Who's joining Thai protests?

More students are marching to unseat Prime Minister Samak, adding to an ideologically mixed coalition of businesspeople, royalists, and academics.

By , Correspondent

With a textbook tucked under one arm and a megaphone in the other, Totsapol Thaitrong marched in downtown Bangkok Friday with hundreds of fellow students, adding their youthful voices to the cacophony that is Thai politics.

Outside the national police headquarters, they rallied to denounce police brutality and demanded justice for two activists wounded Thursday by gunmen during a march. Some planned to join the occupation of the prime minister's offices, now in its 11th day, which has brought a volatile political situation close to boiling point.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, the target of the protests, declared a state of emergency in Bangkok after overnight street clashes left one person dead. But Army commander Anuphong Paojinda has let the occupation continue unchecked, arguing that a political settlement is required to restore order.

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Across much of Asia, idealistic students are often on the frontlines when activists go to the barricades. But the current push to unseat the Thai leader hasn‚t followed this pattern, relying instead on middle-aged followers to keep up the pressure. Many of those camped out on the lawn of the compound are women, including retirees and business owners.

Yet the mobilization of students, while still small, is growing and could help broaden the campaign, while reviving memories of student-led movements of the 1970s and 1990s. It would also dispel the stereotype of a young generation obsessed with shopping and entertainment, the fruits of Thailand's export-led economic growth.

Mr. Totsapol, a law student, admits that many on campus are too busy or apathetic to march, even though he ignored his professor’s advice to stay impartial. "I like to follow the news and know what happens in the country. I don‚t like bad politicians," he says.

Wanchalerm Sangwantond, a high-school student wearing his uniform, says his mother encouraged him to join Friday's march and the compound sit-in. We come here because we want to show our support [for this campaign]. We hate this government," he says.

Plenty of university students take an interest in social and political issues, says Giles Ungpakorn, a leftist politics professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, where Totsapol studies. But while students stood up to military dictators in 1992, joining the People's Alliance for Democracy - a coalition of royalists, businesspeople, and academics leading the current protests - may be less appealing.

"If students get active in politics, that would be a significant change. But the PAD is fighting on a conservative, reactionary platform. That's not necessarily something that stirs up young people," he says.

Samak often dismisses the group as an irrational mob. On Thursday, he proposed holding a national referendum to end the crisis, a move that could take weeks to organize. PAD leaders swiftly rejected the idea as a delaying tactic.

Adding to the uncertainty, the Election Commission voted Tuesday to recommend dissolving Samak's People's Power Party for campaign fraud during last December's parliamentary election. Party dissolution would trigger new polls that seem unlikely to heal the divisions exposed by the current stalemate.

"I think the problem in Thai society is much deeper than the conflict between the government and the PAD and whatever governments comes out [of elections]. There will be protests, large or small. It's inevitable," says Nidhi Eoseewong, a liberal historian in Chiang Mai.

Defining the ideological lines in Thai politics is complex. Ironically, some of the bitterest foes are former student leaders of the 1970s who now find themselves on opposite sides.

Supporters of Samak and his predecessor Thaksin Shinawatra, the original foe of the PAD who was ousted in 2006, say they are defending democracy against a reactionary minority that wants to turn back the clock. PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul proposes diluting the power of elected politicians and inviting military intervention when needed.

That infuriates Thitirat Hoshi, a businesswoman in Bangkok who says the rural and urban poor stand to lose out. "The PAD is small but they are rich people and have education, so they can do anything," she says.

Not all PAD supporters are giving up on Western-style democracy, though. Some argue that Samak has gamed the electoral system and that his removal would clear the way for reform-minded politicians. Some activists recall Samak's role in violent crackdowns on street protests in 1976.

That pivotal year, when nationalist generals overthrew an elected left-leaning government, casts a shadow over the current conflict. Some leftists such as Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee went on to join Mr. Thaksin's party, injecting a social welfare agenda into its capitalist DNA. Others have now found common cause with the PAD, despite its elitist creed and links to military hardliners.

Both sides can play royalist cards. The PAD claims to be fighting for the crown against alleged republican plots by its opponents. But Samak is a nationalist who has a long association with revered King Bhumipol.

Little wonder that the Army is staying out of these murky political waters, says Mr. Nidhi, the historian. "The situation is so confusing that they don't know what to do," he says.

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