28 November 2013 18:00 | By Agence France-Presse
PHOTOS: Street politics - Thai style

Free food and fiery resentment at Thai protests



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A Thai anti-government protester attends a rally at Democracy Monument in Bangkok.

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Underwear swings from washing lines near clusters of tents in the finance ministry grounds in Bangkok as food aromas and the cheerful screech of whistles fill the air. Welcome to street politics -- Thai style.

But behind the carnival atmosphere lies deep fractures within Thai society, with tens of thousands of demonstrators seeking to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government and replace it with an unelected "people's council".

A loose alliance of protesters united by their loathing of ousted Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra -- Yingluck's brother -- have paralysed several government ministries since Monday.

The largely peaceful demos are the biggest since pro-Thaksin "Red Shirt" rallies three years ago ended in bloodshed, and one of several episodes of civil unrest since royalist generals ousted Thaksin in a 2006 coup.

The billionaire tycoon-turned-politician has broad support from the working class and rural poor in his northeastern heartland. But he is despised by many southerners, middle-class Thais and the Bangkok elite, who see him as corrupt and a threat to the revered monarchy.

With t-shirt vendors, an ear-splitting sound system and protesters making themselves heard with whistles and plastic trumpets, the finance ministry has taken on a festival feel since it was occupied on Monday.

It has even taken on a festival aroma, despite the line of toilet buses parked on the street outside, and the makeshift laundry facilities that have left the compound draped with drying clothes.

A large banner reveals the level of animosity towards the Shinawatras, scrawled with crude insults against Yingluck, many using her Thai nickname "poo", or crab.

"Prostitute crab, rotten crab" reads one of the more printable entries. "The Shinawatras are as bad as dogs" says another.

"The northeast people are good people, but they have been brainwashed by Thaksin," said Dhiranut Bunna, wielding a "death penalty to Thaksin" sign.

But many disagree, saying he awoke a new political consciousness that has irreversibly altered the Thai political landscape, with pro-Thaksin parties winning every election for more than a decade.

The latest rallies began several weeks ago when the ruling party tried to push through a sweeping amnesty bill that could have allowed Thaksin to return from self-imposed exile abroad, but was rejected in the upper house Senate.

The divisive ex-leader lives in Dubai to avoid a jail term for corruption that he contends is politically motivated, but few doubt he is the real power behind the ruling party.

Galvanised by the anti-Thaksin sentiment that erupted over the bill, opposition protesters have widened their goal to demand the end of the "Thaksin regime".

Many demonstrators are expressing a desire for the country's democratic system to be at least temporarily suspended.

It is a familiar scenario in a country that has seen 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932, and has a judiciary with a record of dissolving political parties and banning their executives.

'An ingrained sense of superiority'

Thailand expert Chris Baker, co-author of a biography on Thaksin, said the current protests underline the "insecurity" of Bangkok's privileged middle class which fears the up-ending of the nation's social order.

He said Thaksin's northeast heartland had transformed in the last decade, with communities now casting their votes for "political self-interest".

But many of the urban middle classes had little first-hand experience of these rural areas and still believe an "old story about how all people upcountry were very poor and we had to feel sorry for them".

"It's a sort of sense of superiority which is very ingrained," Baker told AFP.

That sentiment was perceptible at Democracy Monument, another key protest site in the capital, where a largely middle-aged crowd sheltered from the tropical sun.

"We eat well, live well. We all have money and look good. They look dirty and are uncivilised," said 64-year-old Niaw, who hails from Bangkok.

Housewife Nantapaul Jirasan, part of a small army of volunteers serving up free food, voted for Thaksin a decade ago.

But she later decided he was a "cheating person", she told AFP as she worked among the towers of take-away boxes, large coils of noodles and vats of curry that make up the huge catering enterprise at the site.

"He gave money to people in the villages so they think he is great," said the 47-year-old, repeating a commonly-held view over vote buying and populist policies that saw billions of baht pumped into rural communities.

Bangkok is no stranger to large-scale demonstrations, with major anti-Thaksin rallies leading up to the 2006 coup and then paralysing the city's airports in 2008.

Peaceful protests can quickly turn violent, as seen in 2010 when soldiers spilled onto the streets firing live rounds at mostly unarmed protesters in a crackdown under the previous government that left 90 people dead and nearly 1,900 wounded.

Once established, the elaborate rallies can be hard to shift, putting a strain on the already heaving capital. Extra staff have been drafted in to work around the clock to cope with the mountain of waste produced at protest sites.

"I want them to achieve what they want quickly so that the country can be peaceful -- and I will get a break," said Sukanya Kaewmisri, a municipal cleaner clutching a broom at the gates of the foreign ministry.

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