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THAILAND: Rural Protesters Prepare to Paint Bangkok Red

Marwaan Macan-Markar

KHON KAEN, Thailand, Mar 2 2010 (IPS) - As a former bureaucrat, Sakda Orphong cuts an unlikely figure as someone who is busy fomenting a grassroots protest movement to confront Thailand’s current government.

Before he retired, the 78-year-old Sakda, who lives in swanky home in this provincial city in the Thai north-east, was very much a part of this South- east Asian kingdom’s establishment. He had spent his professional life as a pillar of the Ministry of the Interior, the most powerful and conservative arm of the Thai government.

The interior ministry’s powers range from appointing an army of local officials, including provincial governors, to keeping a lid on democratic sentiments by pushing a message of extreme Thai nationalism over many decades.

Sakda himself had served five stints as governor, including two terms as the most powerful bureaucrat in Khon Kaen.

But now, the spry former governor of Khon Kaen counts himself among this province’s “group of strategists” shaping the protest agenda of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), an anti-government people’s movement whose political patron is the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

“What we have with the UDD is a very unique movement in Thai political history. It is the first mainstream movement,” reveals Sakda, who sported the signature red shirt that all UDD supporters wear during an interview in his living room. “People from all sectors have joined us – farmers, traders, businessmen, lawyers, policemen and even bureaucrats like me.”

“These are the people from the provinces who will be travelling to Bangkok for the red shirt rally,” he reveals. “I will be there not as a speaker on the stage but working behind the scenes for our success.”

And in his role as a sort of director of operations for an eclectic mix of red shirts, he has come up with a blueprint for them to abide by. Part of that includes a slender four-page document – ‘People’s Democracy: Activity Guideline’ – that has been distributed to many UDD homes in the city of Khon Kaen and to the many villages spread across this rice and sugar-growing province.

Uthai Khumtabulot in Non Somboon village welcomes this guideline, which informs villagers like him that the UDD’s anti-government campaign aims to attract like-minded people to “get together and demand for the real democracy under constitutional monarchy. Equal treatment must be promoted so that the country will become a ‘Nithi-rath’ (law-abiding state) under rule of law.”

“People who have different or contrasting opinions are not enemies,” the guideline continues. “Persons who have the same ideology must treat each other with kindness care and love. We must be considerate and help each other.”

But such words face a stern test come Mar. 12, when Uthai and other villagers from his community and neighbouring communities will head to Bangkok to join what UDD leaders have pledged will be an anti-government protest of a “million” people.

The date for such an improbably high figure of protesters – the previous best the UDD was able to muster in Bangkok was a little more than 100,000 red-shirt protesters early last year – was set to coincide with the end of the high school term in mid-March. “With the summer holidays beginning and the children not having to go to school, the parents can join the protest with less worry,” was how one father, a rice farmer, described it.

The threat of the red shirts swamping Bangkok has even excited some former members of the banned Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). During a recent two-day reunion of former CPT members in the province of Mukdahan, close to the Thai-Laos border, an offer of “helping to organise” was made to a UDD leader, according to a source who attended that reunion.

If the UDD leadership accepts this offer from the banned CPT cadre, it will add another strand to the expanding mix of political and social groups rallying under the UDD banner to take on the administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, which came to power over a year ago through a backroom deal brokered by the country’s powerful military rather than a popular mandate.

For the most part, though, the UDD’s bedrock of support has been the rural masses in over 30 north and north-east provinces. They are seething with anger at the treatment dished out to their political godfather Thaksin, whose wide support in the rural, rice-growing heartland stems from a range of pro- poor policies he implemented during his term in office from 2001 through mid-2006.

The Thaksin administration, which was elected twice with huge mandates, was forced out of office by the military in a September 2006 coup, this kingdom’s 18th putsch. The junta wasted little time thereafter to go after charges of abuse of power and corruption against Thaksin, who was a billionaire telecommunications tycoon before being elected as premier.

The fate of Thaksin’s wealth, 2.3 billion U.S. dollars, was decided on Feb. 26, when the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case that he was guilty of amassing wealth by abusing the power of his office and blatant conflict of interest.

The verdict meant the government could seize 1.5 billion dollars worth of Thaksin’s assets, which had already been frozen. A cloud of uncertainty hovers over the remaining 800 million dollars, which the judges said had been made before Thaksin became premier.

UDD supporters that IPS spoke with rejected the verdict, saying it was the latest judgement in a string of cases that went against Thaksin and his allies beginning with judicial decisions since the 2006 coup. Thaksin, who is living in exile to avoid a two-year jail term for another corruption case, echoed a similar sentiment.

The verdict is expected to see more “angry” red shirts head for the protest scheduled in the Thai capital from Mar. 12 to 14, says a talk-show host who has a programme on a local pro-UDD community radio station.

Wanida Pimdeed, one such red shirt, sees the cases against Thaksin and his allies as further testimony that “only one side is being taken to court for wrongdoing but other political groups and powerful people that break the law are getting away.”

“We are all on the side of the victims of this unfair system,” adds the 48- year-old livestock farmer. She also points to how the coup and a controversial court verdict in December 2008 – which banned a pro-Thaksin party that had been elected to power — meant there was “no respect for the government we the poor people vote for.”

The expected targets of the red shirts in the forthcoming protests are those who have “benefited from making us victims of the political system,” she reveals.

Among these “enemies of democracy”, as the UDD activists in this province and neighbouring Udon Thani call them, is the Bangkok-based political machine that includes the entrenched elite, the conservative bureaucrats and the powerful military.

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