Suthep Thaugsuban’s self-styled popular uprising to take control of Thailand may have failed this week – but that is not stopping him from trying again. His latest plan: stop civil servants going to work by surrounding all the most important ministries from Friday, thereby shutting down the government and squeezing the life from it within weeks.
“I want to finish everything by the end of this year because people have to go back to their families to celebrate the new year,” he said in an interview in the vast government office complex and shopping arcade northwest of Bangkok that his protesters occupy.
One of many disorienting features of Thailand’s political crisis is that even though a warrant has been issued for Mr Suthep’s arrest, the police’s reluctance to inflame tensions means he remains free to sit in the small travel agency he has commandeered as his campaign office, calmly outlining his strategy to overthrow the country’s elected rulers. But the borderline absurdity of the situation doesn’t mask the drive of this veteran legislator turned anti-politician, or his intent to sweep aside parliamentary rule and replace it with an unelected “people’s council”.
“I have been part of this system for 35 years,” Mr Suthep said. “During that time, I felt the people. I know what they want.”
Protesters from Mr Suthep’s Civil Movement for Democracy took to the streets again at Bangkok’s city police headquarters on Wednesday, but the demonstration was low voltage due to the respect both sides have to show for the venerated King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 86th birthday on Thursday. The enforced pause has brought hugs and handshakes between police and protesters who earlier in the week traded rubber bullets and homemade explosives outside the prime minister’s office.
Mr Suthep’s vow to remobilise on Friday will be a big test of his credibility, after both a “Victory Day” declared for last Sunday and an ultimatum for Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister, to leave office by Tuesday night came and went without success.
The demonstrations are part of a debilitating – and periodically violent – seven-year power struggle in southeast Asia’s second-largest economy between supporters and opponents of Thaksin Shinawatra, a fugitive former premier who was deposed in a 2006 coup and is Ms Yingluck’s older brother.
Sustained by vitamin injections after 10 intense days of demonstrations, Mr Suthep, 64, said his tactics of besieging and occupying government buildings were justified, even though they could damage an already weakening Thai economy for which growth forecasts are being revised ever downwards.
“We understand that this movement may have some impact on the economy,” he said, adding that the Yingluck government had forfeited its right to rule because of abuses of power. “But the impact will be short lived – and will be less than what the Thaksin regime has done to Thailand.”
Demagogic at his nightly rallies, Mr Suthep in person exudes the affability – “after this, if I am not in jail, we will have lunch together” – of the ultra-connected south Thailand MP he was until a few weeks back. He insists he is happy with the decision confirmed on Wednesday by the military – in which he has influential friends – not to intervene, although he appears to leave the door open to an alliance with them by noting that his protest is broad-based and “doesn’t exclude anyone”.
Mr Suthep rejects criticism that he lacks the support of anything close to a majority of the country’s more than 65m people. He claims that every person seen at street protests that have topped 150,000 in Bangkok is representing as many as 14 other family members.
He also denies that past scandals around him make him unfit to lead a campaign for democracy and against corruption. He says he did nothing wrong over a 1995 land reform scandal in which he was accused of allocating property to the wealthy; a 2009 case over allegations that he held shares in a company that received favourable government treatment; and murder charges laid against him over the 2010 deaths of some of the 90 people killed during protests against an administration in which he was deputy prime minister.
In the weeks since he resigned from parliament and the opposition Democrats to lead the protests, Mr Suthep has to some eyes morphed rather implausibly from pillar of an established order to warrior against it. When it is put to him that his campaign may stop the work of officials who once loyally served his own government in the face of demonstrations against it, he points to what he sees as the popularity and singularity of his cause amid the country’s discredited politics.
“This time it is different,” he said. “It is a people’s movement.”
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