The Big Issue: The Men in Black

The Big Issue: The Men in Black

The most important question in politics is now pretty obvious to everyone. Does Suthep Thaugsuban or Jatuporn Prompan have the bigger one?

We won't know for a week. Mr Suthep showed his group of supporters yesterday, marching the largest contingent he could raise through Bangkok in at least the seventh final phase for the People's Democratic Reform Committee disciples since November.

Mr Jatuporn and his red-shirt acolytes loyal to the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship get their chance to wow the bystanders this coming Saturday.

And there certainly are lots of bystanders. A nationwide poll indicated that out of 65 million citizens, the number of people opting out of either or both the huge rallies is well over 64 million.

As for the Democrats, a few hundred politely stayed off the streets during a weekend conference. All their leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, had to show was post-surgery dressing on his broken collarbone, which he did not try to blame on the government.

While Mr Suthep seriously led daily marches out of Lumpini park to publicise yesterday's big march, the red shirts turned decidedly cheeky. Without going outdoors, they grabbed the biggest headlines, largest forum debates and unamused reaction in some time.

Credit or blame Nattawut Saikuar. The deputy commerce minister and UDD phuyai milked a single joke for four days.

He started off by reading a list of names he said were the most likely candidates as prime minister if (when?) the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is ousted or overthrown.

He paused for a day to allow angry reactions by those listed. Then he read a second list of names he predicted would be in a post-democracy government if Mr Suthep's plan for an 18-month autocracy actually comes to pass.

The lists were hardly a surprise. Pick a bunch of people known to oppose Thaksin Shinawatra or the current government, who were friendly to previous yellow-shirt protests or the 2006 military coup.

Most likely to be interim prime minister, said Mr Nattawut, is Privy Councillor Palakorn Suwannarat, with ex-defence minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon close behind.

Most of the presumably unamused people on the lists stewed in silence. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha chose to respond. "Does he have authority to appoint an interim prime minister? And Gen Prawit was annoyed after seeing his name on the list, too."

In truth, Gen Prayuth has been unwilling to stay silent on the red shirts. What set him off was the appointment of Mr Jatuporn as official chief of the UDD, replacing the softer Thida Tawornseth. The 2010 battles still rankle, especially, the continuing accusations.

The red shirts chose not to be red last week. Because the Constitutional Court effectively rubbished the Feb 2 election, Mr Jatuporn said all red shirts should wear black for at least a week. Ms Yingluck showed up for a public meeting dressed all in white, same idea.

Ms Yingluck also got some noticeable support for her "only current priority" to hold a national election ASAP — All Speed, All Polls. All but one of the country's currently active 54 political parties signed a joint letter to the Election Commission to get cracking on another national vote.

The holdouts were again the Democrats, who were meeting to decide to stage their third boycott of five elections.

While Mr Suthep walked the Bangkok streets last week drumming up public support for yesterday's march, the men in black were travelling through the lower Northeast doing the same.

Cousin Chaisit Shinawatra and the always interesting Arisman Pongruangruang took the lead, moving from town to town to tell local pro-government leaders to mobilise the supporters for this coming Saturday.

During the week and right up to press time, the big mystery was where? Mr Jatuporn announced Saturday's mass march during a modest red shirt gathering in Pattaya a week ago.

But he has not given a location. Around the country, red shirts are supposedly on alert to travel to ... somewhere, to be revealed at a later date. The theory was that if Mr Suthep flopped, the red shirts would rally in Bangkok and show him up. Otherwise, they would rally in a nearby province.

Wherever they are, the Saturday marches raise one vital and interesting question: So what? So Mr Suthep's is bigger than Mr Jatuporn's. So Mr Jatuporn has one that's bigger than Mr Suthep. Proving what, exactly? If voter turnout of 40% is low, why is rally turnout of, say, 1.5% — half a million per weekend — even worth noticing?

The most-spread rumour of last week claimed that Lord Voldemort of Dubai had proposed that the PDRC open talks with the government, in return for which the Shinawatra clan and in-laws would stay out of politics for one year.

Ms Yingluck, still in a wheelchair from her sprained ankle, in danger of impeachment and a ban from politics, was uncharacteristically, directly dismissive. "I haven't given it a thought and I haven't talked about it with the Shinawatra family."

And anyway, Mr Suthep chimed in again to note, "There will be not be any talks until the country has undergone reform."

He did not explain how to undergo reform without talks. But it seems as certain now as last November that in this political stalemate, the losers are the 64 million Thais who chose and choose not to spend a day marching in the sun.

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