In Thailand, populist protesters turn the tables on the government

Thousands of supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra seek to topple the government that itself came to power after mass demonstrations.

Apichart Weerawong/AP
Anti-government protesters and supporters of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had a confrontation with police officers in Bangkok, Thailand, on Friday.

By day, the red-clad crowds thin under a broiling sun. By nightfall, they arrive in their thousands for another night of fiery antigovernment speeches, spicy snacks, and twangy country music.

Like night following day, the latest Thai protests are a reaction to the fall of a government last December amid chaotic demonstrations by royalists wearing yellow. This time, the color theme is tomato red. And, once again, vengeful crowds have surrounded the prime minister's compound to demand his resignation, threatening to pitch a divided, weary nation back into an all-out battle for political supremacy.

So far, the weeklong protests have been peaceful. Organizers defied a court order to end their blockade, but haven't sought to break into the compound, as their opponents did last year. On the perimeter walls, artists have put their spin on the political drama, lampooning Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the royalist protesters who enabled his takeover, which was sealed by a controversial judicial ruling.

The most popular images in the protest camp, though, are of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a military coup in 2006 and is now living in exile in Dubai, wanted at home on a corruption-related conviction.

Many protesters are stirred by a broad set of grievances, including economic hardship in a quickening recession. But the fate of their former leader is a unifying battle cry.

"If he comes back, everything will be OK. Thaksin is No. 1. We never had a prime minister like him," says Amporn Paiboonbudsarakham, a cosmetics saleswoman.

Mr. Thaksin has galvanized the crowd with nightly speeches carried by video-link. This tactic, used in recent months before similar gatherings around the country, has forced the government onto the defensive. Organizers say that a larger rally will be held in Bangkok on April 8, on the eve of an annual summit for Asian leaders that Mr. Abhisit will chair in the resort town of Pattaya.

Critics warn that the "red shirts" may be overreaching by aping the nonstop protests of the royalist People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). After swelling over the weekend to more than 30,000, the crowds have begun to dwindle. Even some politicians allied to Thaksin are unsure if firing up his base with inflammatory talk is the right way to advance a broader political movement.

In addition to calling for Abhisit to quit, protest organizers are pressuring senior royal courtiers to step down. On March 27, Thaksin accused Prem Tinsulanonda, the chief adviser to revered King Bhumibol, of orchestrating the 2006 coup. Mr. Prem, who has denied the allegation, is a linchpin in the royal establishment, which has come under increasing criticism in recent years, breaking a long-held taboo.

Opponents accuse Thaksin of seeking to overthrow Thailand's monarchy, which he denies. In his live speeches, he has drawn a distinction between the "highest institution," as it is known, and its courtiers who meddle in politics. But he has urged his red-clad supporters, who are mostly drawn from the lower classes, to rise up against the aristocracy and return Thailand to a "complete democracy."

"The rhetoric of Thaksin has totally changed. He seems to have an escalation plan in place ... and he's going for broke," says Chris Baker, coauthor of a critical biography on Thaksin.

On Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban offered to hold talks with Thaksin, but insisted that the government would not resign. Thaksin has not responded publicly to the offer.

Buranaj Smutharaks, a spokesman for the ruling Democrat Party, said the government would not interfere with legal proceedings against Thaksin, as he has demanded. Last year, he was found guilty in absentia over a 2003 land sale. Prosecutors are also trying to seize $2.1 billion of his assets that were frozen after the coup.

"We're willing to negotiate with anyone if that would resolve the crisis and bring stability, but the law is the law," says Mr. Buranaj.

Thailand's shrinking economy may ratchet up the pressure on the government, which is supported by influential business groups who are leery of political turmoil. Factory layoffs and a drop in tourism add to the pool of idle workers. Protest leaders are also hammering home the message that only Thaksin, a self-made businessman, can rescue the Thai economy from ruin.

Thaksin supporters are quick to criticize the government's plan to borrow up to $2 billion offshore to stimulate a trade-dependent economy. By contrast, Thaksin made great political capital during his first term by repaying a loan to the International Monetary Fund that was extended during the 1997-98 financial crisis.

After the crisis, the Democrat Party, which polls strongly in central and southern Thailand, was tarred with the brush of an unpopular IMF restructuring program. It has since struggled to win over rural voters in the north and northeast, where Thaksin burnished a populist, can-do image.

Now, Thaksin is using that record as leverage to stir resentment against a privileged elite, including Oxford-educated Abhisit and the PAD, which dismisses poor voters as too ill-informed to chose.

"This is the fundamental division in Thai society," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a politics professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "If you don't build a bridge [to the masses], they will be alienated."

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