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THAILAND: Anti-Coup Movement Strikes Back

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Nov 3 2008 (IPS) - For the past five months Ataporn Kampa has endured insults hurled at him by an anti-government protest movement, that is supported by affluent, urban-based Thais who openly profess right-wing, conservative views and want the military to take over the country.

Supporters at an anti-coup rally cheer as Thaksin 'speaks' from exile. Credit: Marwaan Macan-Markar/IPS

Supporters at an anti-coup rally cheer as Thaksin 'speaks' from exile. Credit: Marwaan Macan-Markar/IPS

To this protest movement, the likes of Ataporn, who come from the impoverished agricultural belt of north-east Thailand, are a bane to the country’s politics. They have been sneered at as uneducated, stupid and lacking in intelligence required of voters in a democracy.

Such brazen contempt for the country’s rural poor by this right-wing movement, which calls itself the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), has also prompted calls for the rolling back of the voters’ power in the country. The PAD wants the military to turf out the ruling six-party coalition that was elected at last December’s poll.

Yet Ataporn has a stark message for Bangkok’s elites who have rallied around the banner of the PAD. ‘’Democracy is not about the rich telling the poor what to do. It is about us being equal as voters,’’ says the 44-year-old resident from the province of Loei, where he works as a barber. ‘’We are also people who have hearts and minds. Those insults hurt.’’

In fact, the father of two feels that Thailand’s young democracy will be in peril if the PAD gets its way. ‘’They want to take us backward; to become another Burma,’’ adds the man who only has a fourth grade education. ‘’We need to go forward.’’

But Ataporn is not alone. Similar sentiments were echoed by others from the provinces who, like Ataporn, showed up for a political rally on Saturday evening to counter the pro-coup sentiments of the PAD and the entrenched old money elite in this kingdom. Bualoy Siriwiang, from the north-eastern province of Khon Kaen, was among them. ‘’I am here because I am against those who only want non-elected people to run the country.’’

This crowd also drove home a message with their impressive numbers. An estimated 80,000 of them, all dressed in red, packed Bangkok’s largest sports stadium to offer an effective counter-weight to the PAD, which has virtually crippled the elected government by its on-going street protests. Some 20,000 of the country’s ‘’red army’’ came from the provinces, while the rest came from Bangkok and its vicinity, according to police estimates.

At the best of times the PAD, whose supporters wear yellow for their rallies, have not been able to garner more than 20,000 at its main protest site, the prime minister’s office, which it has forcefully occupied since late August. Its street protests have attracted less.

Little wonder why those who attended the Nov. 1 rally, organised by the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and its media partner, a popular television programme called ‘Truth Today’, feel they have the numbers to challenge the free run that the PAD has enjoyed since May to shape the political agenda of the country.

The weekend’s rally has also added another milestone in a country that has seen 18 coups since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. It was the first time that Thailand witnessed such a large public rally to oppose possible designs by the military to drive out an elected government.

The ‘appearance’ of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in the last putsch, in September 2006, could not have been more symbolic of the political direction the anti-coup movement wants this South-east Asian nation to take. He was given a rousing ovation as he spoke live for 15 minutes in a telephone conversation that was amplified at the stadium and then ‘delivered’ a 20-minute talk recorded on video.

‘’We shall oppose coups d’etat together,’’ said Thaksin, currently living in exile in London to avoid a string of corruption-related court cases filed after he was driven out by the junta. ‘’They have abused the legal process to get rid of me. I was overwhelmingly elected prime minister twice yet I was overthrown in a military coup.’’

‘’I cannot return home because I was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment,” he added, referring to a judgement handed down in October that found him guilty of abusing power in a land deal during his first term. ‘’The injustice is the reason why people had gathered to fight, so justice may return to society.’’

Other speakers also touched on a similar theme during an event that was been billed as a ‘’No More Coups’’ rally. The country has come under military rule for over half of the 76 years since a revolt against absolute monarchy. The recent weeks have seen Thailand awash with rumours of another bout of military rule due to the on-going tension between the PAD and the coalition government, led by the People’s Power Party, which has close links to Thaksin.

‘’The army cannot ignore the message going out from this rally,’’ says Jaran Ditapichai, a former member of the country’ national human rights commission, who was at the event, sporting a red T-shirt. ‘’Any confusion people may have had about another coup has been clarified by this successful rally. The silent majority has spoken by coming here to oppose another junta.’’

Pranormsri Boomsirithum, a Bangkok businesswoman in her mid-50s, agrees. ‘’We are developed enough to solve our political problems without resorting to coups,’’ she said, following Thaksin’s speech. ‘’I came here to show my support for that view. There are many here who feel like me. Look at the crowds.’’

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