Radical “red shirt” no fan of Thai government

You don’t have to travel all the way to the movement’s stronghold in north-east Thailand to find a radical “red shirt” who does not think he has to listen to the restraining voices of the leaders.

You can find Mr Wutthipong Kotthamkul, better known as “Go Tee”, at the edge of Bangkok in Pathum Thani province, his fortified sidewalk camp an outpost of the pro-government “red shirt” movement where 1,000 to 2,000 supporters gather every night.

Here, lean and wolfish men keep watch for radicals from the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) – or wait for news of an army takeover. On Wednesday night, a garbage collector went on stage and showed scars on his body which he claimed were from rival PDRC guards who detained and tortured him when they found he had a red shirt.

Among the paraphernalia of the pup tents, stage, sound system, chairs and tables, and banners featuring former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, is a large carton containing, among other things, about 20 machetes.

“These are donated, they are not weapons, they are for cutting grass,” he says.

A couple of kilometres away at his own FM radio station, called “Red Guard Radio”, is a stack of metal pipes and cans of motor oil ready to be poured into small bottles – also close at hand - to convert them into Molotov cocktails.

It’s all for self-defence and “if the tanks come”, declares Go Tee, who says he started life as an abandoned baby in a garbage dump in Bangkok, who was passed from orphanage to orphanage. He “escaped” for a while to live on the streets, was eventually educated in a temple school, went on to get a law degree in politics from Ramkhamhaeng University, and then became a garment businessman selling Levi’s jeans at Chatuchak market.

Go Tee is now 46, he says – counting his age from when he was first registered at an orphanage. Along the way, he became an “influential figure” – a euphemism for local don. He said he worked with a Pathum Thani underworld boss whom he referred to as Paw (father) Pathumthani. He got what sounded like protection money from traders at Chatuchak weekend market and he was open about an involvement in the illegal underground lottery business – worth, nationwide, an estimated 100 billion baht (S$3.89 billion) a year.

He is not a big fan of the government, he insists. He gives Ms Yingluck a 70 per cent approval rating, but the rest of her government just 30 per cent. “Every government is corrupt,” he says.

And he is equally scathing of the red-shirt leaders.

“I am proud to say I am not a member of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), and neither am I a member of the Puea Thai party,” he claims.

The UDD is an umbrella organisation for the loose coalition of groups which collectively make up the largely pro-Thaksin “red shirt” movement, strong in the north and north-east and with pockets of influence on the outskirts of Bangkok. It helped power the Puea Thai – essentially the Shinawatra clan’s party – to parliament in the 2011 elections.

“The UDD leaders you see are like a TV show,” he says. “They are in it for political power, to be ‘amart’ (aristocratic elites) – the very thing they say they hate.”

Challenged to explain how Thaksin could be considered a symbol of democracy, he said the former premier - a billionaire accused of human rights violations and corruption during his rule from 2001 to 2006 when he was ousted by the military - had made the fruits of democracy tangible to the people. He cited the example of the former premier’s 30 baht-per-visit universal health-care scheme.

“It brought a sense of equality that you could touch and feel,” he said, but insisted he was not fighting for Thaksin, who was just a symbol.

“I want to fight for equality, for a democracy like Japan or the UK, where everyone is accountable under the law, and nobody is above it.”

But it is loose cannons like Go Tee whose supporters have clashed with the PDRC, with gunshots fired. Calls for restraint from the UDD leadership mean little on his patch.

Go Tee claims his men were fired upon as they chased away PDRC supporters from the area. But his supporters also reportedly harassed PDRC protesters at one of the PDRC roadblocks in another area last week, which he denies. Deputy army spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree has wondered aloud why the police are not doing anything to control him. Police have said they are investigating Go Tee.

He has stopped sleeping at the pavement site overnight, Go Tee says. Instead, he sleeps in safe houses to make it difficult for the army to find him. He rarely goes on air for a long time at his radio station now because “then they will know I am in the studio”. Yet he seems to move about freely during the day, with no bodyguards.

“I have not been involved in any of the incidents (of violence),” he claims, as a steady stream of traffic trundled by on the street outside his improvised walls of steel plates and stacked tyres. “They have no grounds to arrest me.”

Go Tee claims the PDRC is out to get him as well. In the evenings when more supporters gather at his site, the atmosphere is tense. “But they are not brave enough to attack me yet,” he says.

Go Tee is hyperactive, voluble and unapologetic, with an air of bravado, saying he has always been interested in politics and is driven by an urge to "be somebody". Old pictures of him at his radio station show him wearing a Che Guevara-style beret.

The UDD would be “weak” without people like him, he boasts.

“The PDRC can go to town halls in other provinces, but they can’t do that here because the red shirts are strong.”

But while he may be just a local urban warlord with his henchmen, a pavement base and a radio station, he is not to be underestimated.

“He is a dangerous minion of more dangerous people,” says Mr Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for non-governmental group Human Rights Watch.

In 2007, Go Tee took part in protests against the Privy Council president, general Prem Tinsulanonda, a figure closely identified with the royalist elites and the palace.

Last year, he travelled all the way to Chiang Mai to disrupt opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva’s speeches there, recalls Mr Sunai.

“That shows how far he is prepared to go,” Mr Sunai says.

As the Feb 2 snap elections loom, which the government is determined to hold and the PDRC is determined to disrupt and delegitimise, Go Tee says if the polls are sabotaged, “we will fight any which way we can”.nirmal@sph.com.sg