Political reconciliation may have taken a small step forward last night as privy councillors mingled with cabinet ministers in a carefully staged 10-million-baht gala dinner orchestrated by the government to give thanks to those assisting last year's flood efforts.
But political observers played down the significance of the event, which marked the first time in years that Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda has attended an event hosted by a government tied to ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda is welcomed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to the gala dinner at Government House yesterday. The event was organised to thank agencies and parties involved in last year’s flood relief operations. CHANAT KATANYU
Gen Prem and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra commanded all eyes from the gallery of senior politicians, diplomats and business leaders at Government House. Other privy councillors included Amphon Senanarong and ACM Kamthon Sindhvananda.
As guests feasted on a menu featuring smoked salmon and red wine while violins played in the background, more than 100 protesters chanted metres away to protest about the perceived waste of taxpayers' money.
Gen Prem has often been the subject of fierce attacks from the red shirt supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, a group of pro-Thaksin supporters formed after the 2006 military coup. In 2007, thousands of red shirts rallied outside Gen Prem's home to call for his resignation.
But several former red shirt leaders, including newly appointed deputy agriculture minister Nattawut Saikuar and Pheu Thai MP Apiwan Wiriyachai, hailed Gen Prem's appearance at the party as a true sign of progress towards national reconciliation.
Mr Nattawut, who appeared briefly at the party, had said earlier that while he would not apologise to Gen Prem for the UDD's comments in the past, he personally held no grievances against the elder statesman.
Political observers played down the significance of the event, with political scientist Sukhum Nuansakul saying it was way too early to say that reconciliation had truly advanced.
"But it may be true that we won't see the red shirts go and rally outside Gen Prem's residence again," he said.
Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, rector of the National Institute of Development Administration, said inviting the Privy Council president represented shrewd political tactics.
The government had nothing to lose with the invitation, he said, and indeed, the political stakes were higher for the invitee.
"[Gen Prem] is a widely respected phuyai. If he declined, he might be cast in a bad light," Mr Sombat said, adding he believed that the event would have little if any impact on the country's deep-seated political divide. "It's a tactical move by Mr Thaksin. He's fishing for reactions."
One notable absentee was opposition leader and former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was not invited.
At the function, Ms Yingluck conveyed the government's gratitude to all those who had contributed to the government's flood relief efforts. The Thai people had demonstrated their patience, endurance and prudence in coping with the devastating floods, she said.
"This is not about celebrating victory. It is a thank-you gesture for all who joined in our attempts to tackle the flooding," she said.
Of the 10 million baht set aside for the 500-guest party, 3.5 million baht went on decorations and food. Entertainment was provided by the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra and the Armed Forces Philharmonic Orchestra, including four songs composed by Gen Prem.
Before the dinner started, 100 supporters of the Khon Thai Rak Chart Rak Pandin (Thais Who Love the Nation and the Land) group marched to Government House via Ratchadamnoen and Phitsanulok roads to protest.
Led by political campaigners Chaiwat Sinsuwong and Somboon Thongburan, the protesters slammed the government for using taxpayer funds for the party. Police dispersed the protesters at about 7pm.