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Back in the day, when political firebrands fled the Thai kingdom, exile was exile. You stuck it out in your new hideaway — China, France, wherever — and maybe wrote letters to comrades back home. But with no proximity to Thailand, ousted leaders had little sway over the homeland they left behind.
Now, mobile phones and satellite uplinks are changing the meaning of exile. For eight days, deposed ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra has led a massive rally outside current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government compound.
He's done all this mostly from ... Dubai. And, rumor has it, Africa.
Thaksin's protesters, who signify their loyalty with blood red shirts and headbands, just days ago swelled to 30,000 people. Longing to see their hero returned to power, they're demanding the collapse of the current government. (Which came to power only about three months ago after a different protest faction, clad in yellow, helped force the dissolution of a Thaksin-favored government. You might want to take notes.)
At night, Thaksin has appeared as a disembodied head on large projector screens set up around the PM's compound. He's the host of these rowdy pep rallies, urging them to soldier on and defeat the ruling government.
And as his faithful roar in Bangkok's streets, Thaksin sits in front of a video camera somewhere in the Middle East desert. (He's cagey about exact locations.) Then he, I guess, catches a late dinner? Flips on Sportscenter?
Who knows. But this version of exile — in which he hops from country to country, guiding this opposition movement back home through video links and cell phone calls — is another fascinating example of technology's sway over politics.
P.S. Before each rally, I typically receive text messages sent en masse to journalists and others from the public relations arm of Thaksin's camp. Such as: "For those of you who will be at the area today pls bring your own wet towel, tear gas maybe to be ordered."
Photo by Pailin Wedel from one of Thaksin's first major phone-in rally last fall.