Thai Politician Turned Protest Leader Vows to Uproot System

WSJ

Thai Politician Turned Protest Leader Vows to Uproot System

Suthep Thaugsuban Says He Won’t Seek to Become Prime Minister

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By James Hookway | connect
Dec. 2, 2013 2:46 p.m. ET
BANGKOK—His followers call themselves whistleblowers. He presents himself as the man to clean up Thailand.
Still, questions abound about Suthep Thaugsuban’s campaign to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her wealthy brother Thaksin Shinawatra from power—including whether the 64-year-old longtime politician can overcome his reputation as being the kind of wheeling-dealing power broker that his supporters are now trying to eradicate.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Monday, the silver-haired Mr. Suthep sought to assuage those concerns, saying that he has given up his past life as a mainstream politician.

“I resigned to fight for the people. I’m fighting for the people in the streets,” he said. “I won’t be fighting in the parliament anymore. And I can assure you, I don’t intend to be prime minister myself.”

Ms. Yingluck on Monday rejected calls by protesters to step down but added in a televised news conference that she was open to negotiations. The air around Bangkok’s main government complex was again thick with tear gas as demonstrators continued efforts to drive Ms. Yingluck’s administration from office.

A Thai court, meanwhile, issued a warrant for Mr. Suthep’s arrest on charges of insurrection, a crime that government officials said could potentially carry the death penalty, although the sentence is rarely carried out in Thailand. Mr. Suthep—subject to another arrest warrant last week on charges of orchestrating the siege of government ministries by protesters— has scoffed at the claims, saying he hasn’t broken any serious laws.

In the interview, Mr. Suthep said his campaign isn’t a push to force new elections; it is a bid to uproot Thailand’s entire political system. Mr. Suthep wants to put in place an appointed council of grandees to sniff out corruption and chase out a culture of vote-buying and patronage that he and other opposition politicians say enabled the Shinawatra clan to secure successive election victories.

Thailand under Mr. Thaksin, Mr. Suthep said, was run like a business, and the former leader is still exerting his influence through his sister, Ms. Yingluck. “The whole country has been corrupted and damaged through his populist policies,” he said. “Somebody has to be brave enough to step up and take a stand.”

For seven days, thousands of Mr. Suthep’s supporters have besieged government buildings around Bangkok, including a series of attempts to storm the main government complex among the temples and canals of the capital’s tourist-thronged historic quarter.

The demonstrations have been some of the largest since hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in 2006, paving the way for a coup that ousted Ms. Yingluck’s brother, Mr. Thaksin. A cocky populist, Mr. Thaksin and his radical pro-poor policies badly ruffled the feathers of traditional politicians such as Mr. Suthep and the country’s royalist civil service and armed forces. When Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party tried to push an amnesty law through parliament last month that would allow Mr. Thaksin to return to Thailand from his self-imposed exile and escape a corruption conviction, it sparked uproar.

Economists worry that if the unrest drags on it could leave the country exposed to investment outflows as the U.S. Federal Reserve looks ahead to easing back on its bond-buying stimulus program. Diplomats, meanwhile, privately say they are concerned that the chaos on the streets of Bangkok could deter political reforms among neighbors such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Mr. Suthep, though, appears to be taking each day as it comes. Bunkered in a travel agent’s office opposite a supermarket in a government complex in Bangkok’s northern suburbs, Mr. Suthep calls this a “people’s revolution” to put Thailand back on the right path after more than a decade under the influence of Mr. Thaksin and, more recently, his sister Ms. Yingluck.

This is a shift in gear for Mr. Suthep. Before he learned how to wow thousands of dedicated followers in hourslong nighttime rallies, he was one of the main operatives in Thailand’s oldest political group, the Democrat Party and an influential power broker in the rubber-growing southern region of the country.

He became a target in the mid-1990s of a land-reform investigation in which he was accused of distributing land to wealthy supporters, though no charges were ever filed. In 2009, he resigned his seat in parliament after being found to hold shares in a media company, in violation of a constitutional article prohibiting public-office holders from owning stock in telecom or media companies. In both cases, Mr. Suthep denied any wrongdoing.

In 2010, as deputy prime minister, Mr. Suthep led government efforts to control tens of thousands of Mr. Thaksin’s supporters who had flowed into Bangkok to demand fresh elections. He is now facing murder charges, which he denies, in connection with the killing of over 90 people on the streets of the city, the vast majority of them pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” demonstrators.

The fact that Mr. Suthep is leading the current batch of protests “heaps irony upon irony,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat and a professor at Kyoto University in Japan. “Mr. Suthep is leading the campaign to clean up politics, and Mr. Thaksin’s camp says they are defending democracy. As an academic, it is hard to find a good, sound argument to explain this,” Mr. Pavin said.

Many people attending one of Mr. Suthep’s nightly shows at the government complex in the north of Bangkok say they are warming to him. “We didn’t think much of him before; to us he was just another politician. But when we saw that he was trying to change the system, we began to appreciate him,” said Kwanta Promraks, 50, who came to a rally after finishing her shift at a nearby bank.

“The pressure for change has been building up for years. He’s managed to set it free,” said her 47-year-old colleague, Saner Sapyen.

Ms. Yingluck said in the televised address Monday that while she is eager for talks to resolve the impasse, Thailand’s constitution prevents her from complying with Mr. Suthep’s demands to create a hazily defined people’s council to run the country, a proposal that has also confused and alarmed some of his former colleagues in the Democrat Party.

But as the standoff with Ms. Yingluck’s government continues, the question on the minds of many people here is how long Mr. Suthep can keep up his protest. Advisers say donations from sympathizers are helping to provide a steady supply of food and water. Some analysts also say that the army is unlikely to take any action to break up the demonstrations because they share the protesters’ distrust of the Shinawatras.

Paul Chambers, who heads the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Chiang Mai, notes that Mr. Suthep while he was in government developed a close relationship with army commander-in-chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. “Both supported the 2006 coup, with Gen. Prayuth taking an active supporting role in leading it, and each has an abiding distrust of Mr. Thaksin,” he said.

The upshot is that there appears to be relatively little to stop Mr. Suthep continuing his campaign, at least until his supporters in the opposition and elsewhere find him no longer to be useful.

—Wilawan Watcharasakwet contributed to this article.

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@wsj.com

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