Muzzled opposition reduced to song in post-coup Thailand

BANGKOK (AFP) - His trademark televised diatribes have given way to misty-eyed songs, but in Thailand's stifling post-coup climate, the firebrand leader of the once mighty "Red Shirts" welcomes any chance to reach his supporters.

Jatuporn Prompan, chairman of the Red Shirt street movement which backed the toppled government of Yingluck Shinawatra, is back on the small screen after the ruling junta lifted a ban on Thailand's sharply polarised political channels.

For years his rabble-rousing rhetoric on television was staple viewing in the Red heartlands of northern Thailand where Yingluck - and her billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra - are adored for their pro-poor policies.

Rebranded as "Peace TV", Jatuporn now espouses the virtues of love and Buddhism in melancholic verses, a far cry from the tirades against the "ammart" - or Bangkok-based elite - and its supporters who loathe the Shinawatra clan.

"The road is not strewn with roses," 49-year-old Jatuporn croons in a pre-recorded song between programmes. "But we must continue to dream, no matter how difficult it is."

Tucked inside a multi-storey shopping centre in north Bangkok, the channel is one of the few public outlets available to opponents of the coup.

Anti-coup voices, including lawmakers from the former ruling Puea Thai party, academics and students' groups, have been silenced after the army summoned dissenters, outlawed political gatherings and censored the media.

For those attuned to the political realities of a kingdom under military rule, Jatuporn's return to television is symbolic - suggesting anti-coup forces are dormant but not dead.

But even Jatuporn concedes these days he can only meet fellow Red leaders at "funerals or weddings".

Since grabbing power in May, coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha has vowed to heal Thailand's caustic divide and has muted all political discussions.

Prayuth retired as army chief last month, but remains head of the junta and is also prime minister heading a hand-picked military dominated government.

The Red Shirts, known officially as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), have seen their leaders either renounce the cause, flee into self-exile or - like Jatuporn - agree to abandon politics.

Even Red Shirt funerals, including one taking place this week of core leader Apiwan Wiriyachai, are tightly monitored in case they morph into a political meeting - banned under strict martial laws.

Red Shirt leaders fear a repeat of 2010 when an army crackdown on rallies in the heart of Bangkok left more than 90 people dead and hundreds wounded.

"We are moving cautiously," said Jatuporn, who is permitted to broadcast despite facing a terrorism charge linked to those protests.

Even ex-premier Yingluck has mostly stayed out of the public eye - surfacing recently to sign a book of get-well wishes for the hospitalised king.

Yet discontent with the coup lingers.

While any hint of dissent is swiftly stamped down - including raids on university seminars on democracy - an overseas collection of Red Shirts, ex-Puea Thai officials and academics have formed the "Free Thai" exile group.

Some analysts predict an eventual revival of the Red cause in a nation where parties led-by or aligned-to the Shinawatras have won every poll since 2001.

A "greater opposition will emerge that combines Red Shirts, student groups, independent academic groups, and other pro-democracy" activists, according to analyst David Streckfuss.

The junta has other ideas.

To his enemies Thaksin, who was toppled as premier in another coup in 2006, has warped Thai society with massive corruption and populist policies.

A junta-appointed reform council bulging with anti-Thaksin members is due to begin work next week on remoulding Thai politics.

"The 2006 coup was an attempt by a royalist-led military to quickly replace Thaksin, return to democracy and continue business as usual," said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.

"The 2014 coup is different because the military is fully in charge of everything... (and) is likely to stay for a long time."

The military's reach into Thai politics is being driven by anxiety over what happens once the six-decade reign of the revered 86-year-old king Bhumibol Adulyadej ends, say observers.

The king remains in a Bangkok hospital after being admitted on Oct 4 for a gall bladder operation. Discussion of succession matters is restricted under a royal defamation law.

Prayuth is on an extensive public relations campaign to extol the junta's work and prep the nation for major reforms ahead.

Every Friday he delivers a televised address to the nation that opens with a "returning happiness to Thailand" song, penned by the leader.

In contrast, even after his Peace TV broadcasts, Jatuporn remains coy over the Red Shirts' future.

"We accepted these restrictions," he said.

"It was the only way to communicate with our supporters."

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