Return of Thailand's protest leader raises fears for fragile calm

Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of Thailand's opposition movement, during a news conference in Bangkok, Thailand, July 30, 2015.
Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of Thailand's opposition movement, during a news conference in Bangkok, Thailand, July 30, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - The return to public life in Thailand of a fiery pro-establishment politician risks ending a period of calm and could lead to the delay of an election the ruling military has promised to hold next year, an opposition leader said on Friday.

Suthep Thaugsuban led occasionally violent protests backed by the Bangkok-based establishment against the populist government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014.

The military eventually ousted the government in May last year, to Suthep's delight, saying it had to take power to end the demonstrations and avoid more bloodshed.

Suthep, a former deputy prime minister and top member of the pro-establishment Democrat Party, spent a year as a Buddhist monk but returned to public life this week with the launch of an organisation called the Great Mass of the People Foundation, which he described as a "collective, peaceful force".

He also promised there would be no more protests.

But opposition supporters who backed Yingluck and are loyal to her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are dismayed. "I don't believe a word Suthep says," Jatuporn Prompan, leader of the pro-Shinawatra United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, told Reuters. "He will upset a period of calm we've had. I only hope the government does not heed Suthep and sticks to its promise of an election next year," said Jatuporn.

Jatuporn has himself been a passionate protest leader when he, during periods over the last decade of polarisation and revolving-door politics, has campaigned against pro-establishment governments.

The military government, under pressure to deal with a weak economy, has said an election will be held in September 2016. But delays are possible given a new constitution has to be drafted and adopted in a referendum.

Former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin or his allies have won every election since 2001 with policies his supporters say recognised the changing aspirations of farmers and the working class. The establishment says Thaksin, who has lived abroad since 2008 to avoid a graft conviction, simply buys elections.

Since the coup, the junta has moved to consolidate power through a constitution that will prevent elected governments from exercising legislative power with the introduction of a largely appointed Senate.

Thakisn's supporters say the military and royalist-backed establishment want to shut the Shinawatras out of politics.

Suthep said the aim of his foundation was to speak out if the government deviated from reforms, even if that meant delaying the polls, said Akanat Promphan, Suthep's step-son and a spokesman for the movement. "We will peacefully urge the military government to stay on its path of reforms, no matter how long it takes," he said.

Kan Yuenyong, an analyst at Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank, said Suthep's return would consolidate a Bangkok-centric agenda and raised the prospect of the return of street politics. "Suthep's foundation will strengthen the elitist, political order and it will even take to the streets again should the situation call for it."