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World News

"Red Siam" adds revolutionary twist to Thai crisis

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A former communist and political prisoner, Surachai Danwattananusorn, has a dramatic solution to fix Thailand’s political crisis: a “democratic revolution” to end what he sees as a monopoly of power by the royalist elite.

It may sound overly ambitious. But his “Red Siam” group is seeking popular support for a movement that comes dangerously close to republicanism in a country where criticism of the monarchy is punishable by up to 15 years in jail under the world’s toughest lese majeste laws.

“Thailand could become a failed state under the current power structure,” Surachai told Reuters.

His revolutionary rhetoric comes at a delicate time three months after the military used force to disperse “red shirt” anti-government protests backed by the rural and urban poor, a group that chafes against royalists they accuse of meddling in politics. Ninety-one people died in two months of clashes.

As Thailand struggles to heal those divisions, many are pondering the future of the royal institution that has helped to hold the country together for more than half a century.

Reverence of 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej remains widespread, but his year-long hospitalisation and silence during weeks of unrest have focused attention on his son and presumed heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who does not yet command his same support, and on the crown’s elite royalist backers.

“Red Siam” splintered last year from the red shirts who now distance themselves from Surachai, whose views are too risky, legally and politically, to their bid for mainstream acceptance.

The two groups are often lumped together by authorities seeking to discredit the red shirts by suggesting they want to overthrow the monarchy, an accusation red-shirt leaders deny and one that could undermine them in a country where King Bhumibol is regarded as almost divine.

TARGETING THE ARISTOCRACY

But both groups have much in common. They both say they are fighting against the “ammart,” a broad Thai term for aristocrats and the royalist elite who back Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and are accused by the red shirts of orchestrating a 2006 military coup that ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

But while most red shirts want to topple Abhisit and replace him with Thaksin, a populist multimillionaire in self-imposed exile to avoid a graft conviction, “Red Siam” wants to go further and end what it sees as a royalist power structure.

“This fight isn’t one of ‘red shirts’ versus this government,” Surachai said. “It’s a fight between the powerless majority and the few who wield power from behind the scenes. Changing the government is not going to change that.”

Authorities say Surachai is part of a network that includes Thaksin and wants to destroy the monarchy, charges that Surachai considers “groundless and ridiculous”, saying he only wants changes that would guarantee royal power cannot be abused.

Surachai, who was sentenced to death on murder and robbery charges as a member of the Communist Party of Thailand during a low-level 1970s insurgency before receiving a royal pardon in 1988, denies the suggestion he condones violence.

“I don’t criticise the monarchy but I criticise those who claim to be loyal to the institution and accuse everyone else of disloyalty, only to retain power within their own circle.”

Analysts say “Red Siam” does not pose a serious threat to the government given a lack of broad support.

“It is still a fringe movement,” said Karn Yuenyong, director of independent think-tank Siam Intelligence Unit.

But Surachai wants to broaden its support, travelling to northern Thailand for three weeks to meet with red shirts there.

“What we need is a true revolution,” he said.

Editing by Jason Szep

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