Thaksin Shinawatra’s face is on their red T-shirts. His voice, broadcast on loudspeakers at their encampment in Bangkok’s upmarket shopping district, has been in their ears. His words are on their banners. But is his money in their pockets?
Thaksin, once the prime minister of Thailand and now an ousted leader who jumped bail and lives in exile, has been a significant presence at the thousands-strong rally of anti-government protesters at the Ratchaprasong intersection.
The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship supporters, widely known as the red shirts, believe the current government is illegitimate and have been demanding fresh elections from their encampment, where they have brought commerce to a grinding halt for a fortnight.
They enjoy free food, free water and tarpaulin shelters at the rally site, where a massive stage with a sophisticated sound system and video screen has been set up. Many, especially those from far-flung districts, have been provided with cash to pay for petrol and incidental expenses. A clip on YouTube, apparently shot on the first day of the rally in early March in Nakhon Phanom, in the far north-east of Thailand, shows a red-shirt official with a thick wedge of 1000 baht notes (each note worth about $33) handing 2000 baht in cash to red-shirt supporters.
The red shirts insist they have raised the money from donations rather than from a distant benefactor and, indeed, Thaksin’s name is heard increasingly rarely in their leaders’ speeches, and his face is less commonly seen on their shirts. Still, sceptics believe the protest is largely a Thaksin investment.
The Foreign Minister, Kasit Piromya, recently speculated that Thaksin is providing the red shirts with 300 million baht a day, and described him as a ”bloody terrorist”.
”It would be nice to have a look at where the money is going,” he told reporters in Washington. Yet red-shirt numbers at the Ratchaprasong intersection, home to ritzy shopping centres and five-star hotels, swing between a few thousand and more than 30,000. Funds of $10 million a day would provide expenses for months or years to come.
In early February the Thai government announced that large and suspicious sums had been deposited from overseas and local sources into the bank accounts of various red-shirt leaders, and the Department of Special Investigation was told to determine where the money came from.
”The Minister of Justice gave an instruction to the DSI to proceed after there was news suggesting that Thaksin or Thaksin’s associates were transferring money illegally into Thailand,” the government’s official spokesman, Panitan Wattanayagorn, told the Herald. ”Intelligence reports suggested unusual activities months ago.”
The funds, he said, were transferred via a winding trail of accounts. He said investigators had pinpointed 16 illegal activities and there had been links to casinos in neighbouring nations and criminal organisations. Mr Panitan said there had been reports in past weeks that 800 million baht had been released from previously frozen bank accounts used by the Thaksin family, but he conceded there was no information on where the money had gone. It was premature to speculate before the investigation’s conclusions were released.
Detractors point to another clip of Thaksin wearing red and appealing to his supporters: ”But if you people want me to do the job, then I’m ready to serve you,” he says. ”I’m ready to serve you and you don’t need to queue for 500 baht.” This has been adduced as evidence the tycoon is paying protesters a daily salary, but analysts have pointed out that he could easily have been referring to the queues for government assistance, one program offering 2000 baht and another 500 baht for the elderly.
Pismai Srisuk, a Bangkok housewife with four grown children, is mightily offended to learn there have been suggestions she is a paid activist, turning out on the searingly hot Bangkok streets for a little cash. ”The people only give some red shirts food,” she said, sporting a red shirt and a large ring with a red stone. ”That’s all.”
Nolapan Kaewkarn, who has a small shop in the city, said she desperately wanted Thaksin to return to Thailand. ”He does what he says,” she said. As for the idea of red shirts as paid rabble-rousers, ”that’s just a big lie”.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a respected Thai political scientist now based at Stanford, said that although it was likely Thaksin had provided some funds for the month-long rally, the red shirts were becoming increasingly adept at raising money.
”Given the close relationship between Thaksin and the [United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship] leaders from the outset, it would be surprising if Thaksin provides no funds at all,” he said. ”On the other hand, there have been growing organic fund-raising efforts among the reds’ rank and file. To pin down numbers from Thaksin’s pocket would require substantiation. A significant portion, if not the bulk, of his family wealth has been confiscated or is still in legal limbo.” Thitinan said the highly volatile political atmosphere required flexibility from the government. ”Opponents need to consider and accommodate some of the red shirts’ grievances on their own merits without the catch-all fixation with Thaksin’s corruption and money, for Thailand to have peace and reconciliation.”
Funds had come from red-shirt sympathisers, insisted Weng Tajirakarn, one of the four senior red-shirt leaders. ”We must be very, very careful about the contribution of Mr Thaksin,” he told the Herald. ”He supports us, yes, with speechmaking. But that’s all.”
The movement’s finances rested largely on donations, Weng said, which ranged from about 400,000 baht a day to 1.1 million baht a day. ”It’s self sufficient,” he said. ”There’s no money coming from overseas.”
The protesters, he said, were using metropolitan water from hydrants, and electricity from the grid. ”And we don’t pay for hotels,” he added, gesturing at the tarmac. The stage and sound system had required some outlay of funds, but only in the beginning. ”A lot of people bring food for us, every day in the morning, at lunchtime and at night. It’s because our struggle is a right cause.”
Meanwhile, Thaksin has been floating around the world on his various passports, seen in Sweden, Russia and recently, apparently, in the South Pacific. The 60-year-old misses Thailand, but has not sent a message on his Twitter page since April 11, about the time a burst of violence at a red-shirt rally site left 23 people dead and hundreds injured. His broadcasts to the faithful have decreased in number recently. Still, in a Twitter message, he denied rumours that he had been heard less often because he was unwell.
”I am not sick, I am healthy,” he said, ”but I want the stage to be a stage for fighting democracy and justice.”
Dan Oakes reports: Speculation is mounting that Thaksin might be planning to use Fiji as his new base. Sources in Thailand have told the Herald Thaksin is either in or en route to Fiji, which does not have an extradition treaty with Thailand.