Thai protest leader a godfather-like figure in south
THE lunchtime crowd of civil servants swarm around the bespectacled, silver-haired man, waiting patiently for their turn to be photographed with him. In return, he wraps his arms around their shoulders, grinning widely for the camera like a genial grandfather.
Mr Suthep Thaugsuban, 64, is holding court in Bangkok's Government Complex, a vast compound housing various state agencies on the outskirts of the capital, which has been occupied by hundreds of protesters trying to topple the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
But Mr Suthep is aiming to do more than that. He wants to eliminate the "regime" of Ms Yingluck's brother, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who is still seen as wielding inordinate influence over the government.
Last month, he quit Parliament together with eight other Democrat lawmakers to lead an anti- government protest that has since spiralled into Thailand's most serious crisis since 2010.
Protesters and police have now reached an apparent truce after a week-long siege of key government buildings - and the subsequent tensions it inflamed - left at least four dead and 200 injured.
Mr Suthep declared this a victory, but wants the protest to continue. He has outwardly refused to negotiate. And he would not be satisfied with Ms Yingluck's resignation or Parliament's dissolution.
"They can always come back to suck the blood of the people, steal from people, disrespect the Constitution and make us their slaves," he was quoted as telling supporters on Sunday.
His oft-stated aim is to set up a "people's council" comprising citizen representatives who will reform Thailand. He has not explained how these people will be chosen, but what is clear is they will not emerge from a general election, which he deems too tainted by the "Thaksin regime".
Mr Suthep is a godfather-like figure in the Democrats' stronghold in southern Thailand. He has managed to transform himself into a people's champion of sorts by riding on the wave of opposition to a Puea Thai-sponsored Bill in October that would have granted amnesty to the self-exiled Thaksin. After the amnesty plan was scrapped, he turned public attention towards overthrowing the government instead.
The former shrimp and palm oil tycoon entered Parliament in 1979. He resigned in 1995 after he was accused of giving land rights to rich people under a scheme for the poor. In 2008, he became deputy prime minister in Mr Abhisit Vejjajiva's government. In 2010, they authorised a military crackdown on anti-government protesters which left more than 90 people dead. Both men face murder charges for their roles.
Thailand has yet to recover from the trauma of 2010, and Mr Suthep has harnessed this to good effect. He has told protesters to document every instance of police violence as they attempt to seize government buildings, knowing that the police would be hard pressed to avoid any sort of action that would hint at brutality.
"He is very determined and very committed to everything he does," said Mr Suthep's stepson Akanat Promphan, 27, an Oxford-educated Democrat lawmaker who quit Parliament to campaign alongside him last month.
When Mr Suthep's call for a three-day strike failed, he changed tack and had protesters occupy government buildings instead.
Given his tainted record, people will not accept him as prime minister, even if his campaign succeeds, said political analyst Kan Yuenyong of Siam Intelligence Unit, a private think-tank.
"But he will still wield power through the system he creates."