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Suthep: wrong man at the right time?

It's easier to say why Suthep shouldn't be leading the anti-government campaign than why he should be. As a leader he ends up lacking. He was at the centre of a major political scandal almost two decades ago, and to this day approximately half the country holds him responsible for the violent crackdown on the red-shirt uprising in 2010.

Yet there he is, leading tens of thousands in rallies aimed at toppling the "Thaksin regime" and replacing it with a speculative "people's council". More than a month of escalating demonstrations has seen Suthep become a "hero" for the protesters and a wanted man for the courts, who have issued an arrest warrant on a charge of insurrection.

Whether Suthep will go down in history as a revolutionary hero or a traitor remains to be seen. But what's clear is that he has outstripped all predecessors who have led protests against Thaksin Shinawatra over the years. When rumours spread that he was to be arrested at the Finance Ministry, supporters took to their cars to block streets and prevent the police from mobilising. And when the government seemed to be getting the upper hand, former People's Alliance for Democracy leader Sondhi Limthongkul stepped in, calling on yellow shirts to get behind Suthep's campaign. "If he loses, the country is defeated," he said.

Once a typically wily politician, Suthep has emerged as a leader who inspires devotion among his "faithful". Here are the reasons why:

* He left behind his comfort zone to lead the protests, quitting the Democrat Party, which he joined in 1979. His move can be interpreted as a strategic tactic to safeguard the party against legal fallout, but the protesters hail it as a bold move, since he also yielded the immunity of an MP.

Suthep insists that leaving the party reaffirmed that this "fight" is for the country, not any political party. Shedding his Democrat hat also drew more people to the protests in the form of yellow shirts and others who dislike the Democrat Party. His resignation made it clear that wanted to be with the people. "I have cleared my room at the Democrat Party," he said. "It is bye-bye forever. My place is here with you guys."

* He is a brave leader: Suthep is not the type of leader we saw in the past, firing up the crowd from a stage or a travelling loudspeaker truck. He is always up front line when the masses march, and the fearlessness of this 64-year-old man inspires those who follow. It's the kind of action that backs up the messages he delivers in his speeches. All the ridicule of the red shirts has failed to shake his bravery. There has been to sign of a desire to retreat. "If we don't succeed, I am prepared to die on the battlefield," he said.

* This is a passionate and daring speaker, compelling the crowd with hot-blooded, revolutionary notions and sheer ambition, often blended with satire and other gags. In the beginning he often talked about his pre-Democrat Party days as the country's first village headman with a master degree from abroad. His father Charas was also a kamnan. Suthep's supporters were soon addressing him as Luang Kamnan, like a beloved uncle.

Gone were the suit and tie of parliamentary demeanour, replaced by a down-to-earth image that only enhances the seeming honesty of his speeches. "I have been there, done that, but I never went into jail," he said while mocking Thaksin. "If the police arrest me I won't run, like their boss."

* Unlike too many others in politics, Suthep admits mistakes and quickly steps forward to take sole responsibility. He insisted that the protesters refrain from fighting police in the dark of night in case outside forces take advantage to boost the casualty count. Stung by intense criticism over the storming of TV stations, he said it was deemed necessary to seek justice and sympathy - but the wrong move. "My media brothers," he said, "please just blame me, not the protesters. It was my decision."

* Suthep is backed up by the strongest arguments. The campaign kicked off because of the government's attempt to pass an amnesty bill that would have rescued Thaksin from exile, and Suthep advocated the passive technique of civil disobedience. Later actions were however branded undemocratic, to which Suthep responded that the government had lost its democratic right to rule and could thus be undermined in undemocratic ways. This is a political fight, with the country's welfare at stake, he said, not a "democracy contest".

Regardless, Suthep's widespread acceptance as the protest's leader unarguably reflects one fact: If a man with such unpopular traits can win so many hearts, it says a lot about the other side.


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