Pheu Thai eyes riding red tide to victory

Nattawut Saikuar, director of the Pheu Thai Family project, addressed supporters in Si Sa Ket on June 18. Photo provided by the Pheu Thai Party
Nattawut Saikuar, director of the Pheu Thai Family project, addressed supporters in Si Sa Ket on June 18. Photo provided by the Pheu Thai Party

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, is emerging as the leading candidate for the premiership to breathe new life into the Pheu Thai Party, according to recent polls by the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida).

With the next elections just months away, we have to admit that Pheu Thai, with its audacious campaign targeting a landslide victory, now ranks as the strongest in the land.

The opposition bloc leader is eyeing a decisive victory that will enable it to scramble the efforts of the military-installed Senate in deciding who gets to be prime minister.

Ms Paetongtarn, 35, made her political debut as the leader of the “Pheu Thai family” and the de facto commander of the campaign for the national elections. Since then, she has travelled extensively nationwide to carry out this role. Most noteworthy was her trip to the Northeast, a traditional Pheu Thai stronghold.

At the same time, the party welcomed back Nattawut Saikuar, a former core leader of the red-shirt brigade who has kept a low profile since serving six months in jail for storming the residence of Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, then-president of the Privy Council, during a protest.

His period of incarceration has stripped Nattawut of the chance to contest an election for the next decade. But he can still canvass for the Shinawatra clan.

Given his outstanding oratorical skills and status, Nattawut is a good fit for his current role and may play a key role in helping Pheu Thai meet its ambitious goal. As a respected former red-shirt leader, he has become a poster boy for the party’s campaign to lure back those former members who scattered after the 2010 crackdown.

The red-shirt movement emerged after the coup that toppled the Thaksin government in 2006 and gained recognition for its relentless rallies against the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration in 2010.

That included the long siege of Bangkok’s business district and armed confrontations involving the party’s hardcore wing which led to more than 90 deaths — including protesters, soldiers, media members and innocent bystanders — and 1,000-plus injuries.

Now the movement is divided into four major groups.

The biggest of these has stuck with Pheu Thai while several others have aligned with its rivals, the military-leaning Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and the pro-reform Move Forward Party (MFP).

The last group is spearheaded by Jatuporn Prompan, another key figure who now acts as a lone crusader, nourishing close contact with a pro-democracy faction led by the families of the so-called “1992 uprising heroes”.

Pheu Thai’s immediate task is to clear the path to the top for Thaksin’s daughter. If that campaign proves successful, Thailand will have seen four premiers arise from the Shinawatra clan and its cronies.

Yet, it is not an easy task to gather all the Pheu Thai leaders back under the same roof given the fact that several have become disheartened with Thaksin for leaving them to struggle and face their legal battles alone, in the wake of the 2010 rallies.

Some have already completed their jail terms but a few dozen remain behind bars while several are in exile.

In fact, quite a few red-shirt leaders have become disillusioned and angry upon realising that the sacrifices they made for Thaksin were all for nought, since he only saw them as bargaining tools to be traded for his return to power.

The breaking point came when Yingluck Shinawatra tried to white-wash her brother by proposing in 2013 a blanket amnesty bill that triggered public outrage. Massive protests led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) gave the military an excuse to intervene in politics.

To be fair, Thaksin upset his red-shirt friends on many occasions.

Notably, the promises he made during the 2010 demonstrations that he would immediately return to “battle” once the “first bullet is fired” were never honored; instead, he continued living in the lap of luxury abroad under the assumed name Tony Woodsome, waging his political campaign online via Zoom calls as his “colleagues” camped in the streets of Bangkok.

Worse still, when Pheu Thai won the 2011 elections with Yingluck as his puppet premier, Thaksin started to distance himself from the red-shirt fighters by likening what they did to “boat rowing” for the Shinawatra family.

After they had “reached the river bank” (won the elections) and were “on the way up the hill” (move on to a new political chapter), they were seen as no longer needed to “carry the boat”. Such a hurtful metaphor inflicted a deep wound on many of the movement’s members.

Each red-shirt faction had its own way of pursuing its goals.

The so-called United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) adhered to democratic principles; the hardcore elements sought change through violence, led by Maj Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol, who was assassinated at the beginning of the 2010 rallies; and an anti-monarchy group led by prominent figures such as Sunai Jullapongsathorn shared a common ideology with young pro-democracy students.

The red-shirt movement is now passed its prime. It has become clear the movement was nothing more than an “ad-hoc” mechanism for Thaksin in his never-ending pursuit of power. All that remains are the memories of its former glory, when it could mobilise thousands of people to form massive rallies and challenge the powers-that-be.

To further burnish its image, some key red-shirt figures have tried to raise its profile by likening it to the Oct 14 movement that confronted the military dictatorship in the 1970s.

But due to its “Thaksin-centric” nature, the movement is no longer worth its salt, unlike today’s pro-democracy student movement which is characterised by a strong sense of determination to help foster democracy, reform the monarchy and amend the strict lese majeste law encoded in Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code.

This more progressive group now seems better suited to the MFP than Pheu Thai, having cottoned on to the fact that Thaksin isn’t fighting for democracy, only for himself.

Pheu Thai’s attempts to summon the red shirts could just be a ruse to rebrand the party, in a bid to present it as a champion of democracy. But such a tactic would be a double-edged sword, begging the question whether Thaksin would dump them when his goals are met.

If he had really cared about the red shirts, he would have offered legal support or lent a hand to their children after the family breadwinners were imprisoned or forced into exile. However, that was not the case.

The campaign to return the red shirts to the “mother ship” seems as shallow as placing Paetongtarn and Nattawut in prominent positions as figureheads. Scant thought has been spared for the common folk, as the party focuses on its new political aspirations.

Pheu Thai securing a landslide victory after an eight-year break from power will be an uphill battle. Yet the party has won the public’s confidence that it can turn the tide in politics, claims Nattawut, director of the Pheu Thai Family project.