Support for Thaksin calls for an unstinting commitment

Pro-Thaksin Shinawatra radio stations face threat of closure in Thailand, but some academics say political avenues such as these should remain open

Bangkok Post
Monday, August 3, 2009

By Surasak Glahan

Chiang Rai --- "Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra called in to our programme last Wednesday," said Jeeranan Jantawong, a community radio host who broadcasts from her bedroom.

"He promised to return home. The audience's immediate reaction was overwhelming."

Thaksin's return to Thailand from self-exile is the aim of FM104MHz, the Grass Roots for Democracy. It also opposes everything regarded as a product of the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin and his government at the time.

"We recently succeeded in collecting about 17,000 signatures in Chiang Rai to support a petition seeking a royal pardon for the former premier," Ms Jeeranan said.

The petition is driven by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship.

Thaksin jumped bail last year and fled abroad to avoid a two-year prison term for helping his wife buy a prime piece of real estate in Bangkok at a discounted rate when he was prime minister, which was not permitted under the constitution.

FM104MHz was set up in March in Muang district after Ms Jeeranan and associates, who set up the 24 June Democracy of Chiang Rai group, could not find a channel to voice their opposition to the coup and the Democrat Party-led government.

They started the station with 500,000 baht. Income was later generated from donations and the sale of red shirts and other UDD products, the 34-year-old businesswoman said.

"There are six broadcasters taking turns and the broadcasting is done right from my bedroom from 7am to 11pm," she said.

Chiang Rai has about 70 community radio stations but only three are politically active. The other two are dedicated to the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy.

Ms Jeeranan said her station also broadcasts live programmes produced by DStation, the UDD's satellite TV. A website, http://www.24radio.org, is used to broaden the audience base.

Hers is among many red shirt groups in Thaksin strongholds in the northern and northeastern regions which capitalise on easy-to-operate technology and use it as a political campaign tool.

Other well-known stations are Udon Thani's Khon Rak Udon and Chiang Mai's Khon Rak Chiang Mai stations.

But the future of these stations is under threat after the National Telecommunications Commission issued an act recently requiring community radios to register and remain politically neutral.

PM's Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey has threatened operators with closure if they fail to meet the criteria.

But Ms Jeeranan said she was not worried and would defy the order. "The government claims we pose a threat to national security, and they will try to find ways to eliminate us," she said.

As one of over 20 UDD key members who faced arrest warrants over the Songkran riots and was later released on bail, Ms Jeeranan fears the authorities could act on this charge if her station remains defiant.

While the emergence of the red shirt stations is seen as an attempt to counter the coverage of mainstream media, local political observers fear the new act will "rub more salt into the wound".

"The government shouldn't shut all their political avenues," said Komsan Rattanasinakul, a mass media lecturer at the Chiang Rai Rajabhat University.

"It would intensify their anger and could stir up violence.

"[However] it is true that Ms Jeeranan's station, like other media tools driven by the red shirt groups, is extreme, providing one-sided information with provocative messages and offensive language."

In the long run, this type of broadcasting could plant the seed of deep hatred in locals against certain groups, he said.

But instead of strictly controlling them, the state should promote and develop these stations and try to make sure they do not cross the line and violate any laws.

Neramit Jitraksa, a political scientist, said the new political restrictions could make the red shirts feel they are being treated unjustly, and that could prove a ticking political time bomb for the government.

Apart from this station, other pro-Thaksin alternative media outlets include Red News and Thaksin Voice.

While there are other charges against Thaksin awaiting court hearings, it is unpredictable how the red shirt movement will continue its fight.

But for now, Ms Jeeranan said compromise was not on her mind as long as Thaksin was not pardoned for the land deal sentence.

"We're still angry," she said. "[And] what makes us angrier is the fact that the Democrat Party is running the government."