BANGKOK– Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the Thai protests, is a political veteran with a chequered past and a hatred of what he calls the ‘Thaksin regime’.
Most people faced with potential treason charges would be in hiding or running for their lives.
But not Suthep Thaugsuban, the former deputy prime minister turned street protester, who has emerged as the key figure in the political turmoil currently engulfing Thailand.
So far, Suthep has ignored the warrant issued for his arrest last Tuesday for his part in instigating the massive civil unrest in Bangkok and demanding that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her ruling Puea Thai party step down.
Instead, the 64-year-old head of the Civil Movement for Democracy (CMD) continues to appear daily at press conferences where he insists he will not stop until the “Thaksin regime” is eradicated from Thailand.
Like all the protesters, and many Thais, Suthep believes that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a 2006 military coup and fled into exile in 2008, continues to run Thailand via his sister Yingluck from his homes in London and Dubai.
Thaksin is hated by the traditional elite – the big businessmen, royal advisers and army generals – and their metropolitan, middle-class supporters for his perceived disloyalty to the revered monarchy, as well as for the corruption they say has flourished under Puea Thai’s rule.
Suthep’s links with the Thai elite go back decades, from when he was growing up in a wealthy land-owning family in Surat Thani province in southern Thailand, the heartland of the opposition Democrat Party. He became the Democrat Member of Parliament for Surat Thani in 1979.
But many observers regard Suthep as merely the frontman for a shadowy coalition of conservatives long opposed to Thaksin, Puea Thai and their populist policies which guarantee them overwhelming support among the rural poor.
“The people behind these protests are the same people behind the 2006 coup. It’s impossible that Suthep is acting alone,” said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of the Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok think tank.
“They are spending around five million baht (HK$1.27 million) a day on sustaining the protesters, so he must have people behind him providing that money.”
As a veteran politician, Suthep, who was both secretary general of the Democrat Party and deputy prime minister until 2011, makes an ideal candidate to head the protests.
“The elite need someone to protect their interests, so Suthep is acting for them,” said Kan. “But no one will admit that in public.
“Instead, they say they want to reform a corrupt system. But if Suthep really wants to reform the system, why isn’t he doing it from within parliament?”
Instead of calling for a general election, which the Democrats know they would almost certainly lose, Suthep has proposed replacing the democratically elected Puea Thai government with what he calls a “people’s assembly”, or “people’s council”.
It would be run by a “dream team” of administrators picked by as yet unnamed figures.
Tida Tawornseth, chairwoman of the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship – better known as the Thaksin-supporting “red shirts” – said: “It is a crazy idea because it means that Suthep denies democracy and the rule of law.
“More than 26 million people voted in the 2011 election. How can you deny the result of an election that big? Suthep says he wants to get rid of the Thaksin regime, but that means throwing away the constitution.”
Anti-government protesters regard Puea Thai as having lost its legitimacy to run Thailand after the November 20 decision by the Constitutional Court to reject its proposed plan to make the senate an all-elected chamber.
Yet Suthep himself was forced to step down as a lawmaker in 2009 after it emerged he violated the constitution by holding a stake in a media company that had been granted government concessions.
He was also involved in a corruption scandal in 1995 in which he was found to have granted plots of land intended for the poor to wealthy families on the island of Phuket.
In an early sign of his willingness to employ rabble-rousing tactics, Suthep called on his supporters to march on Bangkok to defend him. But the outcry led to parliament being dissolved and the Democrats losing the subsequent election.
Despite that, Suthep was deputy prime minister in the unelected, Democrat-led government installed after the overthrow of Thaksin.
He played a major role in the bloody crackdown on the Bangkok street protests of 2010 that prompted the fall of that administration and resulted in the 2011 Puea Thai election victory. A total of 92 people died. In October, Suthep was indicted by Thailand’s Office of the Attorney General for issuing the orders that allowed the military to open fire on the protesters.
Perhaps because of his mixed past, few of the demonstrators massing outside government ministries want to see Suthep become the country’s leader.
“People don’t want him to be prime minister,” said Chuchai Anunmana, a 43-year-old dentist who was demonstrating outside the national police headquarters. “He is just the figurehead of the protests and because of that, people are following him.”
Nor can Suthep count on the support of all his former colleagues in the Democrat Party, with some prominent figures openly questioning his plan for a “people’s assembly”.
The current deputy leader of the Democrats, Korn Chatikavanij, said last week he did not understand what Suthep’s people’s government would really be like. That prompted Suthep to warn Korn publicly not to criticise the CMD again or he would “experience trouble in his life”.
That Suthep is playing for high stakes is clear.
“The people who are doing this are looking for an uprising,” said Pitch Pongsawat, a professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“They think if they succeed they’ll be pardoned, so it’s worth the risk for them. If the government does talk to the protesters, they’ll want an amnesty for their role in this.”
But with the number of protesters dwindling and Puea Thai refusing to be provoked into cracking down on the demonstrations, Suthep’s options are looking increasingly limited.
“I don’t think he is a clever man,” said Pitch. “He’s like the guy who goes into a casino and bets on everything.
“He’s just pressuring the government and hoping the protests work. It’s irrational.”
Tida thinks Suthep’s time has passed. “His political career is already over,” she said. “All he can do now is show if he can lead a coup. But I don’t think he can even do that.”
By David Eimer in Bangkok