Prison terms for PDRC protest leaders send shockwaves through Thai politics
The Criminal Court’s recent decision to send leaders of the now-defunct People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) to jail over their street rallies against Yingluck Shinawatra’s government has deep political implications and may even alter the course of current and future Thai protests.
Battle over Cabinet seats
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha insisted that last month’s censure debate would not trigger a Cabinet shake-up, but the court ruling has now made a reshuffle inevitable.
Three ministers lost their posts due to the jail sentences: Digital Economy and Society (DES) Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta and Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan – both from the coalition-leading Palang Pracharath Party – and Deputy Transport Minister Thaworn Senneam from the Democrat Party.
As a result, Palang Pracharath leader Prawit Wongsuwan is facing pressure from his party’s rival factions and coalition partners who are lobbying for the vacant Cabinet posts.
The rival factions did unite on one issue, though, when 90 Palang Pracharath MPs signed a petition backing party members for the posts, in a bid to stop Prayut from appointing outsiders.
Meanwhile, Bhumjaithai — the second-largest coalition party — is likely to demand a larger share of Cabinet posts, after it gained 10 more MPs from the dissolved Future Forward Party.
But Tittipol Phakdeewanich, political science dean at Ubon Ratchathani University, reckoned the coalition was not in danger of falling apart in the struggle for Cabinet seats. “Everybody wants to protect common interests and to stay in power. So they will eventually agree on something that benefits them all,” he said.
A Feb 24 Criminal Court verdict has placed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in a situation he was dreading – the need for a Cabinet reshuffle he reportedly tried to delay as long as possible to avoid shock waves in his fragile coalition.
Ongoing anti-establishment protests
Titipol thinks the court ruling will also help ease tension between the Prayut government and the anti-establishment movement.
The prison sentences for two ministers targeted by the youth-led protesters – Nataphol and Buddhipongse – pave the way for Prawit to replace them without risking an internal power struggle by removing them himself, Titipol said.
However, much will depend on who is chosen to replace Nataphol, he added. If the role is handed to Deputy Labour Minister Narumon Pinyosinwat, who has set her sights on the education portfolio, she may help reduce pressure from the protesters.
Making Suthep, PDRC martyrs?
Suthep Thaugsuban and the PDRC were known to enjoy close ties with the junta, which seized power in May 2014 amid turmoil stemming from the 2013-2014 protests.
However, some observers believe the verdict will satisfy the “three Ps” – PM Gen Prayut, Interior Minister Gen Anupong “Pok” Paochinda and their “big brother” Prawit – since it will weaken the influence of former PDRC leaders and keep them out of politics while they serve their prison sentences.
But Titipol said the jail penalties could also be used to promote the PDRC ex-leaders as heroes and enable them to strengthen their power base. “Being sentenced to jail [in the court of first instance] has more advantages than disadvantages. [They can now claim] they are better than Thaksin [Shinawatra, who fled his jail sentence],” he added.
However, Titipol said it remained to be seen how the Supreme Court would rule on the PDRC leaders’ appeals.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has defended the police’s use of force to quell an increasingly violent protest by anti-establishment movement, in front of the First Infantry Battalion of the First Infantry Regiment of the Royal Guards, in Bangkok’s Bangkhen district, on Sunday night.
‘Prison won’t stop protesters’
Two decades of deepening political polarisation in Thailand has brought conflict and street protests on both sides. The consequences for protest leaders have been severe.
Prior to the PDRC jail sentences, prison terms were also handed to leaders of yellow-shirt protests that ousted Thaksin and red-shirt protests against the Abhisit Vejjajiva government, though of differing lengths.
Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from the Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, doubts the ongoing youth-led anti-establishment protesters will be deterred by similar penalties.
Four leaders of the pro-democracy Ratsadon protest movement were detained on Feb 9 after being charged with royal defamation and sedition and denied bail four times.
“But I don’t think prison sentences will stop the student protests or prevent future rallies,” he said.
People’s movements against the powers-that-be will continue as long as the people’s representatives fail to function or respond to their demands, Yuthaporn added.
However, the jail penalties for protesters reflected one thing, he said. “Attempts to solve political problems via street protests may not be a sustainable solution. And they [protesters] need to accept the consequences of their civil disobedience.”
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk