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Backstage with leader of Thailand’s 'People’s Revolution'
Publication Date : 22-12-2013
The interview with Suthep Thaugsuban, the politician who has been trying to overthrow the Yingluck Shinawatra government, was set up essentially because his self-styled People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) believes the foreign media has been misunderstanding it, and therefore it is getting bad press.
We sat in his bus behind the main stage at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument – near the backpacker area of Kao San Road - that is the hub of the movement.
Outside, a rock band on the stage belted out songs excoriating Thaksin Shinawatra, and tens of thousands danced in the carnival atmosphere that is typical of mass street protests in Thailand.
Inside, a big TV screen beamed Blue Sky TV, the network of the Democrat Party which covers every minute of the PDRC’s activities.
“Let me ask you, as a journalist, why do the Arabs have the right to stand up against their governments in the Arab spring and why don’t Thais have the same right?” Suthep said.
“The Ukrainians stand up against their government and the US praises them.”
But then he added: “We don’t blame the journalists because Thai politics through the eyes of the West might not be easily understandable.”
The PDRC in fact has very little support from the international community. Earlier this week when it invited foreign diplomats to brief them on the movement’s reasoning and objectives, less than five showed up. At least 40 foreign countries have expressed support for Thailand’s mid-term general election on February 2, which the PDRC wants it postponed.
I put this to the PDRC supremo who responded with an expansive shrug and said: “Mai pen rai. Mai pen rai.” It means “nevermind” in Thai.
Suthep, 64, spoke in Thai, with translations provided by his stepson, Oxford-educated Akanath Promphan. He made out a case against the Thaksin “regime” and how the self-exiled billionaire whose sister Yingluck is the prime minister, had abused power, and managed to return to power again and again through proxy parties despite dissolutions and bans for electoral fraud.
It had become “useless” to fight Thaksin’s domination through the normal process, he said. “They never fear consequences, even if they are banned from politics they can send their relatives, their wives, their children, to take part on their behalf.”
“The Thaksin regime... has used elections as a means to get to power and they have abused power. The most frightening part is now they have used a method of indirect vote buying by populist policies – the one thing our reform process must abolish because populist policies lead to corruption and ultimately damage the country,” he said.
The interview took place on Saturday, just half an hour after Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition Democrat Party, announced at a press conference that the party would not contest the February 2 election – propelling Thailand even deeper into crisis.
“Typically you would expect people to take part in an election because it is a democratic process,” Suthep admitted. “But this is not a typical situation, it is an extraordinary situation in which you have the government rejecting the constitution court ruling, and now is trying to use the constitution as an excuse to tell the people to go back to elections.”
“If there is to be an election on February 2, that means the Thaksin regime will return to power... because elections under the same rules and regulations will suffer from vote buying and electoral fraud.”
“We are not against elections,” he insisted. “We want elections, but we want a free and fair election with no electoral fraud. So we want to push forward reforms before an election.”
“We are not saying abolish the election, we only ask for it to be postponed.”
Despite his claim to be speaking for the people at large, Thailand remained divided, I reminded him. Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha himself said as much earlier this week, noting that the country was so divided that he feared a civil war.
And the response of government supporters to Suthep’s appointed “people’s council” to run the country and initiate reforms was unlikely to be warm and might even be regarded as a “silent coup d’etat”, I said.
“We don’t want to engage in a civil war,” he said in response. “We don’t want military involvement, we don’t want the military to come out. If you want to call this a coup, it is strictly a people’s coup, a people’s revolution.”
As a parting shot I asked how he was sustaining the movement, given the expense of stages and sound systems and meals for tens of thousands of people, day after day for weeks on end.
This is a matter of speculation in Bangkok, where certain big corporations are suspected – in whispers - of bankrolling the PDRC. The government has even moved to freeze the bank accounts of PDRC leaders to interrupt the flow of funds.
But Suthep dismissed this and getting up, stomped off to his bedroom at the back of the bus, reappearing moments later with a canvas bag. He unzipped it to reveal fat wads of bank notes, saying these were what ordinary people had given him personally on Friday alone, when he led a march in downtown Bangkok.
He stomped off again and hauled out a second bag also full of cash. That day, including donations received at the stage, the movement had collected around 10 million baht (US$306,465), he estimated. And it was all from “the people” not corporations.
Then it was his turn to go on stage, and as he left the bus someone gave him an envelope full of money. He turned around triumphantly and showed it to me. “You see?” he said.