24 November 2014

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Four days after U.S. President Barack Obama praised Thailand's democracy, the government clamped parts of Bangkok under an Internal Security Act on Thursday (November 22), allowing the military to handle an upcoming protest by people demanding an immediate coup.

"Based on our intelligence, the rally [on Saturday] will be intense with a huge turnout of protesters," the National Security Council's chief, Paradorn Pattanatabut, told reporters on Thursday.

"Security agencies report that there could be violence which could damage lives and property," Varathep Rattanakorn, a minister to the prime minister's office, also told reporters on Thursday.

Thousands of anti-riot police and other security forces were rushing to Bangkok to control the anti-government demonstration.

The Internal Security Act (ISA) will be in force in parts of Bangkok from Thursday until November 30.

The ISA allows the military, under the prime minister, to be in charge of internal security, overruling the police.

Under the ISA, the government and security forces can block transportation, set up checkpoints, impose a curfew, disband public groups, extend existing media censorship, and search premises.

The Foreign Ministry said on Thursday it would explain to international diplomats about the ISA's ramifications, and try to calm investors and tourists concerned about disruptions caused by the political crisis.

The three areas of Bangkok under the ISA include Parliament, the prime minister's Government House office, and the Royal Plaza Hotel where the protest is to be held.

One of Bangkok's main tourist-packed areas, Khao San Road, is a short walk from the rally site.

The protest will be allowed, but must remain peaceful, authorities said.

People under 18 years old are banned from attending.

The protest's leader, retired Gen. Boonlert Kaewprasit, roused thousands of supporters on October 28 after declaring: "I would love to see a coup, because I know this puppet government is here to rob the country."

Mr. Boonlert is a new, mysterious figure.

Officials are scrambling to discover who supports his coup demand, and determine if he poses a real threat to popularly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Mr. Boonlert is retired and is supported by an unknown number of other retired generals, said a senior military officer in an interview.

Those retired generals command an influential, emotional, indebted form of allegiance among their subordinates who were promoted when the generals were in service, he said.

The senior military officer, who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak freely, said he opposed Mr. Boonlert's activities.

Last month, Mr. Boonlert announced the creation of a movement named Pitak Siam, or Protecting Siam, to oust the government.

The movement was necessary to protect the monarchy, Mr. Boonlert said.

Siam is Thailand's pre-1939 name, used when this Buddhist-majority country was ruled by an absolute monarchy instead of the current, widely revered constitutional monarchy.

Pitak Siam's protest on October 28, in Bangkok's prestigious Royal Turf Club stadium, attracted more than 10,000 people and was peaceful.

That protest's speakers included the National Security Council's former secretary-general Prasong Soonsiri, and the Armed Forces Supreme Command's former chief adviser Gen. Pathompong Kesornsuk.

"The national police chief claims there is a plan to take Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra hostage, and cites this as one reason for imposing the Internal Security Act in three districts of Bangkok," the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper reported on its website on Thursday.

"Police Gen. Adul Saengsingkaew said...security agencies reported receiving information there could be attempts to raid government premises and a plan to take Prime Minister Yingluck hostage," it said.

The brief report, which contained no evidence or details, was mocked and criticized as absurd among readers' comments on the website.

A military coup against Prime Minister Yingluck appeared unlikely.

But if riots erupt, then demands for the military to step in by staging a coup might be voiced by others in a bid to restore law and order.

Mrs. Yingluck appears to have strengthened her position partly by allowing the military to enjoy greater autonomy to arrange their promotions, lucrative procurement contracts, and other affairs without strict civilian oversight, another senior military officer said in an interview.

In turn, the military appeared to allow Mrs. Yingluck to remain in power without being threatened by a coup, even though the two sides remain distrustful of each other's motives and goals, said the military officer who also asked to remain anonymous.

When the military staged a bloodless coup in 2006 and toppled Mrs. Yingluck's brother, then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Washington expressed dismay at the assault on democracy.

Today, Prime Minister Yingluck is basking in the support expressed by President Obama who met her on Sunday (November 18) in Bangkok during his three-nation trip to Southeast Asia which also included stops in Myanmar and Cambodia.

Mr. Obama told a televised news conference: "What you are seeing here in Thailand is a democratically-elected prime minister, who is committed to democracy, committed to rule of law, committed to freedom of speech and the press and assembly."

Three days earlier, Thailand's U.S.-trained military hosted U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Bangkok.

Mr. Panetta and his Thai counterpart, Defense Minister Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat, signed a "2012 Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-U.S. Defense Alliance" on November 15, updating a 1962 U.S.-Thailand statement describing their security goals.

The new statement supports weapons sales and U.S. financing for Thailand's military, and Bangkok's 2004 designation as "a major non-NATO ally of the United States".

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Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

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(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)