BANGKOK— In 2010, the last time Thailand was gripped by large-scale anti-government protests, Suthep Thaugsuban, then deputy prime minister, was the man wielding the sword.
The Democrat Party politician authorized a crackdown by security forces that left downtown Bangkok burning and killed scores of red-shirt supporters of his arch-rival, Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist former prime minister who was overthrown in a 2006 coup.
Now, just three-and-a-half-years later, Thai politics has flipped. Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is the prime minister. This time, Suthep is on the outside, leading protests aimed at bringing down Yingluck's government.
And this time, he thinks, Yingluck could not use force to stop him, even if she tried.
“I believe Yingluck doesn't have the authority to order the police or military to do anything,” Suthep told Reuters at Bangkok's Finance Ministry, which has been occupied by protesters since Monday. “They've realized she's a prime minister that doesn't obey the rule of law.”
The emergence of Suthep as a protest leader betrays how just a few personalities - and their grudges - drive Thailand's political soap opera, with its cycle of violent protests and interventions by the judiciary, military and palace.
Since resigning from parliament this month along with eight other members, the wily, silver-haired politician from Thailand's south has emerged as the firebrand voice of anti-Thaksin forces, a motley collection aligned with Bangkok's royalist civilian and military elite.
He projects himself as champion of the dispossessed rubber farmers from his home region and of Bangkok's middle classes in speeches that have energized protesters flooding Bangkok's streets by the tens of thousands, in an echo of “yellow shirt” protests that helped to bring Thaksin down.
A warrant has been issued for his arrest after thousands of his supporters swarmed the Finance Ministry. Along with former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, he faces murder charges over the 2010 crackdown.
He has characterized the protests as a movement to eradicate the network of the now self-exiled Thaksin from Thailand's political system. How that will happen and whether it entails intercession by the judiciary or the coup-prone military is unclear.
He dismissed suggestions of an alliance with the military, a major force in politics since Thailand became a democracy in 1932. The military has staged 18 coups - some successful, some not - and made several discreet interventions in forming coalition governments, almost all with the tacit backing of the royalist establishment that now reviles Thaksin.
“We hope this will be a movement of the people to temporarily seize hold of the governance of Thailand,” he said.
Suthep says parliament, now controlled by Yingluck's Puea Thai Party, should be suspended and replaced by a “people's parliament” directly elected by the public and free of politicians - except for himself and his fellow recently resigned MPs.
He wants to make provincial governors directly elected, and institute reforms of the corruption-plagued police and bureaucracy.
Although Thaksin or his allies have won every election of the past decade, he says that reflects rampant vote-buying, which he says his “temporary administration” would end.
Such revolutionary language jars with Suthep's long political pedigree. Until just a few weeks ago, the 64-year-old former shrimp-farm and palm-oil magnate had held a seat in parliament since 1979. He served in cabinet as Communications Minister and twice as Deputy Agriculture Minister.
In 1995, a scandal involving his land reform program caused then-Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai to dissolve the House rather than face a no-confidence vote. Suthep was criticized for allegedly giving land rights to the wealthy under a reform scheme intended for the poor. He denied the charge but resigned.
Ironically, the ensuing political storm swept Thaksin into politics.
Over the years, Suthep developed an image as a consummate politician. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008 described him as his party's “backroom dealmaker”.
“He maintains contacts in all camps, including the military,” the cable said. “He has reportedly had direct contact with Thaksin after Thaksin was deposed as prime minister,” the cable said. He has denied such contacts with Thaksin.
Thaksin is toxic
Suthep's followers are galvanized by the alleged excesses of Yingluck, her brother and their policies, including a runaway multibillion dollar rice-subsidy scheme seen as an attempt to lock in the support of farmers.
Even more galling, he said, was an attempt to put forward a broad-ranging amnesty bill aimed at securing the return of Thaksin, who was sentenced to two years in prison in absentia for corruption. The opposition Democrats have bitterly opposed the bill, despite a sweetener that would have seen the charges against Suthep and Abhisit dropped.
The Democrats for their part have played a delicate game, attempting to ride in the slipstream of anti-government sentiment while at times distancing themselves from the rallies.
“I have no idea what Suthep means by a 'people's parliament,'” said Korn Chatikavanij, a senior Democrat member and former finance minister. “We think the best way to find a solution to all of this is for the government to resign and dissolve parliament.”
But he said the Democrats and the protesters “share a common belief that Thaksin is toxic for Thailand.”
At the protest, participants appear to be similarly wary of connecting their movement to the opposition party.
“Before, [Suthep] was like any other politician. We wouldn't say he's very good,” said Kochamakorn Homglee, who has joined with a group of stay-at-home mothers from Bangkok's posh Harrow International School, where Yingluck also sends her son.
“But now he's a hero.”