All dressed up for the protest

All dressed up for the protest

The fashionable demonstrator deigns to wear the latest in anti-government clothing / A respected former technocrat is high on the list of those tipped as a 'neutral' premier / A Bhumjaithai member makes an unlikely guest at the PDRC rallies

T-shirts have long had a place in political and social activism. If you look at the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) rallies, you can see they maintain their omnipresence.

Hundreds of anti-government protesters are seen forming long lines to buy protest T-shirts. The shirts bearing the ''Shutdown Bangkok'' design by magazine editor Sakchai Guy and the "Close for Change" design by Thai Rath newspaper's political cartoonist Somchai Katanyutanan, better known as Chai Ratchawat, are among the popular buys.

A lot of protesters are willing to endure a long wait for the shirts because they are told the proceeds from the sales are given to the PDRC which then buys food or helps the families of the people killed or injured in violent incidents during the protest.

In a humourous aside, anti-government demonstrators have recently been heard "begging" caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign because their wardrobes are full of protest T-shirts – some say they can wear a new shirt every day for a whole month. The slogans on the shirts range include "Against Amnesty Bill" to "Rice is Life".

Last week, Sakchai, who has helped raise millions of baht from T-shirt sales since the Bangkok Shutdown began, launched a new rally product. Not another T-shirt though, much to the relief of the hardcore demonstrators. The new item is a loincloth, or pha khao ma, with catchy screen prints.

But this is no ordinary pha khao ma, which is a household item. It displays a design by Chai Ratchawat with the slogan "Ya Dueng Fah Tuam, Ya Tam Hin Taek, Ya Yaek Paendin" (Don't bend the sky, don't crack the rock, don't divide the land). It features Ai Joi and Phu Yai Ma, characters from his Phuyai Ma Kap Thung Ma Moen political cartoon.

The choice of the pha khao ma and the slogan touched an instant chord with the protesters.

According to a political source, the loin cloth was released to coincide with two major political developments — the rice farmers’ protest triggered by the government's failure to live up to its promises to make payments in the rice-pledging scheme and the alleged calls for secession.

The pha khao ma is a must-have item for many rice farmers because it serves many purposes, while the protesters insist the slogan sounds right for their fight against the so-called Thaksin regime whose elements are accused of offending the monarchy and making calls for separatism.

"Ya Dueng Fah Tuam, Ya Tam Hin Taek, Ya Yaek Paendin” is a slogan used several decades ago by the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) when democracy was in "full bloom".

The country witnessed two major student uprisings in 1973 and 1976, struggles between extreme rightists and student leftists and deadly clashes.

Quasi reconciliation was achieved several years later following the implementation of the 66/23 order which was employed by Gen Prem Tinsulanonda's government to allow people who fled into the jungles to join the Communist Party of Thailand to reintegrate into society and join a national development programme.

Like any other protest product, the pha khao ma cloths are selling like hot cakes, despite the steep price of 2,000 baht apiece. The item is likely to be a keepsake rather than be used for its functionality.

Who might be interim leader?

Leading technocrats such as former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, former central banker MR Pridiyathorn Devakul and former deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusripitak have been suggesting in the past month that a new type of leader may be needed to replace the embattled caretaker premier Yingluck Shinawatra.

A few likely names were floated early in the anti-government protest, with Palakorn Suwanrath as a strong candidate for the "neutral" premier to lead the divided country.

The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by former Democrat deputy leader Suthep Thaugsuban, has been demanding throughout its four-month protest that a "good" leader untainted by money politics be put forward as acting prime minister.

The name of Mr Palakorn was said to have won favour with the PDRC as the protest movement sought to bring into force a "People’s Council" to push for national reform.

Mr Palakorn, 65, was appointed a privy councillor on July 18, 2001. Coming from a prestigious civil servant family, he and his brother are "home-grown" Interior Ministry officials, following in the footsteps of their father.

Mr Palakorn has been a close aide to Her Majesty the Queen. He has held various posts including Pattani governor and director of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre in the deep South for 12 years.

His last post before retirement was as deputy interior permanent secretary.

Although privy councillors normally steer clear of voicing political comments, Mr Palakorn made a departure from tradition in his address to Vajiravudh College alumni before the New Year. He said the elite members of the college should not stay neutral amid the current state of politics and must stand by the monarchy as more attacks against the higher institution were being seen amid the intensifying political situation.

On the sidelines of the Model Women in the Deep South Award, Mr Palakorn maintained he had not heard of any nomination for a neutral prime minister to help steer Thailand out of its political turbulence.

While he agrees society is now in a very fragile condition, Mr Palakorn suggests Thailand might soon see the crisis ease.

“Who knows, we might get another woman prime minister,” he said. He did not elaborate.

It has speculated that one choice of leader could be a woman who has been spearheading protests against energy policies and the business practices of PTT Plc on issues such as the NGV price hike.

Rosana Tositrakul was the woman that Mr Palakorn was tongue-slipping as a possible leader.

The consumer rights advocate, who played a key role in pushing for the court to halt the planned listing of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand many years ago, would certainly offer a new style of leadership far different from that of Ms Yingluck.

Yet there remains a number of daunting questions over how a leader could be installed under the current bitterly polarised political situation. Ms Rosana is said to have sympathy for the PDRC.

Her role as a senator ended on March 1, and she is barred from running for a second consecutive term.

Above all, the current constitution requires the prime minister to be an elected member of parliament.

Support from Buri Ram

Sohpon Zarum, a key figure in the Bhumjaithai Party, often popped backstage at the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) rally sites some time ago before the venues were merged into the Lumpini Park stage.

The former transport minister is a close friend of Newin Chidchob, the party’s founder and an influential politician in Buri Ram. Mr Newin is staying away from politics and is now totally devoted to promoting his football team, Buriram United.

Other Bhumjaithai members who have visited the PDRC rally stages include former deputy interior minister Boonjong Wongtrairat and former MP for Maha Sarakham Suchart Chokechaiwatthana. They have all been warmly welcomed by PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

When the Feb 2 general election was called, Mr Sohpon, along with other Bhumjaithai members, made clear their stance against the poll while pledging support for the PDRC’s campaign for national reform to take place before the election.

Mr Sohpon said villagers from Lam Plai Mat district in Buri Ram have been going to the rallies in Bangkok over the past four months. Mr Sohpon himself is from Lam Plai Mat.

He insists he is supporting the PDRC on a purely personal basis and that his stand has nothing to do with the party. He has informed party leader Anutin Charnvirakul of his actions.

Many wonder why he decided to join the PDRC-led rallies, given the unfavourable comments about Mr Suthep’s past.

"I don’t care about Mr Suthep’s past. Today, he is doing the right thing. I truly want to take part in national reform, like other people,’’ Mr Sohpon said.

When Mr Suthep first called for major rallies, about 2,000 Buri Ram people were mobilised to take part.

On normal days, between 200 and 300 from the province turn up. Satellite dishes have also been installed in Lam Plai Mat and other districts in Buri Ram so that villagers can watch the Blue Sky channel which broadcasts the PDRC's activities.

Mr Sohpon says all debts of gratitude he previously owed ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have now been cleared.

When he was in the People Power Party (PPP), he said he and Mr Newin had worked to the best of their ability to help Thaksin.

Mr Sohpon said that after the Sept 19 military coup, his house was searched by the military and he was taken to a military camp for questioning four times because of his close ties with Mr Newin, who was then known to be Thaksin’s right-hand man.

Mr Sohpon added he worked to help Thaksin until the PPP was dissolved by the Constitution Court, after which he defected to the Bhumjaithai Party.

He admits that he only now realises the causes of the country’s problems. He did not speak out against them in the past because of fear of Thaksin’s influence, the Pheu Thai Party and the red-shirt movement. That was until the PDRC emerged and launched the anti-government rallies.

However, a party source says Mr Anutin is unhappy with Mr Sohpon’s role at the PDRC rallies. Mr Anutin is known to enjoy close ties with Thaksin.

"One night, Mr Anutin telephoned Mr Sohpon from China, demanding to know why Mr Sophon led Buri Ram people to the PDRC’s rally stage at Lumpini Park.

But Mr Sohpon did not answer the call.

"He knew Mr Anutin was with Thaksin in China at the time," the source said.

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