Fresh hope for Thai politics
Greg Torode meets a new political force aiming to take the next polls by storm
Age is at last being a little kind to Abhisit Vejjajiva - who at just 33 is the rising young turk of Thai politics. Educated at Eton and Oxford, and a fan of British rock band Oasis, he is the thoroughly modern young Thai set to lead his generation into a new political dawn that will stop the kind of disturbances taking place in Bangkok this week.
Those who know him well say he is finally starting to look a little older, and the quiet wisdom of the insider is starting to show on his boyish face.
A veneer of experience, after all, counts for a lot in such a shabby arena, where for generations the venal have used it to mask their crimes.
'I know I am young and this has been used against me in the past . . . but I am someone who will stick to my principles and my beliefs. And we are all getting older all the time,' Mr Abhisit said.
To those Bangkok crowds that jammed the streets surrounding Government House yesterday, Mr Abhisit best represents the sort of leader they are pinning their hopes on in years ahead.
The protests are not just against General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's rule, but against his coalition partners now locked in dark power plays far from the public eye.
Simple back-pocket economics has brought people's frustrations to boiling point. They want more open government in which leadership takes firm decisions for the sake of the country, not an individual leader's political survival. Utopia, maybe, but that is what many hope a radical new constitution signed last week by King Bhumibol Adulyadej will give them.
'There is just no hope that we will get out of this mess while these clowns are in power,' said one retired naval officer attending one of this week's rallies. 'It's the system that has got to change.' Analysts and commentators believe a new voting system and new electoral institutions will bring great change. They come as disillusion with the system and its leaders soars while recession bites.
The political dinosaurs who owe their power to an old system of rural patronage will soon die out in favour of a younger, cleaner breed. At least that is the theory; in reality the back-room power brokers, in the pockets of vested interests, will not go easily.
Mr Abhisit sits at the head of that group. This month Time magazine named him one of the key leaders to watch. Spokesman for the opposition Democratic Party, Mr Abhisit has been the youngest parliamentarian in Thai history since being elected five years ago, aged 27.
The lanky politician comes across as a complex figure, who can appear by turns innocent and cunning.
'I never want to lose my identity - or my views and my ideals,' he said. 'The way I work, I think popular support is the best backing you can have in politics. You may not have allies or groups of politicians under your belt but if you are popular you can always stand up. My key message is that politics can be clean.' In the past, his earnest, youthful looks have been both a blessing and a curse. When he campaigns at a market, fishwives mob him. Yet in parliamentary debate his opponents have slammed him as callow, naive and innocent.
Barring a sudden change in the coalition make-up, campaigning will soon get under way for a May election.
The race is expected to be a little dirtier than usual, with long-time leaders such as Prime Minister Chavalit and his tough-talking interior minister, Sanoh Thienthong, keen to cling to power they may have lost under the new constitution.
Mr Sanoh, in particular, was scathing about the People's Charter, at one stage dismissing it as a 'communist plot'.
In the days before the vote he organised 20,000-strong demonstrations in the capital involving country folk from the poor northeast. Most were paid to turn up.
It is in this region where 30 per cent of the voters live - compared with just 10 per cent in Bangkok. It is there too, that General Chavalit and Mr Sanoh enjoy their strongest support. It is when talking of the northeast that Mr Abhisit's self-assurance cracks and doubts creep in: 'Somehow we have to find a way of convincing people that it is a new time now, that they don't have to rely on the practices of the past. Hopefully we will have a lot of fresh faces up there.' Mr Abhisit is a product of the old urban elites that have run the civil service for decades - the smooth technocrats known as the 'king's men' who have quietly kept Thailand running despite political storms that have brought dictatorships and 21 coups since 1932.
His parents were doctors and his uncles diplomats, but Mr Abhisit said he had been eyeing a political future ever since witnessing the student uprisings of 1973. 'I thought in terms of the system. As it changed, I thought it had to be politics. The civil service did not hold many attractions for my generation,' he said.
An economic liberal, he is keen for tough action to break the vested interests he believes are stalling Thailand's economic reform. He accuses the present leadership of being far too weak and dragging Thailand into a vicious circle in which growth will be stunted and recovery become far harder than it needs to be.
With his overseas education - culminating in a master's degree in economics from Oxford - he has spent one-third of his life outside Thailand. The fight to prove his 'Thai-ness' to scoffing opponents is a constant battle.
For inspiration, he looks to former prime minister Chuan Leekpai, known as a relatively honest broker who has somehow kept his clean reputation intact through 30 tumultuous years in politics.
Foreign diplomats and Thai political insiders alike are in awe of the Abhisit appeal. 'He presents a force so far different from the usual, it's remarkable. Talk about beauty and the beast,' one seasoned observer said.
'It's not all goodsy-woodsy. Mr Abhisit is getting tougher all the time. And just as well.'