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From village headman to deputy PM to protest leader: Suthep Thaugsuban

To his followers he is Thailand's straight-talking saviour, but to his critics Suthep Thaugsuban (pic), former deputy premier turned firebrand protest leader, is a threat to the kingdom's fragile democracy.

Each night for a month Suthep has delivered barnstorming speeches to rapt supporters around Bangkok, railing against what he sees as the scourge of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra and a graft-riddled government.

In his distinctive baritone, he has accused Thaksin of pulling the strings of his younger sister Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government from overseas.

Tens of thousands of opposition protesters have followed Suthep's call to action, fired up by his rhetoric and a loathing for Thaksin, who was ousted by royalist generals in a coup in 2006 and now lives in self-imposed exile.

It is a dramatic role reversal from three years ago when, as deputy premier under the previous government, Suthep oversaw a crackdown on pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" that left scores dead in Bangkok's shopping district.

He faces murder charges linked to the killings, and now has an arrest warrant outstanding for orchestrating the occupation of government buildings during the current protests.

For a man under fire, he remains unrepentant.

"Do I look worried?" the veteran politician told AFP during a break from whipping up the crowd, lowering his glasses for dramatic effect before erupting into laughter.

"When you work for the people you have to forget everything. Whether you win or lose is not important. The people are important."

Kamnan Suthep, as he is reverently known by supporters for his lineage as a village headman in Thailand's south, appears galvanised by the protests, stage-managing rallies and leading marches across the city.

It is a renaissance for the wily 64-year-old who has emerged intact from three decades in the spin-dryer of Thai politics, rising from village headman to lawmaker and then deputy prime minister from 2008-2011 under a Democrat Party-led government.

As the protests snowballed, he resigned as MP to lead the anti-government charge.

Analysts say it is indicative of Thailand's often contorted and confusing political stage that many are willing to accept his anti-corruption pledges despite the fact that he has faced allegations of graft.

Equally surprising are the renowned political bruiser's references to Gandhi and Nelson Mandela as influences on the current civil disobedience campaign.

Surrounded by half a dozen minders from his native southern Surat Thani province where his family are prominent in the lucrative palm oil and shrimp farming businesses, he said his efforts are to free Thailand from Thaksin's grip.

"I don't hate him. It's nothing personal, but Thaksin destroyed Thailand's democratic system, destroyed the virtues and ethics of the people," he said.

His manifesto for change, which critics say is as bold as it is imprecise, focuses first on toppling the government, and then establishing an unelected "People's Council" of representatives from different sectors.

The council would run the country during a "transition period" aimed at rebooting Thai politics before new, democratic elections.

Analysts have expressed alarm at his loosely defined ideas for a new Thailand, more so in a coup-prone nation where victory at the polls has rarely guaranteed a full term of power.

The kingdom has seen 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932, and has a judiciary with a record of dissolving political parties and banning their executives.

Few doubt Suthep's political prowess.

"He is intelligent, capable and knows every nook and cranny of Thai politics," said Voranai Vanijaka, a political commentator with the Bangkok Post daily.

"I'm certain there's something he's not yet revealing, a strategy we are yet to see," he added.

The rallies were triggered by a controversial amnesty bill introduced by the ruling party which could have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand without going to jail for a graft conviction that he contends was politically motivated.

The amnesty issue gave Suthep an opportunity to "regenerate his image" after the 2010 crackdown, says former Thai diplomat Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan's Kyoto University.

"By making Thai politics seem like a dangerous place where Thaksin threatens the future of the nation, Suthep can then cast himself as the saviour. He's the man of the hour and he's sending a message of fight or die."

More than three decades of political bobbing and weaving do not seem to have dimmed Suthep's appetite for battle.

"You could call this his final stand," says his stepson and protest spokesman Akanat Promphan.

Neither has his star lost its lustre among his most ardent supporters.

"Suthep is motivated by working for the people," said Prasith Rungboonkong, who has left his rubber farm in the south for a month to join the Bangkok protest. "If his aims are not achieved, it'll be karma for the country." - AFP, November 29, 2013.

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