Imprisoned in their ‘palace’

The Civil Court ruling that bans the caretaker administration from using the state of emergency decree to break up the anti-government protest is a blessing for rally-goers and protest leaders who face arrest warrants for defying the special legal requirements.

But for many core leaders of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) facing other charges that range from insurrection to blocking the Feb 2 election, the court order is not exactly good news.

It means their cat-and-mouse game with law enforcement authorities is still on.

After the caretaker government decided to declare a state of emergency under the decree in Bangkok and neighbouring provinces in late January, the public began to see intense action from security forces.

PDRC secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban has repeatedly told protesters to be extremely careful, especially those who are high on the police wanted list – Anchalee Paireerak, Sathit Wongnongtoey and Chumpol Julsai, in particular.

The security for Mr Suthep is extra-tight when he has to leave the protest site to undertake other campaign activities.

Whenever Mr Suthep spends a night at the protest venue, he is surrounded by at least three layers of security guards. The number of guards is said to be around 100 at any given time.

Mr Suthep himself has been told by phuyai not to let his guard down and if possible stay among the crowd as they can keep him from being arrested or ambushed.

A small lapse in security could wound the protest leaders in the same way as the capture of Sonthiyan Chuenruthainaitham, the first core PDRC member to fall into the hands of the police. He was taken at the Central Plaza shopping mall in Bangkok on Feb 10. However, Mr Sonthiyan was freed on bail after seven days in police custody.

So to reduce the chance of arrest, several of the protest leaders have decided to make the protest sites their home.

Issara Somchai, who was assigned to supervise the Lat Phrao protest site before it was moved and merged with the Lumpini rally venue, is among the protest leaders who have not set foot in their home provinces since the protest intensified.

Mr Issara, from Ubon Ratchathani, is said to be the only protest leader who never spends a night anywhere else except in a makeshift tent at one of the protest venues.

Mr Chumpol, a former MP for Chumphon, has not visited his home province in weeks. He has made the Ratchaprasong rally site his home away from home and become a darling of the crowds. The rally-goers seem to be more drawn to him than celebrities taking the Ratchaprasong stage.

The protest sites are also where families hang out and spend time together.Natthapol Teepsuwan and his wife Taya are often seen with their children around the protest venues. Mr Natthapol cannot seek shelter in a hotel owned by his family while the authorities are out to get him for defying the emergency decree.

Nutsaba Punnakan, wife of former Democrat Party MP Phuttiphong, brings their children to the protest site when they want to see their father.

Like the demonstrators, the protest leaders get their food from the protest site’s kitchens. If they feel a need to exercise, they can do so in a specially-designated area with a security cordon around it.

Who’s popping the popcorn?

Who the unidentified forces are protecting the anti-government protesters of late is anyone’s guess.

Some groups, including the protesters themselves, believe the armed forces are secretly providing protection for the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

The theory holds that these so-called "popcorn warriors" are soldiers safeguarding protesters from "foreign forces" or "men in black" who clashed with soldiers during the 2010 violence and may have come back again to target the protesters.

But if the popcorn warriors are soldiers, the question remains as to whether they are offering protection of their own volition or have been ordered to do so by their superiors.PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban insists the unidentified forces are not PDRC security guards.

Unidentified gunmen first stepped into the frame on Nov 30 last year when they reportedly exchanged gunfire with red-shirt attackers during clashes at Ramkhamhaeng University.

The name "popcorn warriors" began to be bandied about, particularly on social media, after clashes at Laksi intersection on the eve of the Feb 2 election, when unknown gunmen appeared out of nowhere to protect the protesters. The term evolved after a hooded man was photographed firing a gun concealed in a cornseed bag at red-shirt supporters.

The "popcorn warriors" were thought to have returned on Tuesday when riot police launched an operation to disperse protesters at Phan Fa Bridge on Ratchadamnoen Avenue. This time, there may have been several of the unidentified gunmen.

Their presence turned the tide of the battle against the police, who became targets themselves. Subsequently the police were forced to stop their dispersal operation and retreat. Four protesters and a policeman were killed during the clash and 71 people were injured, many seriously.

Four to five unidentified men also released PDRC co-leader Somkiat Pongpaibul from police captivity at the protest dispersal scene as he was being held in a police wagon near Phan Fa Bridge.

Their exploits have drawn praise and admiration from the protesters.

Meanwhile, some members of the red-shirts and the government also believe the unidentified gunmen are soldiers.

While army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has maintained his neutrality during the political conflict, he has bluntly spoken out against hard-core red-shirt supporters such as Ko Tee, or Wutthipong Kotchathammakhun, who accused the military of trying to hunt him down and assassinate him.

It should be noted that Gen Prayuth also sent a company of troops from the Burapha Phayak regiment at the 2nd Infantry Division of the King’s Guard based in Prachin Buri to maintain order at Phan Fa Bridge following the deadly clash.

Also, the army recently told its legal experts to look into the possibility of taking action against Thammasat University history lecturer Somsak Jeamthirasakul for allegedly posting inappropriate messages about the monarchy on Facebook. The academic’s house was recently hit by gunshots.

An exercise in futility

Optimism is fading that the government and the protesters will sit down and thrash out their differences to break the stalemate which has severely disrupted the country for months.

It has been reported, but not verified, that an attempt has been made to launch negotiations.

As many lose hope of resolving the political crisis through dialogue, Niphon Promphan, a former Democrat Party leader, thinks that talks can ease tension and prevent bloodshed. The brother-in-law of the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) chief Suthep Thaugsuban, Mr Niphon describes himself as a pacifist and says peace can win the day if given a chance.

He has been disturbed by the growing fatalities and injuries from clashes between the protesters and police in recent weeks. He is also concerned that there is no sign of the violence abating.

Mr Niphon says people in many sectors of society have thrashed out ways of breaking the political deadlock. One of the solutions is the installation of a non-political, neutral government to replace the present caretaker administration to make national reform a reality before holding a general election. However, the proposal has proved immensely unpopular with government supporters and is fraught with complex legal challenges.

Mr Niphon said he was ready be a messenger or a go-between in any talks if they can be arranged.

He accumulated much experience in brokering peace during the political unrest of 2009-2010 when red shirts amassed in Bangkok in protests against the Democrat-led Abhisit Vejjajiva government.

Mr Niphon represented the government in discussions aimed at reaching a truce. The red shirts’ side was headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

He and Ms Yingluck were close acquaintances throughout the frequent talks they held during the course of the red-shirt rallies.

Earlier, Mr Suthep admitted he had had face-to-face talks with the premier in the presence of the armed forces commanders when the main anti-government protest rally was based at Democracy Monument. However, the session ended in futility as both sides stood firm on their terms that left no room for compromise.

There has since been no meeting between the two sides, although media reports claim talks have been going on behind the scenes attended by senior figures from all sides of the political divide.

A source close to Mr Suthep said Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand chairman Pramon Sutivong and Thammasat University rector Somkid Lertpaithoon visited Mr Suthep for a discussion before the main rally venue moved from Chaeng Watthana Road to Victory Monument.

They had gone there to sound out what the PDRC’s demands were and whether they could provide any conceivable basis for talks with the government.

Opponents have accused the PDRC of slamming shut its door on negotiations which could have averted the human cost in the conflict. The PDRC insists it is not prepared to accept a “middle path” that would keep the government it accuses of massive corruption in power.

Share your thoughts

Discussion 1 : 23/02/2014 at 03:58 PM
So,that's the way. Tie your hands up and let you fight with someone. The protesters are allowed to block the government offices and stop an election from functioning (not only boycotting). They're dragging down the country's economy and stability. So that's called "peaceful protest" ??. Police has no authority to use weapon against them. Not even gas grenade ?? Popcorn man kill the policeman without stopped by the "peaceful" people ? How can they be there if they do not belong to the group ? What happened to their guards ? The "democrat party" is boycotting a democratic election because they cannot win the majority? That's Thailand.
Discussion 2 : 22/02/2014 at 04:39 PM
A wonderful idea that Suthep will never allow. How can we ever move forward without negotiation? No side can expect to get everything 100% their way. It will never happen. There has to be compromise. Your idea is the best I have heard so far.
Discussion 3 : 22/02/2014 at 03:47 PM
A joint PT Democrat transitional government would force both sides to work it out however messy. No one is neutral at this point and it is doubtful that they would agree on any one. Both Yingluk and Abhisit need to step back and let someone do the negotiating.
Discussion 4 : 22/02/2014 at 02:39 PM
Imprisoned by their consistent failure as Thailand's sorry press. "Mr Suthep himself has been told by phuyai not to let his guard down ... [to] keep him from being arrested or ambushed." This bald assertion, stated as fact, is without a shred of support. And who is the phuyai? A competent press that took its job seriously would be talking to people to find out such things, also such as who the big backers are or might be, and would be reporting that. I talked to PDRC guards at Saladaeng a couple of nights ago; they were clearly motivated by beliefs, of dubious veracity, that the Thai press appears utterly ignorant of or chooses to ignore.
Discussion 5 : 22/02/2014 at 02:16 PM
They are not, they are there already. If the reports agree that you read, you can say which authority is "Suthep-friendly and which are" MP-friendly. "Standing on which side dishes and anti-corruption authority is very suspicious.
Discussion 6 : 22/02/2014 at 01:18 PM
This has nothing to do with politics its about grabbing power and keeping it the army needs to get off its ivory tower and protect the kingdom.As thailand and the courts are becoming the laughing stock of the world
Discussion 7 : 22/02/2014 at 01:14 PM
There is no "out-of-control" corruption now, any more than there was between 2006 and 2011. Actually it was probably at its highest during the period of military rule after the coup. Corruption in Thailand is endemic and has been since long before Thaksin came to office. According to TPI, it is considerably better than all its neighbours with the possible, dubious, exception of Malaysia; otherwise it runs at about the mean level for S E Asia as a whole. The key to reducing corruption is to improve per capita GDP and reduce the huge social and regional inequalities of wealth, commonly the mark of developing countries like Thailand.
Discussion 8 : 22/02/2014 at 12:18 PM
The PT wants Suthep arrested on sight and put behind bars. And this from the beginning of the protests, even before they revoked their bill. At the same time, they blame everything on him because he does not want to negotiate with a puppet. How can you negotiate with people who want you behind bars, and how can you negotiate with someone who has no executive power????
Discussion 9 : 22/02/2014 at 12:13 PM
To quote Biblical Scripture, "How long, O Lord, how long?"
Discussion 10 : 22/02/2014 at 11:56 AM
You obviously haven't understood what it is that the PDRC and a great number of protesters both at home and on the streets are seeking. They want an interim non partisan council to root out corruption and then hold free elections.
Discussion 11 : 22/02/2014 at 11:42 AM
"the installation of a non-political, neutral government" chosen by who? The vote of the Thai people is less important than this "who"? I think a dictatorship is a good example to describe such a government. One evidence, in principle the military is non-political and neutral.
Discussion 12 : 22/02/2014 at 11:29 AM
There can be no peace until the red terrorists are arrested. If they would be in jail since 2010 then lots of people would have thought twice about blocking the streets. But why can’t Suthep and Co. do what the reds did before – mostly without the violence.
Discussion 13 : 22/02/2014 at 11:28 AM
an election won't solve the problem kirk though will it! The tensions will be reduced through negotiation, change of existing systems, and compromise by all sides. The problem is alleged corruption and alleged mismanagement by public officials. A lot is at stake here. The fascism claim was something cooked up by a few political science lecturers at Thammasat Uni, their claims of fascism are debatable to say the least
Discussion 14 : 22/02/2014 at 10:51 AM
The army general has made it several times very clear : the army will protect citizens, and not mess with politics ! Therefore, do not expect any support of the army, the police is alone on this one...
Discussion 15 : 22/02/2014 at 10:39 AM
Who are these phu yai giving advice to the anti-democrats? The political deadlock can be easily ended through an election; but Suthep and the self styled "war elephant" monk, who doesn't respect Thai or Buddhist law, believe only their voice should be heard. They spit on Thais every day they demand a supposedly "friendly fascist" council, accountable to no one, govern Thailand.
Discussion 16 : 22/02/2014 at 10:31 AM
At 2000 baht per protestor per day, it's just a job, not a political choice!
Discussion 17 : 22/02/2014 at 10:00 AM
"One of the solutions is the installation of a non-political, neutral government to replace the present caretaker administration to make national reform a reality before holding a general election. " a non-political, neutral government in thailand? haha. and now comes the suthep clan? niphon..........and who else?
Discussion 18 : 22/02/2014 at 09:51 AM
Regular Thais do not like being on the losing side, and will change allegiances in a heartbeat if they are seen by their peers as supporting the loser. With this last election showing less than 30% of the people supporting the PM, and that is with no blocking of voters in the north and northeast, the PT Party is being seen as the losers, with Thaksin as the biggest loser, just by the huge descent from all sides over his amnesty bill. The people are tired of corruption, and finally have someone to follow in combatting it. The movement against the out-of-control corruption will only keep growing. Many factions want this to succeed.
Discussion 19 : 22/02/2014 at 09:24 AM
There can be no peace unless Suthep is arrested.
Discussion 20 : 22/02/2014 at 09:23 AM
The courts are very one sided but didht realize it's now given the green light for the redshirts protests to come out and protests and seize courts , judiciary and sutheps family and home .. OFCOURSE do it - it's free speech
Discussion 21 : 22/02/2014 at 09:02 AM
The army should support the police to end the destructive circus. It's costing daily a Billion of Baht, disrupting the live of BKK habitants, spreading hate among Thai population, damaging Thailand international standing and ruining the economy.

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