Members of Thailand's elite take to streets in anti-government protests

Members of rich families drop any pretence of neutrality as they join sometimes violent mass demonstrations against Yingluck's government

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 December, 2013, 5:36am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 December, 2013, 5:36am

Chitpas Bhirombhakdi is heiress to a US$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 December 2, as anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok turned violent, the 27-year-old climbed aboard a bulldozer brought in by protesters to break down police barricades.

Chitpas, whose family owns the Boon Rawd Brewery that makes Singha beer, had dismounted from the machine 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 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 ageing 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.

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.

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, she worked as a volunteer medic.

"I saw more people getting hurt," she said. "My gut feeling was I wanted to be there to help out." The bulldozer 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. She led her own protest march from her company's Bangkok headquarters to the nearby offices of the ruling Puea Thai party.

Others are more wary about involving their companies.

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

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 the former prime minister who oversaw Singapore's economic rise.

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."