Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thai Protesters Storm Major Hospital In Bangkok

Major Bangkok Hospital Evacuates Patients After Break-in By Thai Anti-government Protesters

BANGKOK (AP) - A major hospital in the Thai capital evacuated patients and suspended all but emergency surgery Friday after anti-government protesters who occupy a nearby zone stormed in to hunt for security forces they suspected were positioned there.

A group of so-called Red Shirts broke into Chulalongkorn Hospital late Thursday despite pleas from its director, then withdrew back into their enclave after not finding soldiers or police within the sprawling compound.

The Red Shirts, who began their protests March 12 in their campaign to force immediate elections, have defied authorities at every turn, entering the Parliament building, laying siege to a telecommunications complex, blocking roads and staging mass motorized rallies in the Thai capital. At least 27 people have died and nearly 1,000 have been injured in outbreaks of street violence.

Security forces have in almost every instance been unable or unwilling to stop the Red Shirt forays, including the incursion into the century-old public hospital, which feared a second break-in Friday.

However, Weng Tojirakarn, a Red Shirt leader and medical doctor, issued a "deep apology" for the raid staged by up to 100 protesters. He called it "inappropriate, too much, and unreasonable."

In the face of such incidents, Thai pro-establishment activists have demanded military action against the protesters and an end to "anarchy" in the capital.

The re-emergence of the so-called Yellow Shirts - notorious for shutting Bangkok's airports for a week in 2008 - added to the volatility on the streets of Bangkok.

Chamlong Srimuang, a top Yellow Shirt leader, suggested that martial law be imposed, handing over most state functions to the military, and warned that civil war might ensue if the rival "Red Shirt" protesters are not stopped.

The Yellow Shirts represent Thailand's business and bureaucratic elite, whose pervasive influence is deeply resented by the Red Shirts, who largely are drawn from the country's many rural and urban poor.

The unrest is the result of a political standoff over a 2006 military coup that ousted populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on corruption allegations. He is a hero to the Red Shirts and is loathed by the Yellow camp. The Red Shirts are demanding current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament, triggering new elections, because they consider his government illegitimate.

The crisis has hurt business in the capital and devastated Thailand's vital tourist industry, which accounts for 6 percent of the economy.

Parts of Bangkok's commercial heart have become a barricaded Red Shirt protest camp, forcing the closure of some of the city's ritziest malls and hotels. The "occupied zone" flanks Chulalonkgorn Hospital and abuts Silom Road, the capital's "Wall Street" which has become a camp ground for military and police units.

A hospital announcement said patients were being sent to other hospitals or to buildings farther away from the Red Shirts. Almost all outpatient services were being suspended along with surgery, except in emergency cases.

Government forces clashed with Red Shirts on Wednesday as they attempted to hold a rally in a Bangkok suburb. Heavily armed troops fired rifles and threw tear gas at the motorbike-riding protesters and took cover behind terrified commuters' cars. One soldier was killed - apparently by friendly fire - and 18 other people were wounded during the hourslong confrontation.

The crisis spilled into the diplomatic arena Thursday, with Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya censuring some foreign diplomats for meeting last week with Red Shirt leaders.

"We do not want to see that happening again," Kasit told reporters during a visit to Jakarta, Indonesia. Kasit said he had earlier met with Philippine Ambassador Antonio V. Rodriguez, dean of the Bangkok diplomatic corps, to express his concern.

In a note to other diplomats based in Thailand, Rodriguez said Kasit accused some ambassadors of voicing opposition to the constitutional monarchy and criticizing the government's handling of the crisis. Kasit was a public supporter of the Yellow Shirt movement before becoming foreign minister.

"These actions have gone beyond the limits of diplomatic practice and were unacceptable to the Thai government," Rodriguez summarized Kasit as saying. "The envoys' opposition to the government and to the monarchy was inappropriate and will not be tolerated."

Thailand's king is nearly universally revered, and laws severely restrict discussion of him.

The United States and European Union both said they have met with opposition figures and called for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Though they have been critical of the Red Shirts' tactics, the Yellow Shirts opened the door to mass street protests with months of anti-Thaksin rallies that ended in the coup that ousted him. When pro-Thaksin politicians later came to power, the Yellow Shirts took to the streets again in 2008 - taking over the prime minister's office for three months and occupying Bangkok's airports for a week. They retreated after Abhisit's arrival in late 2008, but many fear their return could lead to head-on clashes with their rivals.

Scores of Thai hotels reel from plunge in guests


Published on April 30, 2010

About 300 hotels who are members of the Thai Hotels Association (THA) have shut their doors or cut down the number of available rooms and services to cope with the steep decline in guests.

The number of affected hotels account for 30 per cent of THA's 1,000 members. The number represented hotels that have reduced their services by 30 per cent or more. THA is estimating the total damage before seeking government help, said Supawan Tanomkieatipume, chairman of marketing.

Since April 27, Novotel at Siam Square has closed its operations, without announcing a timeline for resumption of service. Since yesterday, Twin Towers Hotel has offered for occupancy only 240 rooms of 640. It plans to resume full service on May 3. Banyan Tree and other big and small hotels located in outer Rajprasong area such as Sathorn, Phya Thai as well as Sukhumvit are reportedly shutting down partial operation.

Earlier, hotels in the Rajprasong area like Grand Hyatt Erawan, InterContinental Bangkok, Holiday Inn Bangkok, Four Seasons and Renaissance closed operations while Dusit Thani closed three restaurants. On April 28, Thailand Convention and Exhibition issued an advisory to business travellers, telling everyone to avoid Rajprasong and Sala Daeng.

Supawan said that at least 300 temporary staff working in hotels in the Rajprasong area are already out of job.

"If the political situation spreads to other parts in the next three months, we would see more people walk out of business," she said.

The average occupancy rate at hotels in Bangkok is 35 per cent, lower than the 65 per cent at the same time last year.

As analysts prepare to revise downward the earnings forecast of Minor International, which owns Four Seasons Bangkok in the Rajprasong area, the company's CEO, William Heinecke, insisted that Minor was mostly unaffected by the antigovernment protests.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television, he said "Ninetyfive per cent of Bangkok remains unaffected" and Minor's operations in the rest of the capital have offset losses from businesses closest to the protest site. He insisted that the company's earnings will meet or exceed analysts' expectations in the first quarter. The company owns 30 hotels in 14 countries.

THA said that hotels in other areas like in Sukhumvit, Rama IX and near Suvarnabhumi Airport are enjoying higher occupancy rate, as many guests were transferred from affected hotels.

"More than 40 countries have issued warnings to their citizens about visiting Thailand. And travel agents overseas are currently not offering Thailand on their menu," she added.

Supawan said some incentive groups have also cancelled trips to Phuket, while tourism and hotel businesses in Pattaya, Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai are also facing a tough situation as in Bangkok.

The number of visitors at Thai Theater Alangkarn has dropped from 8001,000 per day to 200300 per day. The operator is considering reducing the showtime from six times a week to four.

The Professional Tourist Guide Association will today call a meeting on how to assist unemployed tour guides, as thousands of them are expected to be unemployed.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Thailand's international arrivals plunge drastically in wake of red-shirt turmoil

International arrivals plunge drastically in wake of red-shirt turmoil

Published on April 28, 2010

Foreign tourist arrivals at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, the Kingdom's main international gateway, have plunged dramatically, due to the protracted anti-government protests.

The average number of arrivals is now about 20,000 a day, down from 30,000 prior to the start of protests at the Pan Fah Bridge on March 14, Tourism and Sports Minister Chumpol Silapa-archa said yesterday.

The situation has worsened since Silom Road, in the heart of the city's central business district, was also sealed off in addition to protesters' occupying the Rajprasong area, a major tourism and shopping district.

The Tourism and Sports Ministry is seeking Bt1.6 billion to stimulate tourism in both domestic and international markets, with plans for joint promotional packages in cooperation with foreign airlines and travel agencies.

As well, visas will be issued free of charge to prospective foreign visitors, including 5,800 Chinese tourists who will arrive from May 6-10, while tax incentives will be given to Thai firms holding seminars and meetings at domestic tourist destinations.

In cooperation with foreign travel agencies, the ministry may also provide extra insurance to foreign travellers in Thailand.

Tourism Council of Thailand chairman Kongkrit Hiranyakit said the political conflict would likely reduce tourist arrivals 10 per cent year on year.

"If the Cabinet approves the Bt1.6-billion budget, we should be able to engineer a recovery in the fourth quarter, which is the high season," he said.

In addition to this budget, the government has been asked to provide another Bt5-billion soft-loan facility to help businesses in areas directly hit by the protest.

The council also proposed the government pay compensation to workers in the Rajprasong area, covering 75 per cent of their wages from March 14 to the end of next month.

The council expects the number of tourists to drop 10 per cent to 12.7 million this year, from 14.1 million last year.

In conjunction with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), the council will issue a statement clarifying the political situation for those foreign markets now warning their citizens about travelling to Thailand.

TAT governor Suraphon Svetasreni said his agency would join hands with foreign business partners, especially international airlines, to sell Thailand more aggressively, in order to counter the downturn in tourism.

Meanwhile, major German tour company TUI yesterday announced it would suspend all tour packages to Bangkok and northern Thailand until next Monday while offering alternative destinations to its customers.

In a statement, it said all present visitors would be sent to Phuket, in the South.

British Woman Arrested in Thailand Over Passport Forgery

A 21-year-old British national has been arrested attempting to leave the Kingdom of Thailand, after Immigration police had become aware that she was travelling on a forged or suspected fake passport.

Bangkok, the 27th of April 2010 [PDN]: At approximately 11:00am on Tuesday, police Major General Witsanu Prasartthong O-Sot (Deputy Commission of theImmigration Police) along with the Superintendent of the Crime Suppression Division, successfully apprehend British national Miss. Katherine Anne Neville-Gliddon [21]. Miss. Neville-Gliddon was suspected of travelling into the Kingdom on a fraudulent passport.

The joint taskforce pounced on Miss Neville-Gliddon whilst she was waiting at the international departure terminal in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. A check of the suspect’s passport revealed several irregularities with the document, leading police to immediately arrest and detain her from leaving the country. Miss Neville-Gliddon was due to board a flight to Dubai on Emirates Airline flight EK 373.

According to police, Miss Neville-Gliddon had faked several Royal Thai Immigration stamps in her passport and had used or is part of an illegal document fraud organisation. Several entry and departure stamps were found to be fakes, with both errors in the name of the airport printed on the stamp and the size of the insignia. Miss Neville-Gliddon’s passport spelt the Bangkok Airport as SUVARNABHUM as opposed to SUVARNABHUMI, missing the I at the end. Along with the incorrect size of the stamp, police were able to arrest and detain Miss Neville-Gliddon for further questioning.

Miss Neville-Gliddon has since admitted to using the fraudulent document; however information regarding the forgery, such as its origin, has not been divulged to the media at present. In addition to Miss Neville-Gliddon’s case Thai immigration officers also rejected 20 Indian nationals from entering the Kingdom on Tuesday, after they could not provide suitable evidence of financial means to support their stay in the country or subsequently any proof of a pre-arranged location to reside at whilst visiting Thailand.

Note: Passport forgery and counterfeiting is nothing new to Thailand or the surrounding regions, with thousands of confiscations occurring each year. Black market passports are most commonly used by international criminals, fugitives or terrorists, however; some people have been apprehended in possession of fraudulent documents for relatively minor infringements such as Visa overstays. During 2008 and 2009 Thai Immigration officers seized over 30,000 fraudulent passports, 20,000 of which were confiscated from an organised counterfeiting ring consisting of Thai, Indonesian and Burmese nationals.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Thailand's beaches

Best beaches to visit in Thailand as recommended by
www. MyThailandHome. com
Ko Samui – Ko Samui is very well known and the two best known beaches there are Chaweng and Lamae But there is a more secluded beach known as Silver Beach, better known by its official name, Tong Takien. It’s suitable for families and well worth a visit if you’re on Ko Samui Island, which is located in the Gulf of Thailand.
Phuket – Phuket is highly developed, and if you’re on a beach the chances are that you will be surrounded by scores of other holidaymakers and plenty of touts selling you anything from squid, friend chicken, shrimp, watches, clothes, and much more. Most of these items are going to be a lot cheaper if you take the time to go to a proper market, particularly in Bangkok, but if something catches your eye there and then, they’ll be pleased to oblige. Surin beach is one to watch out for in particular, where you can enjoy a nice swim in the sea.
Ko Phi Phi - Ko Phi Phi is comprised of two islands, and not far from Krabi on the Andaman Sea. It’s about a two-hour ferry ride from Krabi. The beach to look out for is Tonsai Bay, which is extremely stunning.
Ko Samet – Ko Samet is about an hour past Pattaya on the Gulf of Thailand, and it has a famous beach known as Diamond beach, with a second name of Crystal Sand Beach. It’s a really beautiful beach not far from Bangkok, and popular with city dwellers on the weekends who need to escape the bustling metropolis to enjoy sand and sea.
Krabi – Krabi has its own excellent beach, called Ao Nang. You need to get to the southern part of it to enjoy the best scenery there. Krabi has all the restaurants and services you would ever need, and faces the Andaman Sea. Venture further south and you will find Noppharat Thara, which is a national park with its own spectacular beach scenery. This is an ideal family beach, and you can walk to three islands just offshore when the tide is low.
Ko Tao – This is the island to get away from it all, and also a diver’s paradise. The beach to visit here is Sairee beach, where you can feel like you really are in another world.
Prachuap Khiri Khan – Near the border of Myanamar is one of the best and least tourist visited beaches in Thailand called Ao Manao, or Lemon Beach. Great for family holidays this beach is well worth a special visit, and one of Thailand’s jewels.
Ko Chang – Elephant island as it is called is the second biggest island in Thailand and located near the border of Cambodia. There are a great selection of beaches on its west coast. The White Sand beach is one of the most popular on the island.
Pattaya – the beach in Pattaya is not one of Thailand’s finest by any stretch of the imagination, but you can take a short ferry ride to one of the nearby islands and enjoy much better beaches for swimming and splashing about. Pattaya is well known for other things that may or may not appeal: be fully aware of what to expect before setting out.
Hua Hin - Hua Hin is a developed resort with some fine hotels and a long stretch of beach. The more commercial beach isn’t that great, but it is still highly popular among visitors and suitable for families. There are some other nearby prettier beaches to be discovered, and Hua Hin is a great place to relax in one of its fine resort hotels. People come to Hua Hin because it’s a great town and it’s well maintained, as it’s the main residence of the King of Thailand.

Rebellious Mood Takes Root in Rural Thailand

Red-shirted protesters in Bangkok on Friday. Farmers who say they were never interested in politics are donating large sums to the red-shirt movement. (Agnes Dherbeys for The New York Times)
The widow of Praison Tiplom, a protester killed in Bangkok, held a picture of her husband during his funeral last Saturday. (Thomas Fuller/The International Herald Tribune)
The red shirts have a core of support in Khon Kaen. (The New York Times)

April 23, 2010

The New York Times

KHON KAEN, Thailand — Six weeks of demonstrations by red-shirted protesters turned violent this week in Bangkok, but the capital is not the only place with a whiff of insurrection in the air.

On this poor and rugged plateau in Thailand’s hinterland, farmers who say they were never interested in politics are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the red shirt movement. In at least three northeastern cities, red shirts are holding nightly rallies, sometimes drawing thousands of people.

This week, Red Station Radio, an antigovernment FM station based here in Khon Kaen, about 280 miles north of Bangkok, broadcast a warning that a train was heading to Bangkok carrying military vehicles. In no time, hundreds of red shirt supporters, who have followed the protests daily with the broadcasts, mobilized to block it.

Indeed, this rural region — home to a third of Thailand’s population — forms much of the core of the red shirt movement, demonstrating the magnitude of the challenge facing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whom the protesters are pressuring to step down and call new elections.

On Friday, protest leaders in Bangkok offered to negotiate an end to the standoff if Mr. Abhisit would dissolve Parliament within one month, instead of immediately. The gesture eased tensions slightly a day after one person was killed and scores were wounded when grenades exploded near red shirt barricades in the capital.

But the anger here in the countryside will not be easily dissipated after simmering for more than three years since the military coup that overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire tycoon turned prime minister, who is seen as the first politician to have seriously addressed the concerns of the poor.

Mr. Thaksin’s wealth and patronage network remain important drivers of the protests, but the movement also appears to be taking on a grass-roots character, with farmers and villagers finding common cause and demonstrating a new assertiveness.

The people of this northeastern plateau, known as Isaan, speak dialects similar to the Lao and Cambodian languages and generally work as farmers, manual laborers and factory workers.

The red shirts have railed against the “double standards” in Thai society — the wealthy, the Bangkok elite and the top military brass break laws with impunity, the protest leaders say, while the poor are held to account.

Radio stations like Red Station Radio have played a crucial role in spreading that message in the countryside. Red Station Radio, which operates from an unmarked office, has rapidly expanded since it started operating in November, and now has six affiliates in and around this city.

Its disc jockeys urge supporters to disrupt visits by senior government officials. One D.J. is even a full-time police officer, who uses the on-air name Noi Tamrung to protect his identity and, he says, avoid being fired. Many other police officers also back the movement, its supporters say.

“Don’t come here — that’s the message,” said Noi Tamrung. “We reject anyone from this government.”

Government supporters have called for the stations to be shut down, and the government has already banned some Web sites of the red-shirt movement, including the site of Red Station Radio. But the red shirts here have vowed to physically block any attempt to close the station, such is its support among farmers.

One farmer, Takum Srihangkod, listens constantly to broadcasts of protests in Bangkok with a cheap Chinese-made radio that he tucks into his waistband, next to his slingshot.

“Abhisit doesn’t want anything to do with poor people,” Mr. Takum said of the prime minister as he tended his cattle. His radio even stayed tuned to the protests as he muscled out a newborn calf in a difficult birth.

Supporters of the government often portray the red shirts as a mob for hire, mercenary protesters who receive a daily stipend. In a country with a long tradition of vote buying, that may be true for some.

But villagers bristle when asked if they are being paid to protest. Local officials and police officers describe a widespread fund-raising effort to support the demonstrators in Bangkok.

“We help each other,” said Triem Tongkod, a farmer who grows sticky rice in a village outside Khon Kaen. Pickup trucks with loudspeakers travel through his village periodically asking for donations. “You give what you can afford,” Mr. Triem said.

Last Saturday, at a Buddhist temple about 35 miles outside Khon Kaen, Mr. Triem was one of thousands of people who attended the funeral of Praison Tiplom, a protester killed in the April 10 crackdown on the red shirt protests in Bangkok. A total of 25 people died, including five soldiers, in circumstances that remain under investigation.

The deaths of protesters have become an opportunity to rally support and gather donations. At the funeral last Saturday, organizers collected about $9,400 for Mr. Praison’s widow, according to Num Chaiya, a D.J. at Red Station Radio who helped organize the funeral.

It was far from a typical somber ceremony, the crowd cheering loudly as Mr. Praison’s coffin, draped with the Thai flag, was carried around the crematorium three times. “Give a big hand to a warrior of the people!” Mr. Num exhorted the crowd. Almost all wore red.

Organizers of the red shirts have begun selling DVDs eulogizing the dead protesters and showing scenes of the April 10 crackdown. Along the highway, one DVD salesman, Pornchai Nanthaphothi, operates a stall festooned with red flags and other red shirt paraphernalia. A bandanna he sells is embossed with the words, “I’m not scared of you.”

“This area is nearly 100 percent red,” Mr. Pornchai said.

Successive Thai governments, including the current one, have tried to develop the Isaan region, but persistent income inequality and the need for more doctors, universities and jobs have fueled the protest movement, said Krasae Chanawongse, a medical doctor by training who has worked as a minister in four previous governments.

Thailand’s centralized political system has engendered a “colonial attitude of governors” posted here, he said. “They are more or less dictating, not consulting,” he said.

Some analysts question the durability of the red shirts, because of their close affiliation with Mr. Thaksin, but supporters here in the northeast say the movement has taken on larger goals.

In a country that has seen more than a dozen coups over the past eight decades, Chaisawat Weangwong, a 42-year old rice farmer, said the crisis had opened his eyes to the influence of the military in Thai politics and the need for a system where “the majority chooses the winner.”

“This is not for Thaksin,” he said. “This is for democracy.”

The boys in black, Thailand's dangerous, dark influence

Are a disbanded group of specialist military rangers the shadowy figures operating in the current conflict? Here is a look at the history of the country's hunter-fighters, a group of trained killers

Thailand has become a land of shadows and people are genuinely afraid of what lurks inside them. Both pro-government and anti-government groups have claimed these shadowy forces are being used against them. Black-hooded men have been caught on film on the red side of the protest carrying assault weapons. International observers and locals alike were astonished at the scenes of bungled arrests of United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) leaders, dismantled government-erected barricades and police and soldiers being stripped of their weapons and authority by black-uniformed red guards.

Away from the downtown rally sites, unknown hands have fired grenades and bullets at banks, giant electricity pylons have been rigged with explosives and aviation fuel depots have been hit by rocket-propelled-grenades.

Joining the dots is getting difficult and it's not for a lack of dots - they're everywhere.

Newspapers, in fear of litigation, carry comment from various spokespeople that condemn, but rarely follow through with a name. A recent example in the Bangkok Post quoted an army spokesperson as saying: "It was possible that acts of terrorism that took place during the clashes might have been supported by a former government leader."

Another silhouette to add to the increasing shadows?

One name that has been in and out of the shadows and is a constant in the media is that of rogue army officer Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol, better known by his nickname Seh Daeng.

Seh Daeng has been an embarrassment to and a thorn in the side of his army superiors. Issuing threats and suspected of being involved in a grenade attack on army chief General Anupong Paojinda's office, Seh Daeng has been vocal in his support for fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his red shirt supporters. Seh Daeng has used the media to predict violence and boasted about his visits to overseas luxury hideouts to see the fugitive Thaksin. He has been publicly accused of keeping war weapons and ammunition in his house and he has claimed he trained former para-military rangers as a "people's army" to protect red shirt leaders and their followers - a claim supported by an unnamed military source.

"We know he has been training them for about 12 months, both here in Bangkok and in other provinces. Seh Daeng loves the limelight and it's not sure if he is taking orders or giving them. It's rumoured, but it's only a rumour, a powerful general, a former classmate of Thaksin's, may be orchestrating a power grab."

The army source says their real concern is not the rumours, but the involvement in the protests of former soldiers and thahan phran, or hunter-soldiers.

"The ordinary red shirt people are not a worry for us, but former war combatants and rangers with conflict experience are. We know they have experience of firing M79s and assault weapons, but now, since the fuel depot was attacked, we know they also have experience with rocket-propelled grenades; there are not many combatants who have that experience."

In spite of army disapproval for his alleged misconduct and disregard for army rules, Seh Daeng continues to publicly flaunt his support for Thaksin and the UDD rallies. Following the April 10 fighting near Democracy Monument which left 25 dead and more than 800 injured, Seh Daeng, dressed in military fatigues, spoke to television reporters as he walked through applauding red shirt admirers.

Seh Daeng is not alone in his crusade, nor is he the only former senior military man to champion the concept of a people's army. Seh Daeng's former supervisor and army superior, General Panlop Pinmanee, was reported in the Bangkok Post as saying he asked Seh Daeng for his help "after he had noticed many former border rangers from the closed Pak Thong Chai camp had joined the red shirt rallies".

Gen Panlop is a former deputy director of Thailand's Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) and a current member of the Puea Thai Party.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow of the Asean Studies Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) in Singapore, writing on Opinion Asia's website said: "General Panlop Pinmanee recently stated that he wished to transform the red-shirted movement into a 'people's army', with former prime minister and Thaksin ally General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh as the supreme commander."

Gen Chavalit has been there before. Border rangers also know that the thahan phran were the brainchild of Gen Chavalit, a former supreme commander of the Thai Armed Forces and the present chairman of the opposition Puea Thai Party (PTP). The general is a supporter of Thaksin - who many believe is the real power behind the PTP. The thahan phran revere Gen Chavalit and often refer to him as their "father".

Ironically, Gen Chavalit created the thahan phran in 1978 as a para-military force to hunt down and clear out the Communist Party of Thailand from their mountain strongholds in the Northeast, the region that mainly rural red shirt protesters have come to Bangkok from.

Professor Desmond Ball from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University in Canberra has written The Boys In Black (White Lotus), a book that documents the thahan phran's successes, crimes, abuses and political intimidation and corrupt practices. Prof Ball is regarded as a military expert and has published 60 books on nuclear strategy and defence and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

Speaking on the phone from Canberra, Prof Ball said if former thahan phran are being used in the present Thai conflict then there is real cause for the government to be worried.

"Their involvement is reason for serious concern. The thahan phran are trained hunter-killers. Many are from poor rural villages, but they've always been prepared to be 'strong armed men' for the establishment or particular generals."

Prof Ball says the re-organisation in 2000 of the thahan phran was traumatic for the rangers. It saw eight of 21 regiments disbanded. Ironically, an arch red shirt enemy, General Surayud Chulanont, then commander-in-chief of the army, oversaw the dismantling of the thahan phran.

Gen Surayud is now a member of the Privy Council, one of the ruling class institutions opposed by the UDD. Gen Surayud earned the ire of the UDD early this year when large numbers of red shirts forced him to abandon his house. Guarding UDD leaders at the red shirt rally outside the general's home were rangers, some dressed in full uniforms, complete with regimental insignia. No doubt many of the former rangers still bear grudges against Gen Surayud. Prof Ball says in his book the decision "drew heavy criticism from para-military troopers who said the action was motivated by politics".

Prof Ball says when Gen Chavalit became defence minister in Thaksin Shinawatra's government, there were media stories that he might rebuild a new thahan phran.

In his book, Prof Ball says the sacked rangers now working "as security guards for private companies were soon embroiled in controversy. On November 17, 2000, about 40 armed men in black uniforms, all former rangers from the Pakthongchai camp, intimated vendors at the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok."

Prof Ball says in their heyday the thahan phran were mostly used in counter-insurgency campaigns, were the rules of engagement are vague and gross violence is commonplace.

"The worst of them have been very bad, atrocious. At their worst they became thugs and murderers. In the Northeast, along the Cambodian border and in southern Thailand their reputation was shocking."

His book says rangers and police have come to grief in the past.

"Conflict between rangers and police in the South resurfaced in connection with the killing of more than 20 police officers [as at July 2002] and the bombing of numerous police stations in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces in 2001-2002."

Prof Ball says police "suggested" rangers "from the 41st and 43rd Regiments were 'perhaps' working as 'hired guns' or 'enforcers' for corrupt officials who were actually involved in the killings".

But Prof Ball stressed that not all thahan phran regiments are rogues.

"Those operating in the Northwest region of Thailand have been as good and professional as the regular army."

He says if the thahan phran are involved in the political upheavals now paralysing the country, it won't be their first time. In his book he details their past political missions on behalf of Gen Chavalit.

"For their part, the 'rangers have worked to destabilise democratically elected Thai governments, physically intimidated Gen Chavalit's political opponents, and committed electoral fraud for Gen Chavalit's, now defunct, New Aspiration Party (NAP) and its allied parties and politicians." Gen Chavalit's opponents, the Democrats, are also listed in Prof Ball's book as having past links to rangers involved in violence in southern Thailand.

"They have allegedly campaigned for, and conducted electoral fraud, on behalf of candidates from all parts of the country and various political shades, including both Democrats in the south and the New Aspiration party (NAP) in the Northeast." Back in December 2009, Gen Panlop told the Bangkok Post he ordered Seh Daeng to prevent a confrontation between former border rangers and army soldiers. Gen Panlop said about 200 former border rangers had voluntarily joined the red shirt rally because they deeply respected Gen Chavalit. At the time he said more former rangers would join the red shirt rallies.

Media reports suggest Gen Panlop's prediction is coming true. Contrary to the UDD leadership claims that their rallies are peaceful, all the recent signs and military style preparations indicate that organised violence lurks just beneath the surface. Late on Thursday night violence broke out again. One person was killed and 88 injured when a number of M79 grenades were fired into the Silom district. One landed on the Sala Daeng skytrain station, the others in front of a hotel and outside a bank. A UDD leader, Arisman Pongruengrong, was reported as telling his red shirt supporters that the "men in black" would be coming to help them. If the "men in black" turn out to be the former combat-hardened soldiers and rangers that the army fears, there is a real possibility Bangkok's streets could yet become a conflict zone, with many casualties on both sides.

About the author

Writer: Phil Thornton

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Thaksin now in a South Pacific country : Thai FM

Fugitive ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra is believed to be staying in a South Pacific country after visiting Saudi Arabia earlier this week.

Chavanont Intarakomalyasut, the foreign minister's secretary, said yesterday that Thaksin - wanted in Thailand to serve a two year jail term - had visited Saudi Arabia from Saturday to Monday.

Chavanont quoted a report from the Thai ambassador to Saudi Arabia that Thaksin had visited Jeddah and Riyadh in his private jet before leaving for an Asean country.

Thaksin stayed two nights in the Asean country before departing yesterday for a South Pacific nation.

Chavanont did not name the Asean and South Pacific countries, but said the government could not put pressure on them to hand over Thaksin as Thailand has no extradition treaty with them.

"What we could do is to ask those countries not to allow Thaksin to use them as a base to criticise Thailand," he said.

The Foreign Ministry has been well aware of Thaksin's whereabouts but has been unable to say much about it.

Thaksin visited three South Pacific countries - Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga - last July.

In Fiji, he reportedly conducted secret talks with Frank Bainimarama, controversial leader of the Pacific island's militaryinstalled regime.

Bainimarama is Fiji's selfappointed prime minister, who has drawn the ire of the international community by abrogating the constitution last April and refusing to hold democratic elections before 2014.

The Guardian online reported last July that it was claimed Thaksin was considering investing US$300 million (Bt9.6 trillion) in Fiji in return for protection from extradition.

The online newspaper reported that Thaksin had entered Fiji under an assumed name after his Thai passport was cancelled. The former prime minister has been issued new passports by the governments of Nicaragua, Uganda and Montenegro.

The Foreign Ministry believes Thaksin has used "Takki Singegra" as his name in his new passports.

At that time, the government claimed Thaksin had flown to Suva from Kuala Lumpur. Thai authorities had intended to apprehend him in Malaysia, but he flew out of the country in his Lear jet before they could act.

In the same week, Thaksin also visited Vanuatu and Tonga, where he was seeking to invest millions of dollars.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thailand's prolonged Red Shirt rally may cost B100bn

Retail, tourism and investment all at risk

Thailand could lose approximately 70 billion to 100 billion baht, should the anti-government rally carry on until the middle of May, according to businesses who have reiterated their support for the government to take action.

Soldiers are deployed at Bangkok Bank headquarters and the Silom Road area as a protective measure against protesters. ALISA SUWANRUMPHA

According to private sector estimates, consumption is forecast to drop by 20-30 billion baht, with tourism losing about 40-50 billion and direct investment falling 10-20 billion.

This would cut between 0.3 and 0.5 percentage points off 2010 growth, currently forecast at 3.3% to 3.8%, said Puttipong Punnakan, vice-minister to the Prime Minister's Office, after two meetings of the government's economic committee and the joint public-private consultative committee chaired by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

"Protests by the red shirts damage large businesses such as hotels and department stores by 140-350 million baht per day, while small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are affected by 60-150 million baht per day," he said. The private sector also expressed concern that should the protests become prolonged this will cause problems for the business sector in the future.

Most businesses do not support dissolving the House or changing governments because it will delay planned investment projects, he added.

"[Dissolving the House] will affect consideration of the fiscal 2011 budget that takes effect in October 2010, which will delay the disbursement of government funds," said Mr Puttipong.

The tourist sector estimates hotel occupancy rates are now around 30%, down from 60-70% earlier, causing a loss of around 200-500 million baht per day.

This year it is forecast that tourists to Thailand will total 12-13 million, down from a previous estimate of 16 million. In January and February tourists totalled 1.6 million per month, but that number is expected to drop substantially from April, said Mr Puttipong.

Moreover, hotels and other business operators near the Ratchaprasong area are being asked not to provide accommodations to the anti-government protesters.

"We ask for co-operation from business operators to not provide support to protesters, who are violating the law," said Mr Puttipong.

Santi Vilassakdanont, acting chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries, said the business sector at the Ratchaprasong intersection was estimated to be losing 500-600 million baht in revenue a day from the occupation.

Asked whether the committee would hold direct talks with the protest leaders, Mr Santi said the talks would be held by businesses that are directly affected, such as retailers and hotel operators.

Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said new measures would be developed to help businesses affected by the red-shirt protests. State-controlled banks could be directed to offer low-interest loans to affected SMEs, he said, adding that numerous details remained to be worked out.

Hundreds of small businesses and thousands of entrepreneurs and daily-wage workers at shopping malls and sidewalk markets at Ratchaprasong have been hit hard since the red shirts took over the square earlier this month and forced the shutdown of CentralWorld, Gaysorn, Siam Paragon and other malls.

Mr Korn said the economic damage from the protests was by no means limited to businesses operating in central Bangkok, but would be felt throughout the country.

Tourism and investment are expected to fall over the next several months due to the negative image overseas from political tensions and the bloody clash on April 10, he said.

The Finance Ministry previously estimated the conflict could cut economic growth by a percentage point or more from its forecast of 4-5% for 2010.