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Whistle blowers call for change

For two months the main symbol of protest, this simple device speaks volumes

For the first time in Thailand's history, the whistle has become a symbol of political protest and defiance of politicians in power. The sight of someone wearing around his or her neck a whistle tied to a ribbon of the Thai national flag can bring friendly smiles to the faces of protest sympathisers.

Together, the whistle blowers form the great body of people who have successfully introduced a new chapter in Thai history, a chapter that teaches all politicians about their duties and accountability. Even with a majority of votes, politicians of any party can no longer ignore the minority voice, if what they pursue does not mutually and fairly benefit all citizens.

Victory arrived after a week of heavy whistling, when all coalition parties agreed not to pursue a controversial amnesty bill, convincing the people of the unimaginable power brought about by the whistles.

Thammasat University anthropologist Yukti Mukdawijitra sees the whistle as a contradictory symbol of democracy.

"They want to be heard. They feel they're not being heard [by the Yingluck Shinawatra government], though they have social status and other things in society. So blowing the whistle is like making an exclamation. But using a whistle is problematic in the sense that it leads to a very abridged level of communication.

"If it were a word, then it would be just one word [or phrase] - like, 'Listen only to me!' So the message is that of a voice exclaiming: 'Listen only to me!'"

To Apinant Ueapokai, an anti-government protester, a whistle is a symbol.

"I just put it in my bag," said the 30-year-old manager of the Apple Computer store at Thammasat University's Rangsit campus. He added that a whistle could be personalised, and there were numerous kinds at a range of different prices to choose from.

"Young [protesters] are used to its noise," he added.

Apinant said most protesters were middle-class and upset about corruption. "There's so much corruption, and I am unhappy with what's happening to my tax money."

Image, a leading glossy fashion magazine aimed at middle-class readers, has declared itself fully supportive of the whistle protest. The magazine digs deep into the importance of the whistle as both a tool and a symbol for staging anti-government demonstrations.

An article on page 55 of its December edition stated: "The sound of whistles blowing is like the heavenly sound of a declaration of victory." It added that to Bangkokians, the sound of a whistle was "powerful", for it is often associated with Traffic Police officers and the strict security guards who look after commuters on the platforms of the BTS Skytrain system.

"Protesters say this is the voice of unity. Protesters say it cancels out voices making other demands. Only those who put bee's wax in their ears and those with a blind heart would not be able to detect the sounds of unity," the article stated.

It was the Business Club for Democracy that first turned the whistle - a simple instrument more often associated with parking attendants and security guards - into a symbol of political struggle. But it was Suthep Thaugsuban, the former Democrat MP turne -secretary-general of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and leader of the protest, who made it a popular protest symbol. The club does not take credit for the idea, however, saying instead that it came from Suthep.

"We adopted it after Suthep's announcement about blowing whistles. It's an easy concept to understand. It's like whistling to warn people that something dangerous is approaching," said Somkiat Homla-or, the leader of the club.

The campaign has brought thousands of whistle-wearing protesters to join the daily rally at Democracy Monument, which has continued for almost two months. Several thousand more took part in subsequent mass rallies, including the one on December 9 that forced Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to announce the dissolution of the House of Representatives.

Whistles unite people, most of them ordinary people who had never been involved in any political activity other than casting their ballots on election day. They are united because they are fed up with abuse of power by some corrupt politicians.

Whistle protests have been heard in many parts of the country, even during Yingluck's trips to the North and the Northeast. The now-caretaker prime minister has reportedly been startled by the sound of whistles on occasion.

The whistles have brought the protesters great power, which nevertheless must be wisely deployed to avoid negative repercussions on Thailand's democratic development, which could negatively affect all Thais.

The whistle blowers' achievements - the demise of the amnesty bill and the House dissolution - have convinced some protesters that they can overhaul the political system by whatever means. This raises concerns about the future of Thailand, one of the first countries in Asia to adopt democracy.

Prawase Wasi, a highly respected thinker, praised the protest against the amnesty bill, saying the phenomenon was a great lesson to all, particularly to politicians in power. Though they are equipped with political and financial power, on top of controlling communication infrastructure and armed forces, politicians cannot succumb to abuse of power, or it will lead to mass demonstrations. As politicians have learned this, laymen and university students have realised their power to stop wrongdoing.

However, Prawase warned that overshooting the goals of mass people-power could lead to trouble. He believes civic power should be strengthened to make politics better, not to lead to confrontation and pointless fatalities.

"We are at a turning point, facing either anarchy or an agreement to unite in changing Thailand."

Prawase said only civic power could erase unfairness, which existed in the country's systems and among its people before the emergence of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He noted that a true victory would be a victory for all Thais, in which Thailand is transformed into a more just society, not just through a change of government.

As the international community keeps a close watch on Thailand's political developments, it is for the whistle blowers to decide how they will keep their legacy untainted.


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