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Thai protesters embrace controversial leader

Text by: Charlotte BOITIAUX
4 min

Former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban has taken the lead in rolling street protests to overthrow Thailand’s government. Hailed as a hero by the angry opposition movement, he is regarded by others as violent and corrupt.


As angry anti-government protests in Thailand enter their second week, former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, 64, has emerged as the leader of the movement bent on toppling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

A veteran of Thai politics, the silver-haired Suthep appears to be embracing that role with enthusiasm, and has used this newfound platform to urge protesters to step up their fight against the so-called “Thaksin system”.

Yingluck, who came to power after the 2011 elections, is the sister of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and later sentenced to serve two years in jail on corruption charges – a punishment he has so far avoided.

Suthep is among critics who say Thaksin is still pulling the strings from abroad, and that the current government in Bangkok needs to be swept aside.

“He is an uncompromising figure who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals,” said Cyril Payen, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Thailand. “He doesn’t seem to be scared of anything.”

Through his fiery speeches, the opposition figure has enflamed passions in the already deeply divided country, and a repeat of the 2010 bloodbath between pro-Thaksin “red shirts” and opposition “yellow shirts” seems close at hand.

Dangerous wager

Born to a wealthy landowning family, Suthep was a high-ranking member of the centre-right Democrat Party until his resignation last week to become the leader of the protest movement.

Since the most recent wave of anti-government protests hit Bangkok beginning on November 24, he has become somewhat of an icon. His face has been splashed on cars, walls and tee-shirts.

His Facebook account has ballooned virtually overnight to over 500,000 fans.

Appealing in particular to the ultra-nationalists and royalists among the yellow camp, he has called on protesters to invade and reclaim government buildings.

The strategy appears to be paying off. In an effort to avoid more deadly clashes, police lifted concrete barriers and barbwire protecting government buildings on Tuesday.

But Suthep’s sudden fame has also won him critics, who warn that the politician is making dangerous wagers in a personal quest for power.

“He is hoping to instigate a violent confrontation between protesters and police, and thus force the military to intervene,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University told French daily Le Figaro recently.

Murky past

According to FRANCE 24’s Payen, Suthep's portrayal as a “white knight” who has come to save the kingdom masks a murky past.

Writing in the Asia Sentinel online news site last week, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, pointed out that Suthep is one of the leaders responsible for a deadly crackdown on red-shirt demonstrators in 2010 that killed more than 90 people and injured some 2,000 more.

“The transformation from killer into a national hero has begun; and in this process, Suthep has risen to become the new face of 'moral protector' in Thai politics.

“Again and again, Thais are witnessing the deep irony within the domain of Thai politics when immoral politicians themselves enjoy preaching about morality,” Pavin noted.

His political rise is also tainted by allegations of embezzlement and collusion with powerful and wealthy figures in Thailand’s south.

Payen said that while Suthep has become the public face of the anti-government movement, that murky past could easily catch up with him.

“He has neither the stature nor the financial means to rise to the pinnacle of power by himself,” Payen noted.

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