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Is the 'Somkiat effect' strong enough to reverse the tide?

Former senator Somkiat Onwimon draws praise for advocating non-violent protest, but will everyone take his words to heart?

Veteran media man Somkiat Onwimon grabbed the limelight last Thursday when he appeared on an anti-government stage for the first time. His speech breathed fresh life into the rally and quickly became the hot topic of conversation among protesters. Having such a widely respected figure lend his support was a significant publicity boost for the People's Democratic Reform Committee. Somkiat's impressive words raised high expectations. The question now is whether his contribution can help solve the political crisis.

Part of his speech's impact derived from the fact that Somkiat was once a critic of protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban. Meanwhile his experience as an iTV executive and senator made credible his criticism of the "Thaksin regime".

While at iTV he learned that Thaksin Shinawatra had instructed the station to back his party's candidate, Sudarat Keyuraphan, in the race for Bangkok mayor. "He wanted to dominate all media, not just iTV," said Somkiat. Thaksin had earlier obtained Thailand's first cable TV licence thanks to his connections with Chalerm Yoobamrung, then chief of the Prime Minister's Office. As a senator in 2001, Somkiat discovered that Thaksin was buying the loyalty of some 90 senators with monthly payments of between Bt50,000 and Bt100,000 each. He also changed the law to allow greater foreign ownership in the telecom industry, which subsequently earned him a fortune in a deal with Singapore's Temasek, Somkiat noted. "Thaksin is confident that he can run politics with money, and he continues to do so."

Alongside his efforts to unmask the "Thaksin regime", Somkiat placed equal emphasis on the principle of non-violent protest. He raised concerns about abusive speeches made by others on PDRC stages and stressed that non-aggression applied to words as well as physical action. Hate speech was emerging frequently from both sides of the political divide but was an obstacle to the people's victory. He pointed out that Mahatma Gandhi's campaign of non-violence took 13 years to bear fruit. He even asked protesters to extend an olive branch and foster co-existence with the other side.

His first speech was received with enthusiasm both at the rally site and on the social media. Even "neutrals" praised his polite yet informative analysis. Other speakers, including Suthep himself, seem to have heeded Somkiat's message that only non-violence offers the chance of genuine victory. Since Thursday there has been a noticeable reduction in the level of abusive language coming from PDRC stages.

But whether Somkiat's contribution will be enough to halt Thailand's seemingly relentless slide toward violence is yet to be seen. Did the anti-government protesters merely listen and applaud, without taking his words to heart? Will the pro-government demonstrators who praised his speech really take its suggestions on board? The challenge to do so applies to the whole of Thailand, not one side or the other.

Somkiat has guaranteed his followers that they will eventually prevail if they remain non-violent. The reward that awaits them is a reform process that will build the foundation for genuine democracy. What Thailand needs more than anything right now - on both sides - is more Gandhi-like voices. Then we can all reap the rewards.


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