The failure of the biggest ever protest against Yingluck Shinawatra’s government is likely to have made her administration stronger and boosted confidence in her leadership – until the more controversial issues of the reconciliation bill and constitutional amendment emerge next year.
Anti-government protest leader Boonlert Kaewprasit, a retired four-star general, said no other person would succeed him as leader of the Pitak Siam (Protect Siam) group. “The rally failed and I don’t think anybody will take over the leadership. They might be afraid of [failure],” he told reporters yesterday.
It is not easy for a movement to be reborn after such a failure and the leadership has lost credibility in the eyes of protesters who fully expected something big would happen on the day. Many protesters expressed their disappointment and anger over the decision to stop the rally, which lasted less than 10 hours on Saturday. Many complained they had wasted their time travelling from provinces throughout the country.
Analysts said there were many factors contributing to why the rally failed. The rally leaders were not able to propose a clear political objective for their protest. They said they rejected the elected government and politicians but could not offer an answer to the public over the ideal political regime they would want to see in their place. They had no idea who would replace the politicians now running the country.
Perhaps the anti-government sentiment was not sufficiently developed. The Pitak Siam group accused the government of corruption but failed to provide sufficient evidence to prove it. They alleged that Yingluck’s government was whitewashing former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but the government indeed had done little in that direction that they could show. The reconciliation bill is still far from a reality. A video clip of Pheu Thai MPs’ alleged lese majeste is nothing new.
The Pitak Siam group and Boonlert, former chief of the Army’s advisory board, lacked experience in leading a protest, let alone an angry mob. There were no good strategies or tactics about organising the rally, either. No responsible security guards were there to handle the chaotic situation when the protesters clashed with anti-riot police. It was widely believed that many who had promised to do security work for the rally did not show up on the day.
The number of protesters was also a key factor in the failure. The group aimed to mobilise a large crowd to join the rally on Saturday, especially after its previous rally last month had gathered up to 20,000 people. But the number in attendance on Saturday was still only 18,000-20,000 persons, according to police. Boonlert said earlier he would end the rally if less than 1 million people agreed to join. Such a numbers game was certain to backfire as Boonlert needed to keep his word.
Some analysts said the role of the military was a decisive factor. Pitak Siam had obviously called for military intervention in toppling the government, but Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha had said from the beginning that no soldier in service would join the rally, and there was no thought he would stage a coup to topple the government. The military was in stand-by mode to help police to control the situation, Prayuth said.
However it would be fair to say Boonlert made the right decision in calling off the protest to save lives after the first clashes between police and protesters.
Boonlert blamed the government for not keeping its promise to allow a peaceful protest. “We gathered peacefully and openly without weapons. We had no plan to storm any public premises – neither Government House nor the Parliament. Police should not have hurt the people,” he said.
On the government side, credit should go to Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobumrung, who mapped out a strategy and handled the situation. Prime Minister Yingluck was kept away from the operation in order to have her divorced from responsibility or for any possible legal consequences.
It was a correct decision to authorise police to handle the operation, rather than the military, an observer said. Military action might have worsened the situation, he said.
However there were some errors in the police operation as officials on the ground decided to launch tear gas too quickly. Two photographers were nabbed for filming the incidents. Police took 138 protesters into custody for violating the Internal Security Act. Boonlert said he would file a lawsuit against the government for misconduct.
Suriyasai Katasila, leader of the Green Politic Group, blamed the government for handling events harshly. “From now on, peaceful protesting cannot happen easily as the government has designed violence to handle any rally,” he said.
The next challenge for the government will be when the House deliberates the reconciliation bill and the constitutional amendments, which are on the House’s agenda when Parliament opens its next session on December 21.
Not only will anti-government rallies gather to oppose the bills to pave the way for Thaksin to return to the country and grant him amnesty, but the pro-government red shirts will also put pressure on the government to pass the two bills.
That could be a tough task for the Yingluck government.