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The yellow shirts button up

Thailand's street movement goes legit. Will it work?

A supporter of the People's Alliance for Democracy waves a Thai flag near the Government House in Bangkok June 20, 2008. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)

BANGKOK — When the so-called “yellow shirt” street movement escalated its anti-corruption campaign last year, seizing airports and government compounds, their detractors groaned in unison.

If you want to clean up politics, critics opined, take your ideology out of the street and test it at the polls.

Now, the protesters are daring to go legit.

Throughout 2008, the “People’s Alliance for Democracy” street movement rallied thousands of Thais in mustard-yellow shirts to topple two successive governments.

This year, they’re forming a bona fide political party. The newly registered “New Politics” party, however, is beset with early challenges.

Their demographics skew urban and upper-middle class, a minority slice of Thailand. They’ve also made enemies of the voting majority, the kingdom’s rural poor, whom the movement has openly mocked as hicks manipulated by vote-buying politicians.

“How can they possibly win the hearts of people in the provinces?” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scientist with Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “It’s good that the (alliance) is legitimizing itself. But they have many obstacles and they’ve said horrible things about rural people.”

The alliance is also haunted by an idea, floated last year, to elect only 30 percent of Thailand’s leadership and appoint the rest. “That gave everyone goose bumps,” Pavin said.

This infamous “70/30” concept — purportedly designed to clean out entrenched politicians and replace them with fresh leadership — was widely interpreted as a proposal to roll back democracy.

“That was just a starting point for discussion,” said Kittinun Nakthong, a coordinator with Young People’s Alliance for Democracy, the protest faction’s youth movement. The faction, he said, has ditched this “70/30” idea.

“The point is, with so many dirty people in politics, we want someone clean,” he said. “The system is so reliant on cronyism. How do you get the corrupt politicians out?”

In the streets of Bangkok, at least, the “yellow shirts” have proved tremendously influential. By the tens of thousands, yellow-clad protesters would gather at the occupied prime minister’s compound to hear scathing speeches from a makeshift stage. The target of their ire was the coup-deposed, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a rural favorite whose allies led several successive governments as he advised them in exile.

The Thai government grounds became a makeshift tent city, supplied by seemingly endless donated meals and supplies. Devoted protesters such as Kittinun, who made camp in the compound’s cafeteria, would stay for days on end — even during the torrential rainy season.

The pressure mounted until a court ruling banned Thaksin’s proxy parties late last year. The long-established Democrat Party — which shares the yellow-shirt alliance’s urban, educated base — subsequently cobbled together a coalition government. They remain in power.