Thai protesters target PM's family business empire

Thai political battle gets personal with protest leaders launching verbal attacks on PM`s family and Shinawatra Inc.

Thai political battle gets personal with protest leaders launching verbal attacks on PM`s family and Shinawatra Inc.

by Arnaud Dubus

BANGKOK - As Thailand`s political crisis enters its fourth month, anti-government protesters are turning their attention to businesses linked to the prime minister`s family, underlining an intense personal battle in the struggle.

On Monday morning, demonstrators blowing whistles and clad in the Thai national colours surrounded the Bangkok office of Voice TV, a cable news and entertainment TV company owned by Panthongtae Shinawatra, a nephew of Premier Yingluck Shinawatra and the son of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra - a telecom magnate and billionaire.

Voice TV is considered favourable to the Red Shirts - a movement mostly from Thailand`s poorer north and north-east which is determined to maintain a political administration which has delivered them clear material benefits.

Monday`s operation is not the first to target “Shin clan” businesses.

Last week, former opposition deputy-leader Suthep Thaugsuban - the main leader of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), as the yellow shirt-wearing anti-government movement calls itself - called for protesters to return their AIS mobile phone SIM cards and switch to another carrier because the company was formerly owned by the Shinawatra family.

“I ask my brothers and sisters to help, especially those using AIS. Regardless of its quality, return the SIM cards and use other brands. Please tell your friends and relatives about this and please spread the message using Facebook and LINE," he said.

The following day, around 1,400 people switched to another operator in one area of Bangkok alone, prompting the AIS CEO Wichian Metratkarn to launch a message through Thai media.

“I would like to ask for sympathy. Our company has to feed more than 10,000 people who also have families to take care of. We need your support so that we can continue to provide the best service to our customers,” he said.

Shin Corp, of which AIS is a subsidiary, was sold by the Shinawatra family to Singaporean company Temasek in 2006.

The sale, on which no taxes were paid, provoked a political crisis which culminated in a coup which overthrew Thaksin’s government in September of that year.

Thaksin has lived in exile since shortly before a two-year conviction for corruption. He is accused of controlling Yingluck`s government from abroad through Skype conferences with his sister and the cabinet.

Prime Minister Yingluck, 18 years younger than her brother, launched her career in the Shinawatra family business before entering politics in 2011.

Prior to her elevation as premier, she was the CEO of SC Assets, the Shinawatra business empire`s real estate company. Its headquarters has been surrounded by anti-government protesters since last week.

Outside of a focus on Shinawatra Inc, protest leaders have also personalised their attacks on Yingluck.

PDRC leader Thaugsuban used foul language during a recent speech, saying that it was not clear who was the father of Yingluck’s son.

Yingluck, a married woman, has a 10-year-old son, Suppasek. She has been forced to stay in a safe house for almost a week, six days after protesters launched a "Catch Her" operation.

Thailand has been lurching from one crisis to another since the 2006 coup against Thaksin.

Yingluck is facing a wave of opposition protests after her government pushed through an amnesty in 2013 which would have lifted a 2008 corruption conviction against Thaksin - a deeply divisive figure whose Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party led the country from 2001.

Confronted by massive protests, the government withdrew the bill, but the opposition has alleged massive corruption by the government and Shinawatra family.

Yingluck dissolved parliament on December 9 and called February 2 elections, which were disrupted by an anti-government movement - the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) - who want an unelected "people’s council" to run Thailand until the political system is reformed.

Thailand is deeply divided between an urban middle class which despises Yingluck`s populist government, and provincials in the poorer north and north-east, who are determined to maintain an administration which has delivered them clear material benefits.

The conflict also puts two rival factions of the elite at opposition - the traditional establishment focused on the monarchy, comprised of old Sino-Thai business families, and a class of "new rich" Thais, who have made a fortune since the beginning of the 1980s.

The new wealth is epitomized by Thaksin, who is accused of massive corruption by the anti-government demonstrators, but adored by the provincials for his social policies.

According to renowned Thai political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a lynchpin of the crisis has been the will of the old elite to push away Thaksin through short-cuts - military coups or judicial coups, as in 2007 and 2008 when two pro-Thaksin political parties were dissolved by the Constitutional Court.

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