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PHUKET – About two dozen red, white and blue clad-protestors sat under a marquee outside City Hall in Phuket Town, watching TV coverage from Bangkok of the three month-old anti-government demonstrations that have stymied the administration headed by Yingluck Shinawatra’s Peua Thai party.
Charin Changin, Deputy Head of the Anuban School three hundred yards down the road from the almost—deserted rally, said that despite the small numbers, “most of the south supports the Democrat Party, so most people also support the protest.”
The Democrat Party is Thailand’s second-biggest party and draws much of its support from Thailand’s south, home to nine million people. But it boycotted the just-held Feb. 2 election after its members resigned as MP’s and lined-up behind the protestors led by Suthep Thaugsuban, himself a Deputy Prime Minister in Thailand’s last Democrat Party-led government, which was soundly beaten by Yingluck’s Peua Thai in 2011 elections.
Southern animus toward the government is partly down to the fact that Yingluck is seen as a puppet of her elder brother Thaksin, a former Prime Minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in self-imposed exile since fleeing graft charges in 2008. “Everything he control in Thailand, the police, everything, and his sister, “ Ansari Mansuri, Imam at the Yameay Mosque in Phuket, told The Edge Review.
Yingluck’s attempt late last year to push through a sweeping amnesty that would have exonerated her brother and paved the way for his return home was the spark that galvanised Suthep’s protest movement.
Pumping a fist to mimic Mr Suthep’s speaking style, Charin Changin said “we need a leader, and nobody else has been strong enough to fight,” discussing Suthep’s defiance of the government.
Mr Suthep’s sway in the Democrat Party counted for a lot, it seems, when the latest incarnation of anti-Thaksin protest was being set up. “He (Suthep) has a lot of backing in the Democrat Party, maybe 70 to 80 per cent of the MPs follow him, and he has dragged Abhisit (Abhisit Vejajiva, the Democrat Party leader) along with him,” said Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, a former Democrat Party MP and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Center of Business and Government, speaking to The Edge Review.
The protestors want Thailand to be governed by an appointed government and have vented that Yingluck and the Shinawatra family should leave Thailand, in turn prompting charges that they want to ignore the will of the majority in Thailand, which has backed Thakin’s parties in successive elections since the early 2000’s.
Nine of Thailand’s southern provinces did not have an election on February 2, with local officials refusing to work, candidates not registering and protestors blocking ballot distribution.
But Thani Thaugsuban, Suthep’s brother and himself a former MP, dismissed contentions that the protestors interfered with the election or that they want to subvert democracy. Rather, his brother’s protest has reset Thai politics, Mr Thani believes.
“We didn’t ‘obstruct’ the election. The people just insisted that they opposed the election, because we want to reform first. Now reform has become a national agenda, even by the government. But it wanted to have reform after the election because it want election to whitewash itself first, so that it can claim the majority has voted for it,” Thani Thaugsuban told The Edge Review.
Across Phuket island, one of Thailand’s best-known resort draws, there was scant indication that a national election was taking place, with only a few campaign billboards or posters here and there. Those of Peua Thai, the main governing party, were, bar two this correspondent saw, damaged or defaced. It was much the same in Surat Thani, a gateway to some of Thailand’s better known southern offshore resorts and the powerbase of Mr Suthep, whose home is a twenty minute drive from the town center.
In downtown Surat Thani, the election commission office was gated, with a banner of Suthep hanging on the front, saying “PDRC shut this office down.”
Outside Surat Thani, vast rubber plantations line the countryside, with Thailand the world’s biggest producer of natural rubber. Many protestors are rubber farmers, and, in what now looks like a rehearsal for the later anti-government protests, thousands of them blocked roads last year seeking a better price for their product and shouting resentment at the government’s troubled subsidy program for rice farmers in the populous northeast, where Yingluck has most support.
But the rubber price issue has not been resolved, say industry insiders, and is unlikely to be sorted out while Thailand’s governance is in limbo – an outcome forced by the protestors. Bundit Kerdbongbundit, Vice-President of Bongbundit Co.,Thailand’s second biggest rubber producer, said that “the problem with the rubber pricing now is that there is no minister in charge,” he said.
With reporting by Suluck LamubolShow