White masked middle-class the latest group to take to Thailand's streets

Anti-government protesters want an amnesty bill scrapped, saying it could let ex-premier return from exile without having to face jail

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 August, 2013, 3:51am

The latest face of protest in Thailand is a grinning, white mask with an upturned black moustache and a pencil-thin goatee beard.

Hundreds of people yesterday marched through the Thai capital Bangkok wearing the white masks waving Thai flags and chanting their disapproval with the ruling Pheu Thai party led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Other protests took place in cities across the country.

"The masks are a symbol of our opposition to the government. We're protesting about corruption and the fact that our country is a democracy in name only. The government say we're a democracy but they act like dictators," said Pariya Tarasuwan, a 52-year-old who runs a laundry business and was marching with her white mask pushed back on her head.

A stylised image of the English revolutionary Guy Fawkes, infamous for his failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605, the white masks were popularised by the 2006 Hollywood movie V for Vendetta. They have since been adopted by activist groups in the US such as the anti-capitalist Occupy Movement and the hacker collective Anonymous.

Now, the so-called "V for Thailand" movement has become the newest expression of the polarised political landscape in the country, which remains fiercely divided between the red shirt supporters of Pheu Thai and the yellow shirts who back the opposition Democrat Party.

Yet, there are significant differences between the yellow shirts and the predominantly middle-class and university-educated white masks, who first emerged on Facebook in May.

"They are anonymous protesters who organise themselves over the internet. They don't have a formal leader. It's definitely a new development to see Thai people organising on social media," said Kan Yuenyong, the co-founder and executive director of the Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank.

Most are aware of how the Guy Fawkes masks have become a global symbol of resistance, while others have adopted them as a disguise. Some are homemade improvisations.

"Some of us are civil servants and we don't want to be recognised," said one woman who asked to be known by her nickname Tong.

Tensions between Pheu Thai supporters and their opponents have increased sharply in the last week, following the successful first reading in parliament on Wednesday of an amnesty bill. The controversial bill proposes pardoning those convicted of acts of political violence since 2006, when Yingluck's brother and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled in a coup. The bill currently excludes political leaders from the amnesty, but many believe it will be altered later to include them.

"Right now, the amnesty bill is the big issue for us," said laundromat owner Pariya. "Pheu Thai want bad people who should be in jail freed and they want to bring Thaksin back," she said. "Then he will just become more powerful and control even more of the business in Thailand."

All "V for Thailand" followers believe that Thaksin, who moves between Dubai, London and Hong Kong, continues to rule Thailand through his sister.

With the announcement last week that the police will step up the monitoring of social media, many white masks believe they are now being targeted by the government.

"They want to clamp down on us," said one marcher, surnamed Ao. "But I'm just an ordinary person with one voice. I should be allowed to protest."