How Thailand's Suthep Thaugsuban Ran Away With Our Person of the Year Poll

Former Democrat Party MP and anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban addresses a large rally near Government House on December 9, 2013 in Bangkok, Thailand. (Rufus Cox/Getty Images)

Thai politician Suthep Thaugsuban dominated our year-end reader poll for Asia's Person of the Year 2013 — in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion. Thaugsuban attracted 88 percent of the vote, nearly 116,000 votes in total. Malala Yousafzai, the female education rights activist from Pakistan, was runner-up for the second consecutive year. She earned close to 12,000 votes, 9 percent of the total, a figure that would have made her the winner in 2012.

This year, Yousafzai looked destined to be the clear victor the week after our poll launched on December 20, with Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke running a distant second. And Thaugsuban? Shortly before the new year, he was sitting dead last, with 0 votes.

That changed dramatically once 2014 began. During the first two days of the year, our poll page received more than 172,000 pageviews. Nearly 165,000 of those visits originated in Thailand. Most of the traffic came from Facebook and a handful of Thai message boards. At one point, Thaugsuban had around 97 percent of the total vote. In recent days, Yousafzai voters made a bit of a late push to eat into Thaugsuban's lead ever so slightly. (You can see the complete 2013 results here.)

This scenario was very similar to the grassroots social media effort Pakistani supporters of Imran Khan utilized to make him the overwhelming winner in our 2012 poll. But Thaugsuban received around 10 times the number of votes that Khan did.

As it did in 2012, the unusually large number of votes did raise some red flags for us. Are these votes real? Did we get hacked? But the amount of visitors that flooded our site from Thailand (with close to 300,000 pageviews, the poll is easily the most popular piece of content on Asia Society's website ... ever), the number of blog comments (more than 400), Facebook likes (54,000), and write-in votes all point to these votes being the acts of many, many actual people — very passionate people.

To learn more about the Thaugsuban phenomenon, we reached out to Patrick Winn, the Bangkok-based senior Southeast Asia correspondent for GlobalPost who has covered protests in Thailand since 2008. Winn offered his insights via email. 

Patrick Winn

Who is Suthep Thaugsuban? And what kind of movement is he leading in Thailand?

Depending on who you ask, Suthep Thaugsuban is either an insurrectionist or a hero. He's been a professional politician in Thailand since the 1970s and, given the chaos of Thai politics, that means he's resilient.

In the last year, Suthep has reinvented himself as the face of a movement to rid Thailand of corruption. But he is hardly a pure, Gandhi-like figure. He enjoys the reverence of a sizable and devoted following but not the universal support of the masses.

Suthep's solution to ridding Thailand of corruption is fairly radical: toppling the current elected ruling party and installing a council of wise leaders to purify Thailand. It appears that Suthep and his circle would enjoy the privilege of handpicking the members of this group, which sounds an awful lot like a politburo.

How popular is he? Why do you think people are attracted to him?

Before his ongoing street crusade took off, Suthep was a household name. But he wasn't much of an inspirational figure. His reputation is that of a tough power broker and gamesman who has survived his own corruption charges. He's seen as a roll-up-your-sleeves-style politician — the guy that didn't mind stepping on a few toes to get things done. Think Dick Cheney.

His anti-corruption crusade mostly just translates into a war against a rival political network helmed by one of Thailand's most powerful families: the Shinawatras. This network has won every major election for more than a decade. Suthep's party, the Democrat Party, hasn't won a major election since the early 1990s.

Because the Shinawatras' power emanates largely from Thailand's upcountry, they have come into collision with the traditional power base in Bangkok: royalists and patrician families but also the workaday middle class.

At this point, the Shinawatra-led parties appear untouchable at the polls. They are not without their serious flaws and irregularities; consider that their current incarnation, Pheu Thai (translation: "For Thais"), appears to be managed from afar by Thaksin, who eludes corruption charges by self-exiling himself in Dubai.

There is a sense, which runs heavy amongst the urban middle-class, that ceding power to the lesser-educated provincial Thais will forever doom Thailand to misrule. Suthep's popularity relies on tapping and exacerbating this sentiment.

Who are his followers? Do they fit into any particular demographic categories? Are they especially tech savvy?

A recent Asia Foundation survey lent evidence to the widely held contention that Suthep's protesters are, by and large, well off and educated by Thai standards. About 85 percent have have diplomas beyond high school. Well over half make more than $1,000 USD per month, which is a nice salary in Thailand.

Using social media — namely Facebook and the chat application Line — enables protesters to inhabit an online echo chamber. They have a rabid focus on the minutia of the protest campaign. These digital worlds can breed extreme thought because they're mostly populated by like-minded people. They can also be rapidly mobilized to raise cash, occupy intersections, flood critics' Facebook pages with derision and — as Asia Society now knows — sway online polls.

Does it surprise you that Thaugsuban's followers took to our year-end poll so earnestly? What do you think it says about them? About Thaugsuban?

I can't say I'm terribly surprised that Suthep's online faithful swarmed Asia Society's poll. They're web junkies and they can spot an opportunity for free and impactful PR.

I've covered protests of all stripes for six years. I have to say that this incarnation of protester seems to have a unique psychological profile. Many are truly possessed with the sensation that they're foot soldiers in a grand struggle that will determine Thailand's future.

Their activism overtakes their daily life. Even in the real world, they often wear protest kitsch — typically ribbons or whistles — out to dinner or while running errands.

After Asia Society asked me to respond to these questions, my curiosity led me to track down a protester who took part in the poll. She said solicitations to vote for Suthep were appearing on her friends' Facebook walls and voting in the poll was "just a trendy thing to do." She'd never heard of Asia Society before but was pleased this tactic proved effective.

Is he a particularly controversial figure?

Suthep is hugely controversial. Shutting down Bangkok, vowing to overthrow an elected government and declaring yourself fit to install a council of unelected rulers is a sure-fire receipt for controversy.

Where do you see Suthep Thaugsuban this time next year?

Thai politics have more plot twists than soap operas. Making these predictions is an excellent way to make yourself look foolish. But I will hazard one prediction: Suthep Thaugsuban will not sit behind bars one year from now in January 2015.

Protest leaders — even those charged with terrorism and insurrection — have a way of staying out of prison or at least walking free on bail after a short stint in jail. Suthep is deeply connected and enjoys the support of figures in high places. That's the sort of backing that can embolden someone to lead a movement to topple a government.

This phenomenon is explained deftly by Sunai Phasuk, a Human Rights Watch researcher, who told me the following in a recent interview:

“Protest leaders use confrontational, nationalistic slogans to hype up protesters. Yet it’s unlikely protest leaders will ever face any direct consequences. In almost every confrontation, they escape unharmed," Sunai said. "The reality is very different for the protesters that get killed, wounded or disabled. … They don’t enjoy the same level of luxury as their leaders.”

About the Author

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Dan Washburn is Asia Society's Chief Content Officer. The Financial Times named his book, The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, one of the best of 2014.