is said to offer a general amnesty to settle the political conflict.
The last straw for the group appeared to be the Criminal Court’s recent sentencing of Voice of Taksin magazine editor Somyot Pruksakasemsuk to 10 years in prison for lese majeste. Earlier, the death of an elderly man in custody for the same charge also fomented much dissatisfaction among critics of Article 112 of the Criminal Code, or the “lese majeste” law.
The January 29 Front, which consists mostly of academics and campaigners against Article 112, is viewed as “more ideological” than other groups of red shirts. However, some of the group’s leaders are known to be close chums with ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Yesterday’s demonstration was the first protest against the Yingluck Shinawatra government by any group of red shirts.
However, other red-shirt groups appear to be lukewarm to the notion of taking to the streets with this “hot issue” of lese majeste, not to mention publicly criticising “their government”. Red-shirt leader Thida Thawornseth said the group’s cause differed from hers and another leader, Kwanchai Praipana, said he opted to side with the government.
The January 29 Front has certainly caused uneasiness for the government by being aggressive in making its demands and insisting on quick action by the government.
This move by its own backers has put the Pheu Thai-led administration in a difficult position. The ruling coalition has carefully avoided any “risk factor” that could shorten its life span. They should be aware that their supporters’ anguish could build up to become a strong force against them. However, by meeting all the demands of their supporters, the government will also risk upsetting the status quo – a step that could bring its downfall closer.