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TV stars and talk-show hosts steer Thailand toward cancelling election

Anti-government protesters march during a rally in central Bangkok January 7, 2014. Celebrities and the intelligentsia have banded together to stop what they see as a corrupt political dynasty.


A stone's throw from the stage that is the open-air war room and lecture hall for Thailand's anti-government protesters, Sorawit Suboon grabs a platter of paper cups, each already filled with a packet's worth of instant coffee mix. He walks it out to a table beside the large crowd gathered around Bangkok's Democracy Monument, then runs back to grab pitchers of hot water before pouring and serving free hot drinks.

It's not particularly glamorous work, which makes it all the more jarring when Mr. Sorawit is stopped every few seconds to pose for pictures with a steady stream of swooning ladies. In Thailand, he is a heartthrob, his open face and gleaming teeth a magnetic presence on TV dramas and comedies.

But in the midst of months-long protests to unseat the elected government, he has taken a very different role as an entertainment activist. He is part of a swell of well-known Thais who have lent their flawless faces and public profile to a movement that has turned many of the country's stars into political actors.

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It is a movement that believes Thailand's best chance at democracy is cancelling an election – and that TV stars and talk show hosts know more about what's best for the country than the majority of its voters.

"We have been living in a corrupt system for too long," said Mr. Sorawit, who has used his own money to buy supplies, such as canvas for tents, to give to the demonstrators' small army of volunteer security guards. "We must win back Thailand."

Those who voted for the country's current government, and who intend to do so again if given the chance, accuse the protesters of a naked power grab whose intent is to elbow out an elected government, and offer in its place rule by Bangkok's urban power centre, which has traditionally ignored the country's vast rural population.

The actors, meanwhile, say government supporters have been so fouled by corruption they can't be relied upon to steer the country properly. They argue that redshirts voting for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra are either too uneducated to know better, so obsessed with the short-term benefits they see from her populist policies that they support a leader destroying their long-term future, or too bound by culture and history to support anyone else.

"The redshirts are not our enemy. They just know much less than us," said Pattaratida Patcharaveerapong, an actress and fashion model who has delivered several speeches to protesters.

It's not a fight without risk. Thai authorities this week accused protest leaders of sedition – for which the maximum sentence is death – and said demonstrators could also be charged. Some have already faced consequences. Ms. Pattaratida was threatened with a defamation suit by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra for criticizing his regime. After speaking out again, she found her white Mercedes sprayed with acid that left loonie-sized chunks of paint blistering off the hood.

Television stations played a clip from her refusing to back away: "I swear to God that no matter what violence comes, I will sacrifice my own life or do anything in exchange for peace in Thailand."

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Hers is, she says, a quest for a more democratic, equitable and better-governed Thailand, fought alongside the hundreds of thousands who have attended major protest rallies and plan to shut down Bangkok on Jan. 13.

It is also an attempt to overthrow a government.

On July 3, 2011, Thai voters handed Ms. Yingluck the second majority government in the country's history, making her the country's first female prime minister little more than a year after the country's military gunned down the redshirt activists whose support would eventually deliver her to office. Now, one of the men involved in ordering the military to open fire – Suthep Thaugsuban, then deputy prime minister, since charged with murder – is leading a protest movement that aims to get her out of office.

He argues that Ms. Yingluck's Pheu Thai government is corrupt beyond redemption, and a puppet to Mr. Thaksin, the exiled billionaire and her brother. It's a case bolstered by one of Ms. Yingluck's 2011 election slogans: "Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Does."

The protesters have rallied around a "reform before elections" banner. Before heading to the polls again, they want a 400-member "people's council," made up of their delegates as well as various Thai professionals, to draft new rules that include banishing the statute of limitations on corruption; offering regional, rather than central, control to police forces; and electing, rather than appointing, provincial governors.

Although the group marshalling against the government is diverse, its core tenets – and members – have at their heart a kind of elitism that fits uncomfortably with traditional views of democracy. Take Satish Sehgal, one of the demonstrator's 34 leaders, who is practically the definition of society's extreme upper crust. He served for 18 years on the 12-person committee running the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, an organization so exclusive, even committee members can nominate just two people per year to join.

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He grows heated when he argues that outsiders simply don't understand that democracy in the West has little in common with democracy in Thailand, where buying of votes, and even candidates, is rampant. "Anybody who has got, let's say, $2-billion U.S. can literally buy this country," he says. And no one but Mr. Thaksin can afford that, he says.

Forbes assesses Mr. Thaksin's total family net worth at $1.7-billion (U.S.); it places him 10th among the richest Thais, worth roughly 87 per cent less than the man at the top, grocery store and 7-Eleven tycoon Dhanin Chearavanont and his family.

Still, the fight against Mr. Thaksin has taken on near-religious proportions, even among the country's best-educated. Attarit Srinkapaibulaya is a doctor of rehabilitation medicine; he also leads the medical contingent for the country's Paralympians. Nearly every day for the past two months, he has come to the protest site in downtown Bangkok. Occasionally, he will roll into bed after a tough day and realize he has forgotten. On those nights, he drives the 20 kilometres back downtown to show his support.

"Then I can sleep nicely. You feel like at least you did something," he said. "I feel it is my responsibility. … We have waited a long time. We want to change our country into a true democracy."

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More


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