THAILAND : Thai media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul (L) along with fellow
protest leader Chamlong Srimuang sits in front of the Government House
in Bangkok, 14 March 2006, demanding the resignation of Thai Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Protestors surrounded Thaksin's office to
demand he step down, as the premier threatened a state of emergency if
the demo turned violent. AFP PHOTO/ PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL|
by Sarah Stewart, March 14, 2006
BANGKOK (AFP) - Chamlong Srimuang, a former general who led a 1992
"people power" uprising, has emerged as a potent force in Thailand's
latest political crisis, backed by his sect of celibate, vegetarian
The austere 71-year-old, who
retains his military bearing and close-cropped hair, personally invited
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra into politics in 1994, giving him
leadership of his party and assuming the role of mentor.
But last month he changed his
mind about Thaksin and urged him to resign, joining a protest movement
that has staged weekly rallies drawing tens of thousands of people who
accuse the premier of being corrupt and authoritarian.
The move lent much-needed
credibility to the somewhat rag-tag protest alliance and came as a
major blow for Thaksin, who days later dissolved parliament and called
snap elections for April 2 in a bid to defuse the crisis.
Chamlong and his "Dharma
Army", members of a radical sect which broke away from mainstream
Buddhism, staged a week-long vigil in a field near the royal palace
which culminated in a march on Thaksin's office Tuesday.
The 10,000 members of the
Santi Asoke sect live in self-sufficient communes based on strict
monastic discipline, abstaining from sex and alcohol and eating just
one vegetarian meal a day.
Political analysts say
Chamlong and his followers have breathed new life into the protest
movement by drawing thousands more middle-class working people to the
"They have a wider circle of
sympathisers and admirers, people who occasionally visit their centers,
people who just see them as more true to the spirit of Buddhism than
the mainstream," said Thai historian Chris Baker.
As well, Chamlong's
contention that Thaksin lacks the legitimacy to lead the country of 63
million is significant coming from a figure who has a long and close
association with the billionaire-turned-politician.
"Chamlong brought Thaksin
into politics, so people think Chamlong has secrets about Thaksin" that
could be used against him, said political analyst Sirirat Choonhaklai.
Chamlong's ascetic lifestyle
and spotless ethics helped elevate him to the status of democracy hero
in 1992, when he led demonstrations in Bangkok that helped topple a
military dictatorship and restore democratic rule.
In dramatic scenes that
reverberate to this day, Chamlong and regime leader General Suchinda
Kraprayoon were summoned by Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej,
and urged to negotiate a settlement and stop the bloodshed.
But although Suchinda's
downfall was widely applauded, some accused Chamlong of having blood on
his hands after soldiers shot dead about 50 demonstrators during the
Charges that he has become an
extremist who does not know how to compromise -- a failing in a country
where harmony is highly valued -- grew louder last month when the
Dharma Army staged a protest against alcohol manufacturers.
Chamlong and some 1,000
followers camped outside the headquarters of Thailand's financial
markets regulator to campaign against allowing alcohol firms from
listing on the Thai stock exchange.
The son of an immigrant
Chinese fish vendor, Chamlong attended the Royal Thai Military Academy
and served in Laos and Vietnam before taking on high-level posts in the
After being elected Bangkok
governor in 1985, he won applause for bringing order and cleanliness to
the city's chaotic streets, personally taking up a broom in a campaign
to curb garbage and pollution.
He went on to lead the
anti-corruption Palang Dharma Party which formed Thaksin's power base
in his early days in politics.
Chamlong's wife Sirilak, a
former major in the Thai army, has long shared his background and
religious beliefs. The couple have no children.