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Dec 16, 2013
BANGKOK – She is a poster child for a Thai elite campaigning to freeze democracy. But when Chitpas Bhirombhakdi is not on stage cheerleading for a self-styled “people’s revolution,” she is quietly preparing a bid for parliament.
It is a contradiction that highlights the dilemma facing Thailand’s oldest — but by no means most popular — political party, the Democrats, whose lawmakers recently resigned en masse from parliament to join opposition street protests.
The party must soon decide whether to take part in, or boycott, a general election that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has called for Feb. 2 — a decision that could determine the fate of the country’s fragile democracy.
“We don’t know whether there’s going to be a general election or not but as a politician I have to be prepared for it,” Chitpas said.
The Democrat-backed street protest movement has rejected the election, raising concerns that the party may decide to boycott the polls at a key two-day meeting that was set to kick off Monday.
Known as the “Singha heiress,” Chitpas’ family is one of the richest in Thailand. Its Boon Rawd Brewery makes Singha beer, an official sponsor of English Premier League giants Manchester United.
A former Democrat Party spokeswoman who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in parliament two years ago, the British-educated 27-year-old says her childhood dream is to become prime minister.
Yet each night she takes to the stage to support a movement seeking to overthrow a government that won a landslide election in 2011, and to install an unelected “people’s council” in its place.
The glamorous socialite — who was picked by protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban to play a leading role in the street movement — has led marches to besiege state buildings in Bangkok.
She has tended wounded demonstrators, addressed the international media from the rally stage in near-flawless English and was even spotted riding in a bulldozer brought out to dismantle police barricades.
But she insists the Democrats are not turning their back on elections.
“We’re not taking away democracy. We just need some time to reform the country before we can move on to democracy,” she said, explaining that problems such as corruption and vote-buying must be tackled before free and fair elections can be held.
The problem, she added, is that many Thais lack a “true understanding of democracy . . . especially in the rural areas.”
The Democrats enjoy widespread support among Thailand’s Bangkok-based elite and middle class.
But they have not won an elected majority in about two decades, and critics argue that the only “reforms” they are interested in are those that will end their losing streak.
They face a formidable opponent in Yingluck’s brother, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, whose overthrow by royalist generals in a coup seven years ago ushered in years of political turmoil and periodic street violence.
The Democrats last took power in 2008 by parliamentary vote after a court stripped Thaksin’s allies of power, angering his “Red Shirt” supporters who launched mass street protests three years ago that ended in a military crackdown that left dozens dead.
Thaksin, who now lives in self-exile in Dubai, is adored by many outside Bangkok for his populist policies that helped to transform the country’s impoverished northern hinterlands.
But the billionaire tycoon-turned-politician is reviled by the elite, Bangkok’s middle class and southerners, who see him as corrupt and a threat to the monarchy.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election since 2001, most recently with a landslide victory under Yingluck two years ago.
To solve the country’s problems, “Thailand needs proper education on democracy,” Chitpas said.
“In the past, before all of this happened, very little awareness was made about politics. In the parliament, when the bills are being passed and it’s being shown live on TV, people don’t watch it.”
If the Democrats do choose to boycott the February elections, it will likely prolong the crisis.
“Their agenda is to get rid of Thaksin and to set up a regime of their own by bypassing the democratic process,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.
But without their participation in elections, Thailand’s political system would face a crisis of legitimacy, he said.
Chitpas said her hope for the future is to see a government last for a full four-year term — a rarity in a country where the military and courts have a history of intervening to remove elected governments.
Even if it is a pro-Thaksin government?
“Well that’s the problem,” she replied. “That’s why we have to fix it before we can move forward.”