News / Asia

Thailand's Suthep: Dissent Crusher Turns Protest Leader

Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy premier leading the protest, waves to his supporters during an anti-government march to the Government complex in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 27, 2013.
Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy premier leading the protest, waves to his supporters during an anti-government march to the Government complex in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 27, 2013.
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.
Backroom dealmaker

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.”

You May Like

Nearly Every Job in America Mapped in Detail

A nifty map pinpoints practically every job in the United States, revealing the economic character of America’s metropolitan areas, which also helps to inform the local culture

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video In Cambodian Capital, Political Motives Seen Behind Canceled Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle reports from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs