In the red corner of Thailand’s colour-coded political boxing match, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s supporters say they are fighting for democracy.
Ousted by the military, Thaksin keeps in touch by video-link from self-imposed exile. Convicted of abuse of power, he faces two years in jail should he return.
But his loyal ‘red shirts’ claim the real abuse of power comes from those now running the country, denounced by the opposition as an unelected, urban elite.
“The Red Shirt group has grown enormously because the aristocratic regime has destroyed justice in society,” said Thai opposition leader
It is in the countryside that Thaksin built his popularity. He swept to power in 2001, promising
measures to benefit the poor, and most still see him as a hero. Micro-credit and affordable healthcare schemes were two popular policies.
But five years later, claims of corruption against Thaksin were mounting and the military moved in, ousting him from office. Critics accused the billionaire leader of authoritarianism, crony capitalism and of undermining the monarchy.
Abroad at the time, Thaksin’s downfall was triggered by a scandal linked to his family’s sale of its shares in a Thai telecoms giant. Yet a year later, Thaksin’s allies were voted back into power in the first post-coup elections.
His royalist opponents, in the ‘yellow shirt’ movement, were furious. In late 2008, they occupied Bangkok’s main airports for a week, throwing thousands of tourists’ travel plans into chaos. And, soon afterwards, a court ousted the government, judging the Thaksin-allied ruling party guilty of electoral fraud.
With military backing, the premiership was assumed by current leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Unelected, his appointment enraged Thaksin’s ‘red shirts’ whose protests last year forced the cancellation of an international summit. Latest events indicate Thailand’s prolonged power struggle is far from over.