Thai fury forces Old Etonian into hiding

Premier camping out in military base and rarely sees his family as Red Shirt protests show no sign of stopping
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The Independent Online

From the very moment that Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected prime minister of Thailand by a special vote of parliament in 2008, the British-born Eton-educated politician has been fighting off one crisis after the other.

First there were claims about the fairness of his appointment, secondly there was a mounting economic meltdown with which to contend and then just months after he was elected, opposition campaigners held a series of demonstrations in Bangkok that saw the country's worst street violence for two decades. Two people were killed and many more injured.

But now the 45-year-old, who is said to support Newcastle United Football Club and to enjoy the works of Albert Camus, may be facing his toughest challenge yet. After two weeks of demonstrations which saw thousands of the Red Shirts opposition take to the streets of Bangkok and hurl blood – which they had queued up to donate to the protest – at his home and office, reports suggest that events have taken a toll on the premier. He is forced to live and work in a military base and rare-ly sees his family.

With the Red Shirts promising yet more demonstrations in the capital, the head of the 15-month-old government will receive ever increasing demands for him to dissolve the parliament and call an early election – an election his opponents are certain they would win.

"It is not easy going for him. The demonstrations are serious because they show that the Red Shirts have not gone away," said Giles Ji Ungpakorn, said a dissident academic who fled Thailand to live in Britain. "The Red Shirts are increasingly using the language of class and it shows that the government does not enjoy the support of the ordinary people. Everything the government has done to try and legitimise the manoeuvring that led to Abhisit's appointment has not worked in the eyes of the people."

Mr Abhisit, head of the Democrat Party, became prime minister in December 2008 amid a constitutional crisis that followed a court's decision to outlaw three parties that made up the ruling coalition.

Even as he secured his position by a 235 to 198 vote in the parliament, opposition activists blocked access to the building and smashed the windows of MPs' cars. His most immediate challenge comes this Saturday when the Red Shirts – most of them supporters of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – plan to hold yet another demonstration in Bangkok. Experts say that when up to 150,000 demonstrators gathered on 14 March, they received an unusual amount of support from residents of the capital.

The display of political muscle is deemed important by the opposition, which is convinced it has the numbers to secure victory in parliamentary polls, which have to be called by the end of next year. For all of Mr Abhisit's confident rhetoric of winning the election, some analysts believe it is remarkable that the opposition is even active after last year's street violence.

"The Red Shirts shouldn't even be a viable movement. People shouldn't be touching them with a barge pole, you would've thought, after what they did to Bangkok last year," Supavud Saicheua, managing director of Phatra Securities, told Reuters. "But a year later they are back stronger, with a better message, more convincing, and able to get cheers from people in Bangkok."

Others say Thailand's political turmoil will continue until the main grievances of the Red Shirts – greater empowerment of poorer rural voters who were lured by Mr Thaksin's populist policies such as cheap loans – are met. Such conservative elements, including the military and those close to the country's royal family, are unlikely to surrender such influence easily and the opposition is likely to continue.

One thing is for certain: for Mr Abhisit nothing is going to get any easier any time soon.