BANGKOK – In the sweltering basement of a hotel in downtown Bangkok, the man who wants to bring down Thailand’s government says protesters pouring into the city’s streets are a “people’s coup” that will force change upon a country where corruption has become normal.
In the unstable political history of coup-prone Thailand, governments have been ordered out by courts and booted out by the military, all with such frequency it has become almost normal. In recent days, as protesters near an operation to “shut down” Bangkok on Monday, military commanders have pointedly refused to rule out a putsch.
But this time it’s different, argued Suthep Thaugsuban, the secretary-general of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee and leader of the movement to turf an elected government it considers too corrupt to stay.
“We are not asking for the military to carry out a coup. We will do this ourselves,” Mr. Suthep said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. With the government refusing to resign, “that leaves us with a single decision: that the people will have to carry out a people’s revolution, the people’s coup.”
Mr. Suthep, with frameless glasses and a rotation of striped shirts he tends to wear emblazoned with a flag patch, is the picture of a Thai politician.
On days when marches are planned, he walks for hours in the blazing sun, shaking endless hands, posing for pictures and personally accepting thousands of dollars in cash held out to him by street-side supporters. In the animated speeches he delivers from a stage at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, he draws raucous cheers for his loud denunciations of the current government and personal attacks on its leadership.
He is more reserved in an interview over McCafé coffees, but still eager to bat away accusations that his is nothing more than a power grab by Bangkok’s urban elite, who have been unable to field a party capable of winning an election in many years.
Indeed, Mr. Suthep has undermined a Feb. 2 election so effectively that the country’s Office of the Auditor-General warned this week that holding polls could be a waste of money, given it was unlikely to produce a sitting parliament.
Mr. Suthep says he has been misunderstood. In Thailand, he said, rules need to be changed and reforms set in place before a fair vote can be held. He wants to end vote-buying, introduce an unlimited statute of limitations on corruption, decentralize power, solve poverty and restructure the national police.
“It is sad that a lot of people have misinterpreted the election system in Thailand. To think that an election in Thailand is fully democratic is incorrect,” he said, pointing to the prevalence of electoral fraud.
Besides, “because millions of people all over the country have come out to show that they no longer want this government, this government is no longer politically legitimate,” he added.
However, academics have suggested Mr. Suthep’s crowd size estimates have been inflated. Some 15.7-million people voted for current prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra 21/2 years ago, handing her only the second majority government in Thai history.
Critics also question how Mr. Suthep can be trusted to root out corruption. He has himself faced numerous corruption allegations and has served as a career politician – first elected in 1979 – in a country where political longevity is often bought and paid for. One U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks said members of his own party “have privately complained to us that he engages in corrupt and unethical behaviour.”
Mr. Suthep responds that the press has paid attention to charges against him, but not to courts that absolved him. He has promised to step aside once reforms are enacted and offered this assurance: “I have never lied to the people. Whatever I say, I do.” It’s a statement difficult to square with the movement he now leads which, among other things, initially said it would support the election set for Feb. 2 before subsequently conducting such an effective effort to thwart it that it’s now doubtful a new parliament can be elected next month.
Mr. Suthep’s commitment to peaceful protest has also raised questions. While the current demonstrators have so far been notable for their calm – there are no rebel barricades, just people sitting quietly listening to speeches – Mr. Suthep himself has a more checkered past. He was deputy prime minister and in charge of security in 2010, when the military opened fire on Red Shirt protesters, including some who had assembled unarmed in a temple. In all, nearly 90 died. Mr. Suthep is unapologetic, saying the Red Shirts at the time “terrorized” the country with armed militants who opened fire on soldiers, government buildings, banks and temples.
“But … I stabilized the situation,” he said. “I was the one who was responsible for stopping Thailand from civil war.”
As for Ms. Yingluck, Mr. Suthep offered magnanimity – but only if she goes quietly.
“If Yingluck admits to her guilt and decides to resign from her caretaker duty and let the people carry out reform, we will not do anything to her,” he said. If not, she “and her relatives, the Shinawatra family, will be charged accordingly with corruption charges.”