By Marwaan Macan-Markar
SRANG KHOM, Thailand, Feb 8 , 2010 (IPS) – Meal by meal, a political feast is being laid out under the night sky to nourish a wave of anti-government protests rapidly spreading across this rural heartland. The diners come dressed in their signature red shirts.
This rice-growing town was the latest to join the bandwagon of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), a protest movement with strong links to the ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The organiser of the inaugural dinner and fundraiser in Srang Khom, in the north-east province of Udon Thani, were not disappointed. By 7 p.m. an open ground by the side of a harvested paddy field and scrub forest was full of local residents who had come to eat and to listen anti-government tirades delivered from a stage.
“The people wanted to have a Red Shirt event here like other places,” says Suthat Budom, one of the organisers of the Saturday night dinner, referring to the uniform red shirts that the pro-Thaksin protest movement is identified with. “They want real democracy.”
Suthat estimated that over 2,000 locals from five neighbouring subdistricts had filled the 220 tables that were laden with fried rice, fried fish served with sweet and sour sauce, a spicy Thai salad and a Chinese-style soup.
But not all the diners who came for the dinner and political gabfest were from families where growing rice and fishing are the economic mainstays. They included the likes of Sawangsri Bonprasit, a teacher at a local primary school, who proudly announced that she had brought 30 of her colleagues for this first UDD rally in her hometown.
“These events are important to us. They are part of our learning to fight for democracy because it is being destroyed,” Sawangsri declared. “Right now the poor in this area know more about democracy than before. We come here to share this knowledge.” “This political awareness began after the coup,” she revealed, alluding to this South-east Asian kingdom’s 18th putsch on Sep. 19, 2006, where the military turfed from power the twice-elected Thaksin administration. “The discontent and anger has grown in the last three years.”
Thaksin, whose wide popularity in the rural north-east has not waned due to the raft of pro-poor policies he implement, is living in exile to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption. But little of that appears to bother the increasingly politically awakened provincial voters. To them, Thaksin is a victim of an anti-democratic political machine in the hands of Bangkok’s aristocracy, monarchists and the conservative bureaucratic elite, which includes the country’s powerful army.
So the crowds broke into cheers when the fugitive former leader spoke to this UDD rally via a mobile phone from Dubai, one of the many countries the globetrotting Thaksin lives in. The billionaire telecommunication tycoon played to the gallery. “I will fill your pockets with money,” he promised. “I have a plan for your children’s education.”
But Thaksin also stuck to a message that the UDD has been drumming up in the provinces. He wants the red-shirted crowds on the streets to press home the case that they have numbers on their side to take on the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose one-year-old administration came to power through backroom deals shaped by the military high command rather than through a popular mandate.
“It is very important, the next fight,” Thaksin’s nasal voice crackled. “If you don’t walk ahead, you will lose a lot. If you walk ahead, you can get a good life and good hope.”
The growing red wave of the UDD that is manifest in these nightly events is helping to sustain a view that Thailand’s social and political divisions are widening. Thaksin’s role has sustained this, for he is a much reviled figure among a cross section of the country’s well-heeled, the urban elite and the pro-royalist political establishment.
On the Saturday evening that Srang Khom hosted its inaugural UDD rally, there were five others across Isarn, as north-east Thailand is known locally. At Piboonrat, a crowd of over 3,000 stayed till well after midnight to listen to the speeches, including a Thaksin phone-in.
They came on the back of more impressive red-shirt support that the UDD is trumpeting. A rally on Jan. 31 in the north-eastern province of Khon Kaen drew an estimated 100,000 people, according to sources close to military intelligence operatives. The UDD, though, boasts that the crowds were twice that number.
In the province of Ubon Ratchathani, the next day, a reported 50,000 red- shirted protesters assembled at a UDD rally.
“Every week, every month we have these dinner meetings, or some without dinner,” says Wichian Khaokham, a parliamentarian from this province who belongs to the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai party. “The people who come here are from the poor and they used to be afraid of the people in high positions in our society. They could not speak to them.”
But the legislator of nearly 20 years senses a change in the political attitudes of the grassroots voters. “They knew about politics before, but now they know what is true, what is right and wrong,” he said. “The people understand that even if we win the next elections, they (the pro-royalist political establishment) will not let us form a government.”
Part of that understanding includes a resentment against how the pro- Thaksin vote bank, which commanded a dominant majority at the four elections held since January 2001, has been disenfranchised.
In addition to the September 2006 coup, a pro-Thaksin government, led by the People Power Party that won at a December 2007 general elections, was dissolved following a controversial court decision. It paved the way for the Democrat Party, which Prime Minister Abhisit leads, to step into the void.
The pro-Thaksin voters’ hostility towards the Thai judiciary, which grew out of that verdict, is once again on the boil. On Feb. 26, the Supreme Court is due to rule on the fate of Thaksin’s 2.2 billion U.S. dollars worth of assets that were frozen by the junta that took power after ousting the Thaksin administration in the 2006 coup. “People are angry about the Thaksin case,” reveals Wichian, adding that a call by the UDD leadership to vent such rage in Bangkok could see “more than one million people” take to the streets of the Thai capital.
But such threats of a ‘D-DAY’ and mass street protest have been made before. The largest the UDD was able to muster in Bangkok was over 100,000 people on Apr. 8 2009, when the red-shirted groups broke a political and cultural taboo by protesting outside the mansion of Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, the chief advisor to the Thai monarch.
The Abhisit administration is not leaving anything to chance. The government has plans to monitor UDD strongholds in the north and north- east ahead of the Thaksin verdict, Abhisit said on Sunday during a weekly broadcast on radio and television.
“Every (security) unit is ready. Plans are now in place. Rest assured we are fully prepared for the situation,” he was reported to have revealed, according to the ‘Bangkok Pos’t, an English-language daily. “The government has the job of ensuring security and keeping law and order.” (END)