High society hits the streets as prominent Thais join protests

BANGKOK Sat Dec 14, 2013 3:31am IST

BANGKOK Dec 14 (Reuters) - Chitpas Bhirombhakdi is heiress to a $2.6 billion family fortune and, according to high-society magazine Thailand Tatler, one of Bangkok's "most eligible young ladies". She can also handle tear gas and ride a tractor.

On Dec. 2, as anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok turned violent, the 27-year-old climbed aboard a front-loader brought in by protesters to break down police barricades.

Chitpas, whose family owns the Boon Rawd Brewery that makes Singha Beer, had dismounted the machine long before police pelted it with rubber bullets and gas canisters. But her gung-ho act showed how members of Thailand's most celebrated families are discarding all past pretence of neutrality to hit the streets in the hope of toppling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Along with their wealth and privilege, these elite protesters share a declarative love of Thailand's aging King Bhumibol Adulyadej and an abhorrence for Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, a billionaire ex-prime minister ousted by a 2006 military coup, whom they accuse of corruption and abuse of power.

For many in Bangkok's high society, anti-government rallies have supplemented - if not quite replaced - customary haunts in posh hotels and restaurants, although only a dwindling hardcore of less privileged protesters sleeps rough on the street.

While visiting the main protest site at Democracy Monument, Naphalai Areesorn, editor of Thailand Tatler, said she bumped into a than phuying - the Thai equivalent of a dame - and others with royally-bestowed titles.

"People you would normally see in the society pages were out there," she said. "All the people from big families used to be called the silent minority. Well, they're not silent anymore."

Banks, construction companies and other big Thai businesses have often openly supported Thaksin-backed parties or the opposition Democrats, said prominent Thailand scholar Chris Baker. "What is different is seeing these figures at demonstrations," he said.

They are drawn in part by what they regard as a moral crusade against what protest leaders call the "evil" Thaksin. "These are 'good' demos, so old constraints are removed," said Baker.

Many of their demands - for example, for greater government transparency - should appeal even to traditional supporters of Yingluck's government, which faces growing discontent from farmers over an opaque and wasteful rice subsidy scheme.

But their disdain for Thaksin loyalists is unlikely to impress many of the nearly 16 million people who voted Yingluck into office by a landslide in 2011, or heal a country already riven by class, wealth and politics.

CORPORATE PROTESTS

Chitpas is a Democrat spokeswoman and a staunch royalist who last year campaigned in favour of Thailand's harsh lèse majesté laws.

When the protests grew violent, with police firing tear gas to stop people over-running government buildings, she worked as a volunteer medic. Her Instagram page shows her washing out the eyes of gas-stricken compatriots.

"I saw more people getting hurt," she said. "My gut feeling was I wanted to be there to help out." The front-loader driver was knocked unconscious by a rubber bullet, she said.

Another prominent Thai hitting the streets was real estate tycoon Srivara Issara, who along with her husband Songkran runs Charn Issara Development PLC. She led her own protest march from her company's Bangkok headquarters to the nearby offices of the ruling Puea Thai Party.

Srivara claims no party affiliation. "I really hate politics," she said. Her march was inspired by her disgust for Thaksin ("that runaway criminal") and her faith in protest leader Suthep, a former Democrat politician.

A friend in the PR business helped her dream up a protest slogan: "Moral righteousness comes above democracy". Srivara publicised the march through Facebook and by personally handing out leaflets in the street the night before.

Thousands of people joined her peaceful rally, which she saw as an extension of Charn Issara's corporate social responsibility programme. "It's our duty to do something good for the country," she said.

TAKING A STAND

Others are more wary about involving their companies.

Among the 100,000-plus protesters on Bangkok's streets on Dec. 9 was Petch Osathanugrah, who along with his brother Ratch has an estimated fortune of $630 million. They own the energy drinks producer Osotspa and 51 percent of Shiseido Thailand.

"It was time to take a stand," said Petch, a former pop star who is widely recognised in Thailand by his Struwwelpeter shock of hair, thick-rimmed glasses and salt-and-pepper goatee.

He stressed, however, that he wanted to keep the family business out of politics. "We hardly talk to each other about politics," he said of his brother Ratch. "I think we think the same way."

Yingluck has called a snap election for Feb. 2. Petch believed it will only install another Thaksin-backed government, which will spark further protests.

His opinion of the mainly rural Thais who voted for Yingluck is unsparing but typical. They are ill-educated, easily swayed and greedy, he said, and their willingness to sell their vote to Thaksin-backed politicians renders elections pointless.

"I'm not really for democracy," said Petch, who was educated in the United States. "I don't think we're ready for it. We need a strong government like China's or Singapore's - almost like a dictatorship, but for the good of the country."

"I am longing for a Lee Kuan Yew," he said, referring to former prime minister who oversaw Singapore's economic rise.

Protest leader Suthep wants the Yingluck administration replaced by a "people's council" of reform-minded professionals. Yingluck has rejected the idea, which has also perplexed Thai scholars and senior Democrat members.

Red-shirted Thaksin loyalists have vowed to stage their own protests if the February election does not take place. Thaksin or his allies have won every Thai election in the past decade.

GREEDY AND UNEDUCATED

Educating the electorate begins with people such as "our own drivers and maids," said Palawi Bunnag, a scion of a celebrated family of Persian descent who served Thailand's early kings.

Palawi, a qualified lawyer and frequent visitor to the protest sites, felt people from northeast Thailand should be made to understand the limitations of short-term populist policies such as easy credit.

"They just want their lives to be comfortable, but they don't think that in the long run they will have debts," said Palawi. "Thaksin's regime makes everyone have a lot of greed."

But scholar Chris Baker argues that vote-buying, although it still occurs, no longer determines election results, and that most people are better informed than privileged Thais think.

"Members of Bangkok's elite and middle classes are more likely to have spent time in Hong Kong, Boston or Paris than in a Thai village," he said. "Their image of the poor, uneducated villager is two decades out of date."

"NICE FRIENDS"

Many in Thailand's elite publicly excoriate Thaksin and his clan. But they also occupy the same rich lists - Forbes places the Shinawatra family 10th with a fortune of $1.7 billion - and move in the same rarefied circles.

Srivara Issara's oldest son Vorasit, who recently vowed on his Facebook page to "beat the living crap" out of red shirt leaders, told Reuters he was friends with Thaksin's son Panthongtae.

"Everyone knows each other," said Palawi Bunnag, who - proving her point - is married to Vorasit and went to the same British university as Thaksin's nephew Rupop.

Such proximity to the Shinawatras also affords a privileged insight. "They're nice friends," said Palawi. "But we also know their hidden agendas, their hidden businesses." (Additional reporting by Pairat Temphairojana and Khettiya Jittapong in Bangkok; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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