In the tangled mess of Bangkok street blockades manned by protesters bent on overthrowing the caretaker government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, lies a sprawling encampment right next to the premier’s vacated office.
The grand avenue leading up to it is littered with bunkers made of tyres and sand bags piled up to human height. Walk past the last bunker, and your bag is searched. Next, you encounter a table crammed with tiny tubes of toothpaste, soap and other toiletries, all free for the taking, in support of protesters camped out on the streets in defiance of security laws that expressively forbid political gatherings there.
This is the lair of the Network of Students and People for the Reform of Thailand (NSPRT), a faction gaining notoriety as fast as Thai protest movement leader Suthep Thaugsuban is making headlines across the world.
On the first day the caretaker government imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok and the surrounds, on Jan 22, the NSPRT marched to the national police headquarters, tore down its sign outside its compound, and painted its own logo in place.
It has threatened to seize the stock exchange and air traffic control state agency. And it has also rallied at the United States embassy in Bangkok, to blast the most powerful nation in the world for siding with Thailand’s government.
The group, says Chulalongkorn University political scientist Naruemon Thabchumpon, comprises many vocational students, who have an axe to grind with Thai authorities for constantly clamping down on the vicious gang fights that erupt among different factions.
“They are hardcore, they are extremists,” she says.
But you wouldn’t know if you met its co-leader Uthai Yodmanee, the Ramkhamhaeng University student union president who hails from Surat Thani province in southern Thailand.
He turned 33 on Jan 13, the day the anti-government protesters swarmed and set up camp in the capital’s key intersections in a bid to “shut down” Bangkok.
The earnest-looking man says in a gravelly voice: “We don’t agree that we are hardcore. We are merely here to point out the government’s weaknesses.”
I first met Mr Uthai about three months ago, when his protest movement was tucked under a highway. One month later, his group had joined forces with other anti-government groups opposed to the political dominance of Thaksin Shinawatra – Ms Yingluck’s brother and also self-exiled former premier now living abroad to evade a jail sentence. Mr Uthai had graduated to organising a university forum showcasing the reform vision of anti-government alliance. Earlier this week, I ventured into the NSRPT’s new encampment by the Government House to seek him out.
On all three occasions, the white-shirted man was polite, respectful, but also disarmingly candid.
“I haven’t been studying at all,” admits the political science undergraduate with a grin. “But the university has postponed the examinations because of protests, so I still have time.”
Mr Uthai has been registered as a student in Ramkhamhaeng, an open university, for the past 14 years, but “studying seriously only for the past six years”. His parents own a palm oil plantation in Surat Thani covering at least 3 ha. In 2000, he moved from the south to Bangkok, working at an ice-cream factory that sent its products to countries like Singapore and Japan. Six months later, he started working part-time as a waiter.
The three-month-long protests in Bangkok have taken a darker turn, now that unknown individuals have started shooting or bombing rally sites more frequently than before.
On Sunday, Jan 19, one person died and almost 30 people were injured after two grenades were hurled at protesters in broad daylight. Conspiracy theories abound about the motives of these attacks, but Mr Uthai does not take chances. He travels with five bodyguards at any one point in time – mostly students or alumni of Ramkhamhaeng, he discloses – and hardly moves out of his fortress except for meetings with other protest leaders.
“We fight for nation, religion and king,” he says, reciting the mantra Thai pupils learn from young. He carefully arranges a life-sized picture of King Bhumibol Adulyadej behind him when told that he was going to be filmed. His group, he says, is now thinking up ways to “request” people not come out to vote in the Feb 2 elections. This is because Ms Yingluck’s Puea Thai party is expected to win the elections on the back of its popularity among Thailand’s rural masses. The opposition Democrat Party is boycotting the polls. Protesters, comprising many among the royalist establishment, elite and urban middle class, have in recent weeks blockaded polling registration venues and even threatened Thailand’s postal service into not delivering ballot papers. Their actions have sparked outrage among other Thais, who have been running a candle-lighting movement to demand their right to vote.
Asked what he would do to stop people from coming out to vote, he would only say: “We are discussing this.”
Would he physically block them?
“We are discussing this,” he replies, adding, “we understand and respect people’s rights.”
What kind of act would the group avoid, based on this principle?
“We have to discuss this first,” he finally says. “Our group plans on a day-to-day basis.”
I ask about the blockade of the election registration centre last month, when protesters camped around the venue overnight and swarmed around anybody – politician or official – who tried to enter the centre. Wasn’t that violating people’s rights?
“We did not block the area,” he replies. “The political parties did not dare to enter.”
What about the near-rabid crowds that surrounded a nearby police station, where politicians had gone to lodge complaints about being denied entry to the registration centre?
“It was peaceful pressure,” he contends. “We only used our voices. It was psychological pressure.”
Pro-government “red shirt” supporters, who mostly draw their strength from the rural areas in Thailand’s north and north-east, are watching the unfolding political crisis closely and have vowed to take action should the government they voted in be unseated by unconstitutional means.
Asked if he was concerned about the “red shirts” coming down to Bangkok, he says without hesitation: “If Yingluck and her team want the two groups to face each other, it’s okay.
“We will fight in our peaceful way.” His answer could have been reassuring, if his tone wasn’t so disturbing.