Thailand's opposition heartland shelves politics to mourn king

October 20, 2016 10:35 PM EDT

A mourner pays her respect to a picture of Thailand's late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the City Pilar Shrine near the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, October 20, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha


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By Robert Birsel

KHON KAEN, Thailand (Reuters) - In villages scattered through the green rice fields of northeast Thailand, a stronghold of support for former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his opposition "red shirt" movement, people have put politics on hold to mourn King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The 88-year-old king, who died on Thursday last week, was seen as a father figure for generations of Thais of all political persuasions.

Thaksin, who lives in self-exile offered his condolences upon the death of the king in a Facebook post but has made no other comment. The former telecoms tycoon has sent no messages to his beleaguered supporters in Khon Kaen, former red shirt activists say.

"All the leaders are gone. We hear no news. We're doing nothing," said one.

The activist, like two others Reuters spoke to, declined to be identified fearing tough security laws aimed at curbing political unrest.

Thaksin, based in Dubai, has not been available for comment since the king's death. Amnuay Klangpa, a former member of parliament from Thaksin's party, said security restrictions make it difficult to contact its base.

"We haven't forgotten our supporters but we can't even meet among ourselves," Amnuay said.

YINGLUCK FINED NEARLY $1 BLN

On Friday, Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra said the junta that overthrew her in 2014 has ordered her assets seized and fined her 35 billion baht ($996.87 million) over a rice subsidy scheme that critics say hemorrhaged billions of dollars.

The scheme, which paid farmers above market rates for their rice, was a flagship policy of Yingluck's administration and helped sweep her to office in a 2011 general election. Thaksin introduced a similar scheme before he was toppled in the 2006 coup.

"I will use every channel available to fight this," Yingluck said.

Analysts said the seizure of Yingluck's assets was part of a military plan to limit the influence of Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin.

"It is part for the course of the military coup which was to put down the Thaksin challenge once and for all," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University, told Reuters.

The junta says the 2014 coup brought stability following months of unrest and denies it was intended to limit the influence of the Shinawatra family.

CROWN PRINCE'S SUCCESSION

The government has declared a year of mourning for the king. And on the streets of Khon Kaen city, everyone is wearing black or white, the colors of mourning in mainly Buddhist Thailand.

Thaksin's supporters said political activity would cease during the mourning period. They were pinning their hopes on an election the military government has promised at the end of 2017.

"We shouldn't do anything provocative. We have a conscience, we don't want chaos," said a second red-shirt organizer.

Thaksin, who faces a jail term for a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated, is loved in the rural north and northeast for pro-poor policies such as the rice subsidy scheme. But he was despised by a Bangkok establishment that sees him as a corrupt populist who squandered taxes to buy rural votes.

Worry about the end of King Bhumibol's seven decades on the throne has clouded a 10-year struggle between the military-led establishment and Thaksin.

The government has said Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will succeed his father after 15 days of mourning. His formal coronation, however, will take place after the king's cremation, following a year-long mourning period. The 96-year-old president of the royal Privy Council, Prem Tinsulanonda, has been named as regent during the interregnum.

The delay in the prince becoming king has raised speculation among Thailand scholars and analysts that the succession may not be as smooth as the government has said it will be.

'RESIDUAL POCKETS'

Thaksin or his parties have won every election since 2001 only to see governments overthrown, prime ministers dismissed by courts, parties disbanded and supporters shot in protests or arrested.

Thaksin's loyalists brought the capital to a standstill for weeks in 2010, descending from the north and northeast in a fleet of buses and trucks festooned with red flags. They occupied a central Bangkok district in a bid to force a pro-establishment government out and win back power Thaksin thought was rightfully his.

Today the opposition has been cowed by the military.

"They're not in a position to do anything," David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based scholar and expert on the monarchy, said of the red shirts. "They're in residual pockets with no organizational capacity."

Human Rights Watch said hundreds of people expressing dissenting views have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and prosecuted.

"People aren't happy but it's better to keep quiet," said Khon Kaen lawyer Boonyong Kaewfainok, who has defended red-shirt activists.

While most Thais mourn the only king most have ever known, the red shirt activists said they doubted shared grief could engender reconciliation.

"Sadness does not bring politics together," said the second activist. "For reconciliation, we need elections."

(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Cod Satrusayang.; Editing by Bill Tarrant.)



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