The big issue: Kamnan Thep hits the streets

Anti-government leader Suthep Thaugsuban attracted a huge crowd last Sunday to his "million-man rally", the biggest political protest since the 2005 heyday of the pre-coup yellow shirts.

The precise size of the crowd was debated, but without relevance. It was a turning point. While Mr Suthep's promise of overthrowing the government failed on Sunday, then again on Tuesday and Thursday, the whistleblowers didn't complain.

Last week, protest turned to civil disobedience. Rally marches confronted, besieged or actually occupied ministries and department offices and, in a few cases, up-country city and provincial halls.

A bird's eye view of protesters packing Ratchadamnoen Avenue and the Democracy Monument last month. (Photo by Sithikorn Wongwudthianun)

That creates today's problem for Mr Suthep, however. The man who was long thought least likely to lead political mobs turned a small rally into a huge protest, and finessed broken victory promises into important street marches, once again must decide: "What next?"

Not only did the reconstituted anti-Thaksin mob of six and eight years ago look strong, it made the government look weak. If he makes good on his threat to seize Government House today, it will look weaker.

It's interesting that anyone believes there's any hope of political reconciliation. Mr Suthep's brusque rejection of an offer to talk from Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was as predictable as sunrise. More telling was the insulting lack of respect on both sides.

The anti-Yingluck crowd dropped the "e" from the original, Abhisit Vejjajiva "e-ngo Yingluck" (dumb bitch) formulation, and referred to her, from the stage, to the children watching national TV, as "Ngo Yingluck", without the b-word. (Always up for word play, the whistleblowers now call ex-sor-sor, or MP, Mr Suthep, that man of the people, Kamnan Thep.)

Mr Suthep said the government has lost legitimacy to rule the country since it refused to accept the Constitution Court's ruling on the election of senators. His reasoning is not clear how alleged illegal acts by the government legalise illegal acts by his Civil Movement for Democracy (CMD).

Not that clarity was a main feature of Kamnan Thep's week. Many took his rhetoric seriously, but not Thammasat University political scientist Nakarin Mektrairat. "All of the ideas are good, but they are dreams," Mr Nakarin said.

Mr Suthep himself said his ideas involved toppling the government, reforming democracy, getting rid of bad politicians _ all those named Shinawatra, plus undesignated others _ and allowing more direct access by citizens to national administration.

The entire week was a tightrope-walking nightmare for Democrat Party stalwarts, who couldn't support Mr Suthep's lawlessness _ but couldn't throw him under the bus either. The favour was not repaid.

Deputy party leader Korn Chatikavanij, who actually spearheaded the early days of the rally, was carefully unclear, saying, "I don't quite understand Mr Suthep's 'people's government' concept."

Mr Suthep quickly retorted. "It's a good thing I rejected Mr Korn as a co-leader of the protest," he spat. "If he criticises the CMD again, he'll have some trouble in his life."

Literally within hours, Democrat Party leader Abhisit was at Mr Suthep's knees. "The party will support the uprooting of Thaksin's regime," said the man who the previous day announced he might talk with the premier. "There may be some differences in details about the country's reforms, but we have the same target."

Sure enough though, precisely as Mr Korn said, Mr Suthep did not flesh out his proposal for a "people's parliament". It was as if he hadn't thought it through. It sounded similar to appeals in the past for a "national government" of "good people", chosen by some omniscient white knight, freed from all those biased political parties and unencumbered by those inconvenient voters.

In the opinion of Kyoto University academic and Bangkok Post Oped contributor Pavin Chachavalpongpun, mob action is the only hope. "Clearly these people have felt that they couldn't compete with the Thaksin proxy in politics through the electoral process," he said.

Chaturon Chaisaeng, as usual, refused to sidestep or whitewash the issue. The education minister and longtime Thaksin supporter told the BBC's Jonathan Head that Ms Yingluck, while trying to show her independence, posed a political problem for Pheu Thai, given her family connections. As for a coup, Mr Chaturon was also brutally honest. Who knows? "A coup can take place any time."

After missing three consecutive dates he set himself for victory last week, Kamnan Thep faces two more this week he can ignore, but not finesse. They are Tuesday's rehearsal and Thursday's actual celebration of the country's greatest annual occasion.

This file photo shows Suthep Thaugsuban, right, as a village chief welcoming His Majesty the King and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn many years ago.

With few exceptions, politics has always stopped in the past for Dec 5 festivities. Even the 2008 airport seizures ended in time to allow celebration. Kamnan Thep and his mob seem ready to fold Dec 5 into their political protests, continuing their occupation of areas near the Royal Plaza and paying lip service to, but without making any actual sacrifice for the institution. It was a week where measuring winners and losers was difficult. Did the finance ministry, occupied and used as a party room and urinal, lose more than the Department of Special Investigations, whose officers were run out of their building entirely? Was the small turnout of red shirts at Rajamangala stadium more humiliating than Mr Suthep's failure to produce his promised final victory three times in a row? Did the army lose face by failing to keep out the mob, while the police gained face by succeeding?

Arguably the biggest loser was once again the unassertive prime minister, who "asked" invaders to leave government offices and "suggested" reconciliation talks with street opposition and raised not even a moment of spirited defence during the loyal opposition's three-day, no-confidence attack in parliament. "Please call off the protests ... I'm begging you," was hardly a picture of authority.

The intimation by Thai Rak Thai founder and Thaksin stalwart Mr Chaturon that Pheu Thai should be looking for a leader without familial ties to the ex-premier was arguably the most interesting speech of the riveting week.

Clear cracks have appeared in the Shinawatra family china, but it is still an open question whether the pieces can be mended before they shatter completely.

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Writer: Alan Dawson
Position: Online Reporter