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Thai politician turned protest leader follows own script in political drama

Suthep Thaugsuban, a veteran dealmaker, is trying to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in the aftermath of an incomplete Feb. 2 election. 

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Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban makes a point as he addresses anti-government protesters from a stage in downtown Bangkok February 6, 2014. Suthep is a former deputy prime minister who resigned from parliament last December to lead protests in the Thai capital.

Damir Sagolji/Reuters

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The politician’s house is hidden behind two giant billboards, one of Thailand’s revered monarch and the other of the crown prince. “Long Live the King. May it please Your Majesty the King, on behalf of Thaugsuban family,” read the signs.

In this corner of southern Thailand’s rubber-growing heartland, respect for the royal family is strong. But so too is respect – some might say fear – of the family of Suthep Thaugsuban, a veteran politician and dealmaker who is the face of antigovernment protests in Bangkok. He is a key player in a complex drama that, at its core, pits a conservative elite against an arriviste billionaire.

Last weekend’s parliamentary elections saw Mr. Suthep’s movement in full throttle: Protesters blocked polling stations in the capital in a bid to defeat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s formidable political machine. In the south, an opposition stronghold, many districts had no candidates and hence no ballot. 

The opposition Democrat Party, which boycotted the vote and backs the protesters, has asked Thailand's constitutional court to annul the election. It’s unclear when special elections will be held for the uncontested seats, leaving the country in legislative limbo. 

Protesters still occupy parts of Bangkok, though the crowds are thinning out. Ms. Yingluck's caretaker administration is also fending off an uproar among rural supporters over unpaid rice subsidies. And Suthep continues to issued dire threats against the beleaguered premier. On Tuesday, he told a rally that the end was near. "Yingluck, it's time for you to step down, your bad karma is catching up with you," he said. 

Ms. Yingluck’s political machine was built by her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecom tycoon and twice-elected prime minister who lost power in a 2006 coup. Suthep’s movement, which has occupied parts of Bangkok for nearly a month, has appealed to the military to intervene again, so far to no avail. Yingluck, a relative political newcomer, remains popular in Thailand’s populous north and northeast, where Sunday’s poll went ahead normally. Average turnout was 45 percent, a sharp drop from past elections.      

Suthep says his goal is to eradicate the “Thaksin regime” by installing an unelected council that would enact root-and-branch reforms before holding fresh elections. He styles his “people’s movement” as an alternative to a democracy warped by money and corruption, and a government that runs at the whim of Mr. Thaksin, who has lived in exile since 2008.

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Yet Suthep’s own career is also that of a political operator who used connections and family to feather his nest, albeit on a smaller scale to Thaksin’s empire. And, in one of the many twists in the tale, his provocations on Bangkok’s streets mirror those of his opponents when Suthep was deputy prime minister and sent in troops to break up a protest camp in Bangkok in 2010. 

Suthep faces murder charges over the crackdown in which more than 80 people died.

A former village chief, Suthep was first elected to parliament in 1979 at the age of 26. His family grew rich from shrimp and rubber farms. Now aged 64, Suthep has served as minister of communications and twice as deputy minister of agriculture. Two of his brothers are also members of parliament; all three resigned their seats in December as part of a mass opposition walkout.  

One brother, Thani Thaugsuban claimed that Suthep’s resignation was an act of self-sacrifice. “He loves being an MP, so when he resigned to fight for the movement and never returns to be a politician, it already illustrated how he’s devoted and doing this for everyone, not just for himself,” he says.

Wider coalition

But while Suthep has become the symbol of the antigovernment protests, some observers don't think he's working alone. “I think there is a wider coalition behind Suthep, made up of those who want to unseat Thaksin,” said Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, a former Democrat lawmaker.

This could mean that Suthep would be dispensed with at a later date – if and when the goal of “regime change” is attained. “If powerful people in Bangkok believe they can use Suthep to overthrow the government, they can also believe they can get rid of him,” said Anusorn Unno, an anthropologist at Bangkok's Thammasat University. Thailand's military has a long history of coups and its officer class is tightly bound with the palace and its courtiers. 

For now, Suthep's popularity in the south – and his business connections – means that he can bring thousands of rural protesters to the capital and keep up the pressure. “He was chosen to be leader of the protest as he controls the south,” says Prof. Anusorn.  

Suthep and his movement remain popular in Phun Phin and the nearby city of Surat Thani. Both are seen as fiefdoms of the Thaugsuban clan. But his influence goes beyond his backyard.

In Phuket Town, a three-hour drive south, shops and restaurants air nonstop partisan coverage of the Bangkok protests. Ask about the protest leader and you hear a familiar refrain: that he’s standing up to Thaksin’s greed. “I think he's a good people,” says Mai Pratumchart, who runs a shop in the town center.

Skeleton in the closet

Suthep's career is marked by a corruption scandal of his own, when he was accused of helping rich locals in Phuket to acquire land ring-fenced for poorer people. The scandal led to the collapse of a Democrat-led government in 1995; Suthep denied wrongdoing but was forced to step down. 

Ansari Mansuri, the head of the Yameay Mosque in Phuket, which has a large Muslim minority, says that protesters are well aware of Suthep's checkered past. But he insists that the charges pale in comparison to what they see as the corruption and thuggery of pro-Thaksin governments. 

“Thaksin killed too many Muslims in the south,” he says, referring to security force massacres in Thailand’s southernmost provinces, where a shadowy war fought between insurgents and security forces has resulted in the killing of almost 6,000 people in the last decade.  

By contrast, says Mr. Ansari, “Mr Suthep is a good man. He had a little problem with corruption before, a long time ago, but not like the Thaksin regime.”

With reporting by Suluck Lamubol

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