Thida Thavornseth

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Thida Thavornseth

The Diplomat’s Steve Finch recently spoke to Thida Thavornseth about Thailand’s latest political crisis and what this means for the government and Thaksin.

Thida Thavornseth
Thida ThavornsethCredit: REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang

Thida Thavornseth is the chairperson of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), whose supporters are commonly known as the “Red Shirts,” which has traditionally aligned itself with Thailand’s ruling Pheu Thai Party, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, billionaire tycoon and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. However, since the government recently tried to force through an amnesty bill for everyone caught up in Thailand’s recent political fighting – including Thaksin – the UDD and many of its Red Shirt supporters have begun to distance themselves from the Shinawatras. The amnesty may have died in the Thai Senate on Tuesday, but the controversy persists.

Does the UDD maintain support for exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the wake of the Amnesty Bill controversy in Thailand over the past few weeks?

No, no, no – we don’t support Thaksin. We want to support democracy because right now we understand that the Democrat Party and the PAD and three or four [other groups] are trying to redesign the country. But it’s not a progressive way because they want a prime minister appointed by the King and to freeze the country for maybe four or five years. I think that – right now – all of them are trying to act in the same way and prepare everything for the constitutional court to punish about 300 MPs and senators. Right now I think it’s a special situation maybe – I don’t know [whether] we will have civil war, or not. Everything is in trouble. We don’t support Thaksin or even Yingluck. But we don’t want a coup d’état or any group of people to send the country backwards and [place it in] the charge of aristocrats again.

Why has the UDD lost its faith in the Shinawatras?

Even at the start [of the UDD in 2006], we didn’t support Thaksin. But we can say that because he is a victim of the coup d’état [in 2006] – because we opposed the coup d’état and want democracy – he could get benefits from us. But it was not a cause for him. It was for all of those who were victims of the coup d’état. Some of us thought Thaksin was the real leader with real power but the aristocrats and conservative elite in Thailand have the real power, not Thaksin. So right now we have confusion about the real leader in the name of the people. Before we didn’t support Thaksin but because he is a victim he could benefit from our movement. But we confess that – okay – most of the core leaders in the UDD were members of the Thai Rak Thai party [previously led by Thaksin]. There are many numbers of Red Shirts, so there are many groups of people in the name of Red Shirts. But for me, I think it’s most important to call ourselves a group of people who want real democracy, who want justice, and that’s all. So that’s why we opposed the government and Thaksin changing the Amnesty Bill because we cannot benefit from that way. We’re very angry.

In terms of Thaksin coming back to Thailand – which is what many people say this amnesty bill was about – would that be a good thing?

I think, right now, he cannot come back because you can see so many groups of people have come to join the Democrat Party and PAD. They don’t want Thaksin to benefit from the Amnesty Bill. It means that we can say that there are a lot of people who hate Thaksin. If he wants to come back then the government would no longer exist – Yingluck could not stay in the position of prime minister.

Is Thaksin the real power behind the administration?

Sure. I think it’s because of his experience and his ideas, and we can say that most of the people in Thailand – especially poor people – love him because they benefit from Thaksin’s policies. So we can say that most of the policies, most of the ideas of the government have come from the brain of Thaksin Shinawatra. But I don’t think that’s wrong. You can learn from any groups. But this government should be clever enough to select the best things to do.

Following this Amnesty Bill controversy in Thailand, does Thaksin have less support?

Maybe. And maybe he understands that he was wrong. The government must find the best way to do things, not only listen to Thaksin. I don’t think he can understand everything that happens in Thailand [from exile]. People in the country should understand better.

Thailand’s various political factions have been battling each other for years now. How does the country achieve reconciliation?

It’s very difficult. I think the situation right now – if you talk in theory – each side is using a zero-sum game, they want the other side to lose forever. I think that’s the situation right now because you can see, more than 80 years after we tried for the first time to change the country into a democracy, two groups of people – the conservative elite or aristocrats and the democratic powers – have tried to beat each other. And most of the time, the dictatorship ruled Thailand. For a long time it’s been a military dictatorship and the conservative elite. So from the time of Thaksin Shinawatra it has been a new era of fighting. Thaksin Shinawatra is the new enemy, among a new group of capitalists: the new enemy that faces the old power. So after the elections [in 2011], the capitalists won again. The background of this war, it’s like they are trying to fight but they can’t beat each other. Now is the time that the Democrats are trying to get rid of Thaksin and his family – “the Thaksin regime” – so it’s a new phase of the fighting. But the people don’t want to support any kind of elite group. We want only democracy, we want only that the power belongs to the people, and we want justice. So I can say that reconciliation will take a long time in Thailand because they want to beat each other. For Thaksin, maybe he wants to apologize – it’s the easiest way for him to come back – but I don’t think the elite group really wants Thaksin to come back, they don’t want to share power. They want the Shinawatra family to get out – Yingluck, Thaksin and everybody. But, for the people, we don’t think only of the name of Thaksin Shinawatra, we talk about the system, we talk about freedom, we want this country to grow and to have progress in politics and the economy – and especially justice. There’s a long way [to go] and it’s very difficult for us, for the people.