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In Thailand, Red Bowl Controversy Escalates

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Bangkok
2016-04-04
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Protesters shout slogans against former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra during a demonstration outside a private club in New York City where he was speaking, March 9, 2016.
AFP

Red bowls inscribed with a Thai New Year’s greeting from ousted prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra are part of an agenda to stoke turmoil in Thailand, a government spokesman said Monday after soldiers confiscated more than 10,000 bowls over the weekend.

“There are many ways to sincerely express well-wishes to the nation on the (Thai New Year) festival,” Government spokesman Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkhamnerd told reporters in Bangkok,

He accused the Shinawatras’ Pheu Thai party of reaching out to supporters in an inappropriate way through these red bowls, which are used for scooping and splashing water during new year’s festivities.

“The action which had a hidden agenda and can only be interpreted as exploiting the festival to instigate division and turmoil in the society,” Sansern said.

The brouhaha over the bowls deepened in the past few days amid a growing clampdown on political dissent.

According to reports, these included moves by the junta that threatened to send dissenters and critics to the insurgency-wracked Deep South for so-called attitude adjustment sessions, and a government ban that forced the cancellation of an event at a bookstore, where a discussion on the country’s proposed constitution had been scheduled.

The bookshop’s owner, Rodjaraeg Wattanapanit, only last week became the first Thai recipient of the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award.

‘The situation is hot’

On Saturday, more than 30 Thai soldiers raided an office of Sirindhorn Ramasutra and Poonsuk Lohachote, seizing 8,862 red bowls. In two other raids, the military seized another 1,500 red bowls each from Cholnan Srikaew and Nattapong Supariyasilp. All four are members of the Pheu Thai Party – whose official color is red – and former members of Thailand’s House of Representatives.

Police did not file a report or press charges against the four. But last week Theerawan Charoensuk, a woman who posted a photo of herself holding up one of these red bowls, was arrested and charged with sedition.

In an Instagram post on Sunday, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a coup in 2006, claimed the military had threatened sedition charges against his former party members.

“The military threatened Section 116 [a sedition charge] and forced the house representatives to tell them where they got the bowls. The bowls bear my name and Pheu Thai MPs handed them out, if you they want to charge me just do it,” he said.

Thaksin, who lives in exile, dared the government to arrest him because the bowls bore his signature.

The message inscribed on the bowls reads, "Happy Songkran [Happy Thai New Year] 2016, and even though the situation is hot, hope all brothers and sisters will cool down from water in this bowl.”

The Pheu Thai party has been out of the limelight since the May 2014 coup that ousted Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. She is facing trial for alleged corruption in a rice mortgage scheme. A Thai court expects to issue a verdict late this year or early 2017.

Bowls are part of ‘political campaign’: expert

A Thai political observer said the handout is a symbolic gesture for Red Shirts, the pro-Shinawatra movement, to uproot the Prayuth regime before the verdict on Yingluck’s case is reached.

“The government knew about the move that they would use red bowls as a symbol [for Red Shirts] to vote against the charter and to overthrow the government before the trial progresses further or before the judgment day of Yingluck,” Sutin Wannabovorn told BenarNews on Monday.

“The delivery of red bowls is a political campaign that exploits Songkran New Year festival,” he added.

Winyat Chatmontri, the secretary general for Free Thai Legal Aid, who represented a few Pheu Thai party members as clients, disagreed with the way that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the junta’s formal name – handled the bowl issue.

“As a lawyer, I can say that to possess a red bowl is not wrong and the red bowl cannot be used to do wrong,” he told BenarNews, adding “Having the inscription on them does not mean they have a political agenda or have breached Section 116.”

“It does the NCPO no good to scare people and to force them to support it on whatever they do such as new charter or whatever coming up,” he added in a phone interview.

Attitude adjustment sessions in Deep South?

Returning home Sunday from the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, addressed the issue, questioning whether it was appropriate to possess bowls as symbolic support for the former prime ministers.

“To share the photos with the public to draw attention, right or wrong, I don’t know. It could be legal but is it appropriate?” he asked reporters.

Since taking seizing power nearly two years ago, the NCPO has summoned several politicians and reporters for “attitude adjustment” detention sessions for speaking out against the government.

According to Thai media reports published over the weekend, Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Teerachai Wongwanich said he had devised a seven-day attitude adjustment course to stop government criticism, and was considering sending critics to such sessions in the Deep South.

Bookstore talk canceled

Meanwhile, the junta banned a discussion at the bookstore, scheduled for Sunday in Chiang Mai, on the nation’s draft constitution.

A government commission last week unveiled the proposed constitution amid warnings from the junta that it would go after people who criticized the draft charter. The new constitution is to be voted on in a nationwide referendum set for Aug. 7.

On Saturday, Rodjaraeg, the owner of the independent Book Re:public, posted regrets on the shop’s Facebook page, saying it would not be able to host the discussion because of the government ban, the Thai news website Khaosod English reported.

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