At heart of Thai election, a fugitive rallies
SUAN MON, Thailand
SUAN MON, Thailand (Reuters) - Saffron-robed monks chanted and young women in silk sarongs stretched out their arms in traditional Thai dance moves, but the big event was the voice on a scratchy telephone line from another continent.
"Be prepared. Good things are about to come," billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra said from his Dubai mansion in a telephone call to a Buddhist temple where 38 communities declared their allegiance to Thaksin, formally becoming "Red Shirt Villages" in solidarity with the red-shirted movement that backs him.
In a sign of his support, the number of "Red Shirt Villages" has doubled to more than 700 in two northeastern provinces since a Reuters report uncovered the phenomenon on June 7.
Although Thaksin's younger sister and opposition leader, Yingluck Shinawatra, leads opinion polls for Thailand's July 3 election, the vote is boiling down to a referendum on her brother, a divisive figure who scored landslide election wins in 2001 and 2005 only to be ousted in a 2006 military coup.
Military-backed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has urged voters in Bangkok to avoid the "poison" of Thaksin, saying Yingluck and her Puea Thai Party are clear proxies for the telecommunications tycoon, who lives in Dubai to evade a jail sentence for conflict-of-interest charges he says were politically motivated.
Thaksin hasn't helped matters, describing his sister once as his "clone," and thumbing out "tweets" on Puea Thai policy. The traditional Bangkok elite of top generals, royal advisers and old-money families who back the ruling Democrat Party is watching closely, fearing Thaksin will exact revenge against those who toppled him if his sister gains power.
Many fear something far more basic: that the election will prove meaningless and that the real struggle for power will play out behind the scenes among generals and political power-brokers or in the streets in a reprise of last year's bloody clashes between the low-income red shirts and a military intent on keeping Thaksin at bay.
That risk cannot be ruled out. Opinion polls overwhelmingly favor Yingluck, a telegenic 44-year-old businesswoman and political novice who has confounded skeptics by running a disciplined, media savvy campaign. With an actress's good-looks, she could well become Thailand's first elected female leader --if she is allowed to govern.
Some predict Puea Thai may win an outright majority, but a hung parliament looks more likely, in which case smaller parties will be decisive, opening the way for horse-trading -- and for trouble. If Yingluck wins the most votes but ultimately fails to govern, the red shirts may mobilize in new protests.
"I fear there will be fraud in the election," said Pathum Sinlawong, the chief monk in Suan Mon, a village surrounded by rice paddies and sugarcane fields in the vote-rich northeast Thailand -- a rural bastion for Thaksin and the opposition. "Some invisible elements can do things behind the scenes and rob the election."
The notion of "invisible elements," or a "third hand," has gained prominence in Thai politics since the 2006 coup and after tacit behind-the-scenes army intervention that helped bring the current government to power.
To appease the military and its powerful backers, Yingluck has struck a conciliatory tone, vowing not to rush into an amnesty for Thaksin and saying there will be no revenge for the coup. On Saturday, her party issued a statement that stressed amnesty for Thaksin was not a formal policy.
Not many appear convinced, including Thaksin himself, who this month told Reuters he hoped to return home by December.
"ARE WE READY TO FIGHT?"
In Suan Mon and other villages in the northeast, it is clear who most voters prefer - not Abhisit and not necessarily Yingluck.
"Are we ready to fight?" Anond Sangnan, a red-shirt leader, told nearly 100 villagers packed into Suan Mon's temple.
"Yes," roared the crowd.
"Do we love Thaksin?"
"Yes," they shouted back.
Anond leaned forward. "Who do we hate?" he asked.
"Abhisit," thundered the response.
Since a Reuters report on June 7 revealed at least 320 villages in the provinces of Udon Thani and Khon Kaen had designated themselves as "Red Shirt Villages," the number has more than doubled to at least 710, say local red-shirt organizers. Their trademark is a large red billboard posted at the village entrance with Thaksin's smiling image.
Don Chainapun, a red-shirt leader in Udon Thani city, aims to launch at least 1,000 more before the election.
Abhisit has called the villages "divisive" and a threat to national reconciliation. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha says they are a "concern." Chuan Leekpai, chief adviser to Abhisit's Democrat Party, said last week the villages "instill distorted and false information against our major national institutions. This is a dangerous trend."
Leaders in some villages say they have faced intimidation by soldiers and police who have taken down red flags.
In Thaksin's telephone call to the temple on Saturday as part of the inauguration of the 38 red villages, he dismissed the government's criticisms as falsehoods by "people who are about to lose power," assuring villagers they were not "separatists" and urging supporters to avoid the temptation to sell their vote - an endemic problem in Thai elections.
"There are no votes for sale here," he said to cheers, adding that voters would enjoy an expansion in village budgets if they back his party. "Other parties should realize they cannot buy votes from these villages."
At the ceremony, red-shirt leaders carried long lists of voters in each village, and appeared to know exactly how many would support Thaksin's sister. "We have about 90 to 95 percent of red shirts in each village," said Don.
Anond said red shirts he calls "hawks" will monitor ballot booths on election day to prevent fraud. "These hawks will represent us from every corner of our villages and notify us if there is any attempt to cheat," he said.
The red branding of villages is not openly supported by top red-shirt leaders in Bangkok. But red-shirt leaders in the northeast say they are a crucial mobilizing force for Yingluck, raising her chances of turning out the sort of support that delivered unprecedented back-to-back landslides for her brother in 2001 and 2005.
Inside the villages, slogans on red T-shirts and posters accuse the rich, the Bangkok establishment and top military brass of breaking laws with impunity - grievances that echo across the northeast, a region known as "Isaan" that is home to a third of Thailand's 68 million people.
Thaksin remains revered as the first Thai leader to pay attention to their needs. His cheap credit and health-care schemes proved so popular with the poor that Abhisit's government sought to copy them.
"For many people, Thaksin is symbolic of someone who was overthrown illegitimately. Power was taken away from him the same way people feel power has been taken away from them," said Peerapol Pattanapeeradej, mayor of the capital of Khon Kaen province.
At the temple ceremony on Saturday, women danced in front of a larger-than-life poster of Thaksin. A monk held up a red placard with his image. Excitement rippled through the temple when an organizer announced a "special person" would call. It wasn't Yingluck.
But Thaksin's image as a democratic icon is at odds with his record as premier.
While in power, critics accused him of abusing his electoral mandate to systematically dismantle constitutional checks and balances while cementing his own authoritarian rule and indulging in crony capitalism.
Media watchdogs say he oversaw a steady erosion of press freedom.
"Thaksin is autocratic in some aspects. He wasn't friendly with the press. He was never tolerant of criticism but he allows people room for participation and a budget to manage locally, and rural people felt politically involved when he was in power," said Luaen Srisubho, a fugitive red-shirt activist in Sakhon Nakorn province.
For her part, Yingluck has vowed to carry on with her brother's populist economic programs - from free Tablet PCs for about one million school children to minimum wage increases. Abhisit's policies are broadly similar, but he has cast the election as a chance to rid Thailand of the "toxin" of Thaksin.
Given Thaksin's mass support, that looks difficult.
"For those looking for a stable outcome after this election, there is really very little choice," said Buapun Promphakping, a sociology professor at Khon Kaen University.
(Editing by Sugita Katyal)