What Do Thailand's Protesters Want?

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Chumsak Kanoknan / Getty Images

Members of the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest outside Bangkok's Government House on Sept. 3

It's an unlikely command center. But a single piece of blue tarp laid behind loops of razor wire and stacks of tires serves as the makeshift headquarters of the anti-government alliance that has thrown Thai politics into anarchy. Sitting cross-legged on the sheeting, Sondhi Limthongkul, the co-leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), explains why thousands of protesters have occupied Bangkok's Government House, Thailand's seat of power, for more than a week to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. "It's taken for granted in the West that democracy is the best system," says Sondhi, a media mogul by day. "But all we are getting in Thailand is the same vicious circle of corrupt, power-hungry leaders. This system is not working."

So on Aug. 26, Sondhi and his followers decided, instead, to take over Samak's offices, hoping that extreme trespassing would supplant the power of the ballot box. At first, the mood at the besieged compound was celebratory, with the Alliance supplying plenty of free food and drinks — and even veteran rock stars coming to entertain the crowds. But early on Sept. 2, the atmosphere took a sudden turn when a deadly street battle erupted between the PAD and a counter-protest group that supports the embattled Prime Minister. Dozens were injured as mobs attacked each other with whatever weapons were on hand — bamboo sticks, guns, even the odd golf club. At least one protester lost his life in the melee. Later that day, Samak declared a state of emergency, which authorizes the military to assume control of security in the capital and theoretically outlaws any public gathering of more than five people.

The decree, though, failed to deter many camped out at Government House, who accuse Samak of acting as a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup and now faces corruption charges. "We are ready to fight," vowed Jantana Klinchan, a sandwich vendor from central Thailand, as she swayed to a folk song calling for political change. "We are not scared to defend ourselves." That kind of brinksmanship may be just what the PAD wants. Its leaders decry the electoral system in Thailand, alleging that vote-buying in poor rural areas largely discredits any poll results. (Indeed, Samak's People Power Party is facing possible dissolution by the courts because of an electoral-fraud conviction of its former deputy leader.) "If democracy brings Samak, then I donít want it," says Wijeau Noinoo, a finance executive from the southern city of Trang who was relaxing on the terrace of Government House. "We have to figure out another way."

But finding that alternative path — especially if it means prolonging the sit-in throwing Bangkok off balance — risks stoking more violence. And it's not clear who members of PAD, which is not a political party itself, want to lead the country after Samak. Although many of those barricaded at Government House support the opposition Democrat Party, their numbers lagged behind the PPP's in last year's polls. Even Sondhi isn't willing to name a single person whom he believes could successfully lead the country. "We know we have to change," he says, "but we don't know how exactly to do it yet." In the meantime, Sondhi is of the act-first-and-negotiate-later school of politics. It's a stance that gives him a rock-and-roll rebel aura at PAD assemblies, but his attitude surely plays less favorably among foreign investors and tourists, on whose pocketbooks Thailand's economy depends.

Nevertheless, PAD supporters say they will hold their ground until Samak is out. "The first thing is to get rid of the government," says Surapol Chinakulprasert, a 48-year-old second-hand goods trader clapping along as PAD leaders rallied their troops from a giant stage set up in the garden of Government House. "Then we can figure everything else out."