This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
180842Z Nov 05
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 BANGKOK 007197
DEPT FOR EAP, EAP/MLS PACOM FOR FPA HUSO
E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/17/2015 TAGS: PGOV PHUM TH TRT SUBJECT: THE KING AND HIM; THE OPPOSITION PLAYS THEIR KING AGAINST THE PRIME MINISTER
REF: A. BANGKOK 7100 AND PREVIOUS
B. BANGKOK 6958
C. BANGKOK 6119
Classified By: POLITICAL COUNSELOR SUSAN M. SUTTON reason 1.4 (b) (d)
1. (C) SUMMARY AND INTRODUCTION. Evidence suggests that Prime Minister Thaksin is alienating an ever-growing segment of the political class. The antipathy that started with NGOs and journalists is spreading; by some accounts, it includes many in the military leadership and reaches even to the palace. At the same time, Thaksin's populist policies are winning him acceptable numbers in the public opinion polls. His nationalist rhetoric on the South makes him look strong, (even if the government's policies are ineffective.) In any case, his lock on the National Assembly -- 375 out of 500 seats -- hamstrings the organized political opposition, which cannot stop the PM's legislative program. Thai Rak Thai's (TRT) strong position in the allegedly non-partisan Senate means that the Senate-appointed agencies that should act as a break on the PM's power are suborned before they are even established. What's a Thaksin opponent to do?
2. (C) The anti-Thaksin forces are reduced to hoping for help from two extremes -- the street, and the palace. There is some irony here: the democratic opposition and civil society are pinning their short term hope on rather undemocratic solutions. This fight so far is waged mostly in arcane (to foreign observers, at least) skirmishes over the views of elderly monks or obscure constitutional procedures. The opposition appears to be looking for a way to provoke Thaksin into taking one step too far in encroaching on the prerogatives of the much-loved monarch, and provoking public outrage in response. (Septel reports on yesterday's gag order against one of these provocateurs.) A few others even raise the (highly unlikely) possibility that Thaksin opponents might arrange "an accident" to remove the PM. We believe that Thaksin is still in a strong position, but he is impulsive; a major misstep -- or a series of them -- would embolden Thaksin's critics and increase his vulnerability. END SUMMARY AND INTRODUCTION.
3. (C) Thaksin's latest "proxy confrontation" with the palace involves an ancient monk from northeast Thailand, and a businessman-cum-journalist (both of whom used to be Thaksin supporters). The monk, Luangta Maha Bua, delivered a sermon in September that compared Thaksin to a "powerful giant with savage power to swallow the country" that "puts its feet on the people's heads, eating their lungs and livers." Most seriously, he accused Thaksin and his cabinet of trying to "swallow the country, religion and King" and "lead the country to a presidential system." The businessman/journalist, Sondhi Limthongkul, owner/publisher of several Thai newspapers, printed the text of the sermon in the news daily "Manager" on September 28. On October 11, Thaksin filed civil and criminal libel complaints against Sondhi, seeking 500 million baht in compensation. (Septel reports on a subsequent 11/17 civil court "gag order" against Sondhi.) Thaksin did not, however, sue the venerable monk, saying that Luangta Maha Bua had helped him in the past.
4. (C) This was the second lawsuit filed against Sondhi by the prime minister in October. On October 3, the PM filed a suit against Sondhi following the broadcast of his popular (and subsequently canceled) television program, "Thailand Weekly." On that broadcast, Sondhi repeated his previous criticism that the government had undermined the King's prerogatives and the Sangha (the Buddhist leadership) by controversially appointing an "acting Supreme Patriarch" in January 2004 (allegedly to "assist" the ailing Supreme Patriarch appointed by the Sangha and the King). Sondhi accused Thaksin of choosing a monk who is close to his wife's family to take this position. Sondhi then read a pointed allegory, comparing a "good father" who raises his 60 million children virtuously to an "eldest son" who lets the other children be "spoiled and enslaved by wealth, headphones and gambling." That suit also sought 500 million baht in compensation. (Channel 9 canceled the show. Sondhi sued Channel 9.)
5. (C) Sondhi continues to hammer on the theme of Thaksin's purported challenge to the King. Although "Thailand Weekly" is off the air, Sondhi continues to stage the "show" each week before eager crowds at public venues. Last week, thousands of people turned out in Bangkok's main park to hear Sondhi, who wore a T-shirt with the motto, "I will fight for the King." (Most of the government-controlled (or co-opted) media have not given much play at all to these rallies; Sondhi's own "Thai Day" English-language newspaper reported a crowd of at least 10,000, but this may be inflated.) Sondhi in the meantime continues to rack up legal problems and other headaches. A high-ranking police official filed a lese-majeste complaint against Sondhi on November 8, after Sondhi's show the previous week, in which he compared the PM's desire for a personal aircraft unfavorably to the King's modest personal requirements. A group of lawyers called "Lawyers Fighting for Country and King" has leapt to Sondhi's defense in this instance, and it is not clear that this suit actually has the backing of the PM. Also not clear is the reason for the small explosion that occurred one night recently in front of Sondhi's office. On November 16, the commander of an important military unit (and a classmate of Thaksin's from the Armed Forces Academy) turned up the heat still further, sending Sondhi a protest letter. Maj. Gen. Prin Suwwanadhat told the press that he and "nearly 14,000 royal guards under his command are not happy with Mr. Sondhi's remarks about the King." On November 17, the PM got an injunction from the civil court, requiring Sondhi to stop all criticism of Thaksin (septel).
6. (C) In a recent conversation with Sondhi, he was upbeat about the situation. He boasted that he'd been sued many times, and never lost a case. He said that Thaksin was "unbalanced" in his reaction to criticism, and that, with this latest suit, he had gone too far. In the previous lawsuits against the press, some other entity (Shin Corporation, or a government ministry or agency) brought the suit. In this case, Thaksin brought the suit himself, claiming that Sondhi had defamed him. Therefore, according to Sondhi, when the case comes to court (perhaps early next year), Thaksin himself will have to testify, and explain how he was defamed. Sondhi believes that he will then have a chance to ask Thaksin directly the kinds of questions he has raised in his shows and publications, and Thaksin will have to answer under oath. Sondhi speculates that Thaksin did not think this through before he lashed out with the lawsuits.
7. (C) The accusations against Thaksin also keep coming. The anti-Thaksin papers have resurfaced an accusation against Thaksin from earlier this year. In April, the PM presided over a ceremony in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, one of the most sacred sites in the kingdom. The press claimed first that no commoner had the right to preside over such a ceremony. When the government produced a signed authorization from the palace, Thaksin's opponents raised further objections about the authenticity of the documents and whether they allowed Thaksin to preside over, or just participate in, the ceremony. This week, a retired general sued Thaksin for lese-majeste over the incident.
8. (C) What is the point of all of this? Sondhi, a flamboyant but appealing political gadfly, clearly relishes his one-man crusade against the PM. He does not appear to be working actively in concert with any of the opposition parties or civil society groups. But he is carrying yet further the tactic already used in the long controversy over the Auditor-General (AG) (ref A.) In the AG case, anti-Thaksin forces did not highlight the most obvious accusation -- that the government's allies in the Senate were trying to replace an active and effective official fighting corruption. Rather, they focused on the claim that the replacement of the AG challenged the King's authority, since the King had appointed her. During the first phase of the controversy, opposition politicians allowed themselves to hope the issue would bring the students and others onto the streets in a real challenge to the government. This was, of course, misguided thinking and stirred up little public enthusiasm for protest. But some Thaksin opponents continue to think that hammering on these issues will soon provoke a outburst from the public that could, ultimately, unseat the PM.
9. (C) Sondhi told us he predicts Thaksin will run into serious trouble, and that there would be violence, before the end of the year. An associate of the Auditor General made a similar prediction. One journalist told us he was surprised that Thaksin dared to leave the country for so long in September (for the UNGA and White House meeting). Several contacts have even hinted darkly that Thaksin "might have an accident." On top of this, some claim that Thaksin has so alienated the military - by favoring the police over the army, and by his bungling of the problems in the south -- that the military would not support him if there were a crisis.
10. (C) So, what does the palace really think? It's not easy to tell what the King actually wants. It is widely presumed among the political class that the King and his closest councillors loathe Thaksin. However, the King conveys his views in signs so subtle that much of the ordinary Thai public probably misses them, even if they do make it into a news report. For example, the King reportedly takes care to be photographed calling on the "real" Supreme Patriarch. The King's daughter, Princess Chulabhorn, visited the crotchety monk in October in a ceremony broadcast on TV, and raised money for his temple. The King's refusal to respond to the nomination of a replacement for the Auditor General was taken as a slap in the face to TRT and the PM, presumed to be behind the move. The palace delayed the approval of the military promotions list proposed in October; because Thaksin had reportedly meddled with the list, this delay was likewise seen as a subtle rebuke to the PM. The King's annual birthday speech in December seems to contain barely-veiled digs at Thaksin each year. This may not seem like much to an outsider, and care must be taken to not read too much into royal gestures (or lack of them). But the King's every action is carefully scrutinized -- at least by the political class -- and his moral authority is unequaled among the Thai.
11. (C) Thaksin's opponents can't unseat him (at least, in the short term) through the ballot box, so they feel they have to try something. There isn't much hope of seriously splintering TRT, which seems to be largely sticking by the PM that brought them to power. It is difficult to evaluate the hints that Thaksin "might have an accident." Violence is a feature of political life here even today, and Thaksin has plenty of enemies. Still this strikes us as extreme and unlikely. The opposition parties and NGOs remember 1992, when the power of street demonstrations, coupled with the resulting loss of royal support, helped oust a despised PM; those who are virulently anti-Thaksin hope such tactics might work again. They are overestimating, in our view, the resonance of their issues with a public more preoccupied with economic livelihood. Even for the Thai who are aware of tensions between the King and PM, TRT's populist programs seem to outweigh other considerations. And so far, people don't really have to choose between the King and the PM; they are happy to take the government's 30 baht health scheme, its village development fund, its million cow program and all the rest, and then show their veneration to the King at the same time. It is hard to see how Sondhi and the political opposition can inflict serious political damage on Thaksin with these current tactics. However, they are clearly set to keep provoking the PM with accusation after accusation, knowing that Thaksin, with his tendency to speak and act before he thinks, is frequently his own worst enemy. BOYCE