Oxford-educated PM riles rural Thais

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Tue Dec 23, 2008 12:24pm GMT

By Nopporn Wong-Anan

Photo UDON THANI, Thailand (Reuters) – New Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has promised to reach out to all Thais to heal the country’s deep political rifts, but he faces an uphill task winning over people like Kwanchai Sarakam.

From the “cowboy country” of Udon Thani, 560 km (350 miles) northeast of Bangkok, the 56-year-old radio host has become the standard bearer of Abhisit’s exiled political nemesis, Thaksin Shinawatra, who still looms large more than two years after his removal in a military coup.

Kwanchai’s past as a travelling comedian then country music DJ is a world away from Abhisit’s schooling at Britain’s elite Eton College and Oxford University, but his hard-hitting and aggressive radio show has made him a powerful political force.

For 20 hours a day, his show berates Abhisit, the army and the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) that seized Bangkok’s airports, accusing them of being an unholy alliance set up to rub Thaksin off the political map.

Callers frequently use foul language on air, demonstrating the depth of feeling in an impoverished province where most voters say they benefited from Thaksin policies such as cheap public health care and credit for farmers.

“Please come and put a curse on this person and send him to hell because he is not the one we voted for,” Kwanchai said on air, urging people to attend the burning of an Abhisit effigy.

Ominously, he also claims to be rallying thousands of people to travel to Bangkok next week to blockade parliament ahead of Abhisit’s maiden address — just as the PAD did to his predecessor Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law.

“When we fight for a radical change, there will be losses,” said Kwanchai, a stocky, swarthy character whose dark complexion and jeans stand in stark contrast to Abhisit’s light skin and tailored western suits. 

Somchai was forced to step down this month when the courts found his People Power Party (PPP) guilty of vote fraud in the election it won a year ago.

The verdict incensed people like Kwanchai, who demonstrate their political allegiance by wearing red, a symbolic gesture to the PAD to “stop” interfering in politics. The PAD wears yellow in honour of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

NO RECONCILIATION

The reds’ anger is heightened by a perceived anti-Thaksin bias in the judiciary, which has convicted Thaksin of graft and sacked two sympathetic prime ministers, and a belief that Abhisit’s Democrat-led coalition will not prosecute any PAD leaders for the airport blockade.

One core PAD leader is a Democrat party MP and Abhisit’s new foreign minister was a regular speaker at PAD rallies.

“As long as those yellow-clad lawbreakers are not prosecuted, the new government can’t expect reconciliation,” said Ratchanee Seewongsa, a 57-year-old laundry worker.

No PAD leader has been arrested for the airport blockade while they are all out on bail for the three-month occupation of Government House, but police did arrest one Thaksin supporter who attacked the cars of Democrat MPs leaving parliament last week.

“We want the masterminds to order their players to stop all their games and start following law and order,” Ratchanee said.

Thaksin supporters in Udon, a major U.S. airbase during the Vietnam War, also resent charges by the PAD and Bangkok elite that they are ignorant hicks duped by Thaksin’s political populism and alleged vote-buying. “In the past, politicians came with empty pledges and 30 baht ($1) for each vote during campaigns,” veteran canvasser Nuanpan Chomson said. “But unlike other politicians and parties, Thaksin actually delivered on his promises.”

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