For about month now, a gray-haired, bespectacled politician has been spitting out fiery speeches before thousands of Thai protesters in Bangkok, exhorting them to ever more extremes in a bold and brazen bid to topple the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Adoring crowds stand and sit transfixed, cheering and waving Thai flags as the charismatic Suthep Thaugsuban thunders away. They’re convinced he’s spot-on in his pronouncements and his diatribes against deposed premier Thaksin Shinwatra. “I’ve been out [in the protests] every night” says hairstylist Attaprong Trikasem. “Thaksin is a bad guy. Suthep is the right person to lead.”
In his deep voice, Suthep repeats his mantra over and over: Thailand’s government lacks legitimacy; it is corrupt; it must be ousted.
By any means necessary, if recent events in the capital are any indication. As Christmas week began, Suthep’s campaign, which started as a drive to derail a proposed parliamentary bill that would have granted amnesty to the exiled Thaksin and other political offenders, had morphed into a revolt whose leader was urging protesters to chase Yingluck until she is dead or leaves, according to an Al Jazeera report. By Monday, protesters in the hundreds of thousands were choking Bangkok’s streets, laying siege to the prime minister’s house (she was touring the country’s north at the time), and disrupting attempts by politicians to register for the February 2 national election the government and the Election Commission have scheduled.
The man who has brought this constitutional monarchy to the brink is a veteran pol who abandoned his Democrat Party seat in Parliament to spearhead what increasingly resembles a messianic mission to end “the Thaksin regime.” A native of the large southern province of Surat Thani, the savvy 64-year-old has held high political office himself, including a stint as a deputy prime minister under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in the last, Democrat Party-led government, which was replaced by Yingluck and the Pheu Thai party in 2011. He is beloved by protesting disciples, but seen by others as the arch-representative of the “Bangkok elites” that have run the country for decades and apparently believe it is their right and responsibility to do so.
“He’s got powerful people behind him; and this is clearly not about democracy, but a situation where people who have been in power forever are resisting a seismic shift in the political landscape,” a retired Western diplomat in Thailand tells me.
In the view of this diplomat and others, including Thai commentators not eager to go on the record, Suthep is the useful tool of interests that are loath to concede the growing political clout of the unwashed masses in the north and northeast. The fact that those Thais vote in droves for iterations of parties led by Thaksin Shinawatra and his proxy of the moment helps explain the visceral reaction to Thaksin and animosity toward the so-called Thaksin regime. It also explains Suthep’s lack of interest in a new general election. Why bother with an election that will re-install Yingluck? Suthep explains his Thaksin stance this way: "I don't hate him. It's nothing personal, but Thaksin destroyed Thailand's democratic system, destroyed the virtues and ethics of the people," he told Agence France Presse.
That assertion is not without irony. Suthep and his lieutenants have dubbed their group the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, although it does not represent a majority of Thais, is manifestly not fueled by devotion to classic democracy, and has failed to articulate what “reform” would constitute—apart from the introduction of an appointed “people’s council” to replace Yingluck’s administration.
Suthep insists reform will indeed occur—but only after Yingluck is gone and the Shinawatra influence erased. What’s extraordinary is that he’s in effect calling for banning—rendering as personas non grata—an entire family, and those associated with it. It’s like someone arbitrarily deciding that the Gandhis in India or the Aquinos in the Philippines may no longer involve themselves in national politics. Or the Bushes in America, for that matter. He’s also, in effect, suggesting that millions of ordinary Thais be disenfranchised, given that they routinely vote for Thaksin-related parties, and that the governments that ensue from such voting “lack legitimacy.”
“If Suthep wins, anyone associated with the Thaksin political machine would be completely banned, exiled, imprisoned, and then democracy would be resumed,” Bangkok Post columnist Voranai Vanijaka tells me.
As for the claim that Yingluck’s government is corrupt, it is a charge reeking of chutzpah, coming from a politician whose own résumé is pocked by corruption scandals. As agriculture minister in the mid-1990s, Suthep was accused of using a land reform program aimed at the poor to hand out some plots of land to rich friends—a case that eventually led to the downfall of the Democrat Party government at the time. In 2009, he was accused of violating the Constitution by holding equity in a media firm that got concessions from the government.
As it stands, the protest leader has insurrection charges pending against him in connection with the ongoing protests. He also faces a murder charge in connection with the 2010 Army crackdown on “Red Shirt” protesters in which more than 90 people were killed. He was a deputy prime minister at the time. Authorities have made no move to arrest him despite his very high profile—a move that could itself spark violence given the high tensions, and the esteem in which he’s held by many.
With his short-term objective of a royally appointed government, Suthep seems to be leading a movement that’s both undemocratic and anachronistic. After all, Thailand has had a constitutional monarchy since 1932. Even so, his supporters are eager to help him achieve his goals. One protester tells me she wants to “restore the king and the country,” although it’s not clear if she actually yearns for an absolute monarchy.
Some Suthep backers acknowledge feeling somewhat confused. Dr. Wiroj Suyapieang, a Bangkok skincare specialist, says Suthep had a “very good startup.” And he says he believes the Yingluck government is corrupt and needs to go. He sees Suthep’s campaign as “providing a window for people to speak up.” But he also is concerned that the protest leader is “going on without any limit and no one knows what direction he’s going in” and needs to come up with a clear plan. “Suthep is taking off from on airport but doesn’t know where to land,” says Wiroj.
As the civil strife deepens, Thais will be hoping their political firebrand doesn’t pilot them into a crash.