A relatively unknown Thai political activist is behind an anti-royalist movement that has joined forces with an ex-member of Thailand’s banned and defunct communist party and supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, according to government officials and analysts.
Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the junta chief and current prime minister, last week defended the arrests of at least four people for suspected links to the movement that calls itself the Organization for Thai Federation (OTF).
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan branded the group’s activities as a rebellion trying to “promote a federal republic and put an end to the monarchy.”
Officials and political observers say they believe that Chucheep Shivasut started the movement with backing from Surachai Saedan, a former Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) member, and Wutthipong “Ko Tee” Kochthammakhun, a loyal Shinawatra supporter.
“Chucheep was associated with former communists like Surachai Saedan and hard-core Red Shirts or supporters of the former PM Thaksin Shinawatra and his political groups,” an official who requested anonymity told BenarNews.
Little is known about OTF or its purported founder, Chucheep, who also carries the online pseudonym Uncle Sanam Luang, which refers to the Royal Ground next to the Grand Palace and the site of royal ceremonies.
Chucheep, according to Deputy PM Prawit, is believed to be operating from Laos. Bangkok has asked authorities in the neighboring country to arrest the activist, Prawit indicated last week.
He said he had no information on whether any Thai political parties were behind the group.
“There is a base in Laos and there are networks in Thailand,” Prawit said. “This is rebellion.”
Maj. Gen. Piyapong Klinpan, spokesman for the National Council for Peace and Order, as Thailand’s military government is formally known, declined to provide information about OTF. However, Prayuth told reporters on Sept. 11 that authorities were investigating the group’s links.
“Let me ask you, is the Organization for Thai Federation legal? Isn’t it an attempt to change the nation’s ruling system? Could it be treason?” the prime minister said.
‘Mountain out of a molehill’
Thai political observers slammed the junta, saying it was overreacting through the crackdown.
Among the people arrested was 30-year-old Wannapa Khamphiphot, who was taken into custody and charged for allegedly distributing T-shirts promoting a movement aimed at overthrowing the current regime. The black shirts bore the group’s logo of a tiny red and white flag.
Wannapa denied the allegations through her attorney.
Weng Tojirakarn, a key leader in the pro-Shinawatra umbrella group United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, told The Nation newspaper last week that the junta was exacerbating the situation, possibly for its own political gain. Others claimed that the crackdown, ironically, had helped raised the profile of what was an unknown group to many Thais.
“In fact, the group is rather powerless,” Weng said. “They are completely impotent. And the junta is making a mountain out of a molehill.”
The Communist Party of Thailand was active from 1942 until the 1990s. By 1977, various reports estimated its armed strength at 6,000 to 8,000 fighters, but it suffered mass defections in the early 1980s when the government began offering amnesty to its members.
Chucheep, on his YouTube channel, describes federation as the most democratic system in the world “because it offers equality through power decentralization and responsibility to local governments in the region, instead of centralization, which monopolizes budget, causing corruption.”
BenarNews could not immediately obtain comments from Chucheep’s other alleged supporters, including Surachai, a prominent 75-year-old communist in the southern province of Nakhon Sri Thammarat who was convicted of violating the nation’s strict Lese-Majeste, the law that guards against royal defamation, in 2008 and 2010. Surachai received a 10-year jail term, but was granted a royal pardon in 2013.
A political observer, who asked that he be identified only as Sitha, told BenarNews that Chucheep was first seen in public when he began criticizing Sondhi Limthongkul, the leader of the right-wing group People’s Alliance for Democracy, which led street protests against Shinawatra before the prime minister was overthrown in a coup in 2006.
Shinawatra, who served as prime minister from 2001 until he was toppled by the military, went into self-imposed exile in several countries. After Shinawatra was overthrown, Chucheep also left Thailand for Britain or France before again fleeing to Laos, Sitha said. Another supporter, Wutthipong, also fled to Laos, officials told BenarNews.
Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, expressed doubts on the junta’s decision to order a crackdown on OTF.
“Who are they going to arrest? It is an unnecessary show of force … simply because the movement doesn’t destabilize the status of the Thai nation,” Titipol said. “To the military, everything seems to be a threat to security.”