Thai junta unfazed by serial hunger striker's "win-win" fast

BANGKOK Wed Jun 18, 2014 1:28am EDT

Chalad Vorachat, a retired navy lieutenant and serial hunger striker, sits on the steps of the criminal court in Bangkok June 10, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

Chalad Vorachat, a retired navy lieutenant and serial hunger striker, sits on the steps of the criminal court in Bangkok June 10, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - For more than three decades, Chalad Vorachat's hunger strikes have drawn crowds. Once, he even helped topple a government.

But this time, the veteran Thai anti-coup campaigner says he's contemplating a very different outcome: wasting away unnoticed on a Bangkok pavement.

He wants to see Thailand's military, which took power in a bloodless coup last month, set a date for a new general election to usher in a democratically elected government.

"If it doesn't happen soon, then I'll have to sacrifice my life," he told Reuters outside Bangkok's parliament building, where he sits beside plastic wreaths symbolizing the death of democracy and subsists on honey and water.

"If I don't die, then I win. And if I do die, I also win," he said, a smile flickering across his face.

Chalad, 71, embodies the vicious cycle that is Thai politics. Since 1980, the former Democrat Party lawmaker has refused food as a form of protest against everything from oil prices to constitutional amendments.

He was thrust into notoriety in 1992, when a hunger strike against then-Prime Minister General Suchinda Kraprayoon, who took power following a coup, helped inspire bloody protests that killed at least 52 people and resulted in Suchinda's downfall.

Since then, he's carried out hunger strikes in 1994, 2000 and 2006 aimed at ending the political meddling of the military, which has carried out 12 successful coups since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932.

The former navy lieutenant last week filed criminal charges against junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha and other officers for insulting the monarchy and treason. The case was promptly dismissed.

Thai politics has long been tumultuous, and the past decade has seen society sharply divided over the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecoms tycoon elected prime minister twice on massive rural support garnered through populist giveaways.

He was overthrown in a 2006 coup. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, became prime minister in 2011, but months of protests that began in November helped trigger her downfall in May.

LONELY PROTEST

While Chalad could once count on mass support, much of it from Bangkok's middle classes, his latest protest is happening in near anonymity. Reclining on the street dressed in black pajamas, Chalad was accompanied by just two supporters.

Partly, he blames that on draconian rules introduced since the May 22 coup, banning criticism of the junta and political gatherings of more than five people.

But the other factor he believes is at work doesn't bode well for Thailand's democratic prospects: much of the middle class swung its support behind anti-Shinawatra protests that set the stage for the army's takeover, and are not too bothered by the coup.

"The thing is, Thais don't have sufficient education so their understanding of democracy is shaky," he said. "They think the democratic system doesn't achieve anything... That's part of the military's plan – to make people think Thai democracy is weak."

Some of those who once supported Chalad say they're resigned to military intervention in times of political crisis.

Engineer Somkid Charoenphon, 52, said he joined protests in 1994 and was, by his own admission, a "Chalad admirer". He believes the middle class has slid into political apathy.

"It's very dangerous. Dangerous for Thai democracy, which is weak to begin with, and dangerous because the military can do whatever it likes, unchecked," Somkid said.

"Middle class Bangkok people are fickle. Once upon a time they called for democratization but when they felt neglected by populist prime ministers who focused on rural areas, they changed their mind."

The junta, too, appears unrattled by Chalad's protest.

"We don't see the necessity to enforce anything on him," said deputy army spokesman Veerachon Sukhontapatipak. "At the moment the public mood is quite okay and it seems people understand the intention of the military."

(Editing by Martin Petty and Alex Richardson)

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