A political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, has suggested that the events in recent days, could mean many things but certainly, it could suggest a move by the leading opposition party away from supporting the student-led protests which have taken on a more radical agenda.

A crisis of confidence in Thai politics facing into October which threatens a major escalation of tensions between the establishment and radical student-led protests has led a former aide of current Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan to come out on Monday and rubbish swirling rumours of a return of former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra as Prime Minister, a position he was ousted from in the 2006 coup. It followed the emergence of Thaksin’s former wife, Khunying Potjaman na Pombejra, as a key player in resolving divisions within the opposition Pheu Thai Party this week which has led to a string of resignations in recent days. Khunying Potjamnan also had a high profile audience with the King and Queen at the Dusit Palace last Thursday in connection with her charity work. 

Internal reorganisation within Pheu Thai, Thailand’s largest party, in the last week, has seen two high profile resignations including Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan (bottom left) and the party’s leader, MP Sompong Amornvivat (bottom right) while Khunying Potjaman na Pombejra, the wife of former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra (centre), now living in exile and retired, appeared before the King and Queen in connection with her charity work. The combination of events sparked the online rumour mill and while it is almost certainly fake news, the moves do indicate something more real, a potential shift and repositioning of the Pheu Thai Party concerning the increasingly dangerous and strident student-led protest movement against not only the government but the monarchy.

Thailand is facing a crisis of political confidence as a recent survey shows that the public in the kingdom has begun to switch off from politics.

It comes as the country is facing a call by student protest leaders for a General Strike on October 14th and warnings from leading activists that they propose to launch a ‘protracted’ protest at that time against the government.

The most perplexing aspect of this threat, for both the Thai establishment and the public, is the strident insistence by student leaders in pushing their calls for reform of the monarchy.

MPs in parliament voted to sideline and stall charter reform last week based on weak public support

Last Thursday, Thai parliamentarians led by the ruling Palang Pracharat Party in government, added further fuel to the fire when they voted to sideline a tentative charter rewriting process at the same time as student protests were being staged outside the assembly. 

This was accompanied by reports suggesting that pro-government parliamentarians had formed a view that the level of public support for the student-led protests was weak.

Lawmakers suggested that the student-led protest movement lacked broad support among the public as Pheu Thai’s internal crisis deepened

Lawmakers within the government coalition suggested that the student movement lacked the ‘firepower’ to challenge the government despite a record turnout of between 40,000 and 50,000 people at the largest protest since the coup of 2014 which took place at Sanam Luang near the Grand Palace in Bangkok on September 19th last.

To further complicate matters, the political crisis has seen long-brewing tensions within the largest opposition party, Pheu Thai, bubble over after the party’s chief strategist, Bangkok based Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, resigned from her position along with party allies in recent days. 

This was followed by the resignation of the party leader, veteran MP Sompong Amornvivat, who has put his name forward for reelection. He is expected to be reelected to his post at the end of the week.

Shocking opinion poll last weekend showed the public losing faith and confidence in politics

The shocking opinion poll by NIDA, the National Institute of Development Administration, on Saturday is a wakeup call for politicians in the kingdom.

It showed that Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, was still the most recognisable candidate for the position of government leader among the public but only came in with a diminished 18.5% level of approval which is down by nearly 27% since June.

The former Pheu Thai Party strategist Khunying Sudarat was second with only 10.57% support.

The poll showed that over half the Thai electorate have no clear choice for prime minister and that the ruling Palang Pracharat Party is now only polling in third place at 10.5% supports behind the progressive Move Forward Party at 13.5% with Pheu Thai leading at 14.5%.

Thailand’s oldest political party, long associated with the Bangkok ruling elite and which dominated Thai politics for generations, has disappeared off the radar despite being a key government coalition partner. The Democrat Party is led by Commerce Minister, Jurin Laksanawisit.

Fractured political discourse mirroring politics and splits seen online and on social media

Not only has the political arena in Thailand been fractured but also political discourse and commentary, driven by social media, is increasingly moving away from any middle ground and off traditional media as consumption patterns are changing.

Mirroring the disturbing situation is the onslaught by the student-led protest movement on the monarchy which is deeply offensive to a significant section of Thai society and disturbing to most.

Nevertheless, it is understood that the student-led movement is gaining support and ground among Thailand’s youth. This is particularly among young, educated and urban voters as well as schoolgirls and young women.

The situation combined with the Covid 19 virus emergency makes the environment even more surreal.

Thaksin’s wife in the spotlight

Last week, Khunying Potjaman na Pombejra, the ex-wife of former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, emerged into the limelight when, as Chairman of the Thaicom Foundation, she was received by the King and Queen at the Dusit Palace in Bangkok.

The occasion garnered unusually high levels of public attention and commentary because it coincided with the political developments within the Pheu Thai Party and speculation regarding the political unrest created by further student protest activities set to climax again on October 14th with a call for a General Strike in Thailand.

It is understood that Khunying Potjaman is not likely to emerge as a political player within the party.

Party insiders acknowledge, however, that she has been actively involved in brokering a resolution to the divisions within Thailand’s largest political movement.

Former premier Thaksin still commands support

The Pheu Thai Party still retains links, albeit informally, to her husband, the exiled and disgraced former Premier, Thaksin Shinawatra who lives in Dubai.

Mr Thaksin and his family, including his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, another former premier who was sentenced to five years imprisonment in 2017, still retain large swathes of support in Thailand’s north and northeast.

Equally, however, he is viscerally opposed by large segments of the population in Bangkok, central Thailand and the country’s South.

A doctored clip in the course of the 2019 General Election which conjured up his covert political support for Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his Future Forward Party was enough to resurrect dormant support for the Democrat Party such is the passion that he still commands among his opponents as well as his supporters. 

In the northern provinces, at the same time, Thaksin’s reforms as prime minister including poverty reduction programmes combined with his successful management of the Thai economy from 2001 to 2005 are not forgotten by families and communities in the region who before had been largely taken for granted and ignored by the political leadership in Bangkok.

Royal audience sparked online speculation

Online speculation and rumours concerning the ex-premier’s wife and her audience with the King and Queen even sparked rumours, this week, of a return to power by Mr Thaksin who is retired from politics, amid the political vacuum that has suddenly opened.

Under the Thai constitution, a prime minister can be catapulted into the position without being a member of Parliament but must achieve the support of over 50% of the combined assembly including the appointed Thai Senate of 250 members and the elected house of 500 MPs.

The rumours that circulated, posited that the King may make an appointment to the role.

The wild nature of the rumours speaks to that current weakness in Thai politics and lack of faith in the political process since the General Election of March 2019.

A former aide to Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan dismisses the restoration reports as utter fake news

This rumour was quashed on Monday by Paisal Puechmongkol, a respected aide to current Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, in a statement on Facebook.

Mr Paisal dismissed the reports which included suggestions of a national unity government, as fake news.

‘After considering various aspects, the rumour of a royal command to make Thaksin prime minister is 100 per cent fake news.’ 

It is believed that the choreography of the moment when the wife of the ex-premier appeared before the King and Queen in connection with her charity work on Thursday, coming on the same day as Khunying Sudarat’s resignation from Pheu Thai and the days before the leader of the party, Mr Sompong, tendered his resignation activated the rumour mill.

Political scientist sees move by Pheu Thai to distance itself from increasingly radical student protests

Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, does, however, see some significance in Thaksin’s ex-wife being received by the royal couple last Thursday and her efforts to resolve tensions within Pheu Thai, which is still the largest political party in the kingdom.

Among other things, he suggested that the appearance could, indeed, signal a shift by the party away from the student-led protest movement and its more radical outlook since August 10th when students at Thammasat University unveiled a plan to reform the monarchy.

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Further reading:

Criminal charges likely against student leaders as mysterious ‘People’s Party’ plaque goes missing

Students submit a reform petition to the Privy Council, call for a General Strike in Thailand on October 14th

March on government to go ahead on Sunday as rally organisers appear to focus on the monarchy reform plans

Western foreigners being blamed by ultra-right for this latest wave of radical student protests

Raised concerns for the defiant student protest being planned for next Saturday and Sunday

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