BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's popularly elected, pro-U.S. government suffered a rude wake-up when thousands of people gathered on Sunday (October 28) demanding the military stage an immediate coup.
"I would love to see a coup, because I know this puppet government is here to rob the country," said retired Gen. Boonlert Kaewprasit, the self-declared leader of a new, attractive, anti-government group called Pitak Siam, or Protecting Siam.
Siam is Thailand's pre-1939 name, and is often used for nostalgic, commerical or other reasons.
"If I had the power, a coup would have been staged by now," said Gen. Boonlert, 69, while calling for the protest which was held in Bangkok's prestigious Royal Turf Club stadium.
With his slick black, front-wave hairstyle and frequent big grin, Gen. Boonlert is suddenly the jittery government's newest enemy.
He projects himself as a defender of the nation and its monarchy, and has powerful connections among politicians who opposed Thailand's elected governments in the past.
Heeding Gen. Boonlert's call, more than 10,000 people packed the stadium, surprising government officials who predicted only a few thousand would attend.
At the protest, speakers included the influential National Security Council's former secretary-general Prasong Soonsiri, and the Armed Forces Supreme Command's former chief adviser Gen. Pathompong Kesornsuk.
Attendees also included the Dhamma Army, a right-wing group which tries to link Buddhism with militant action.
Others who came were people connected to the anti-election Yellow Shirts, which supported a successful but ultimately disastrous military coup in 2006.
Previously obscure, Gen. Boonlert is honorary secretary of the Royal Turf Club.
The club's president is retired Gen. Surayud Chulanont.
Gen. Surayud did not publicly endorse the rally but he is one of 19 members in King Bhumibol Adulyadej's important advisory Privy Council, which has close ties to the military.
The Royal Turf Club is under the monarchy's patronage and was an unusual venue for a pro-coup rally.
In 2006, Gen. Surayud was installed as prime minister by the military leaders of the bloodless coup which toppled the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Mr. Thaksin remains a fugitive abroad, based mostly in Dubai, dodging a two-year prison sentence for a conflict-of-interest real estate deal which benefited his wife during his five-year administration, and is embroiled in other corruption cases.
He effectively rules Thailand through his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who Mr. Thaksin described as his "clone."
Mrs. Yingluck was elected prime minister in July 2011 and remains quite popular, even by many who perceive her as a cipher for her brother.
"After more than two years of relative stability, signs are emerging that Thai politics may be heading back to the bipolar, turbulent times marked at one end by the 2006 anti-Thaksin coup, and at the other by the 2010 bloody clashes between security forces and anti-Abhisit government protesters," wrote the Bangkok Post newspaper's deputy editor Atiya Achakulwisut on Tuesday (October 30).
She was referring to Abhisit Vejjajiva who became prime minister in December 2008 but lost a July 2011 election after presiding over a bloody military crackdown against Red Shirt protesters.
The Red Shirts wanted that election so Mr. Thaksin, or his colleagues, could return to power.
More than 90 people, mostly Reds and civilians, were killed in Bangkok during clashes with the military during the nine-week insurrection in 2010.
Mr. Thaksin's quest to return to Thailand, without being imprisoned, is this country's most divisive issue.
He also wants the return of $1.2 billion of his assets which were seized after the coup.
Gen. Boonlert and his supporters oppose the government's attempts to bring Mr. Thaksin home under a possible amnesty or pardon.
Gen. Boonlert and other speakers also cite nepotism and corruption within the current government.
Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, however, did not publicly express support for a coup, perhaps because he enjoys the benefits of working with Prime Minister Yingluck.
Mrs. Yingluck and her brother Mr. Thaksin are widely seen as intimidated by Gen. Prayuth, and desperate to stay on good terms with him to avoid any rebellion by the military.
"I will not take sides," Gen. Prayuth said after Gen. Boonlert suggested a coup.
"Without a reason, it [a coup] cannot be done. It depends on the situation. Do not ask me about this again," a testy Gen. Prayuth told reporters on Monday (October 29).
When he was a 1st Army Region commander, Gen. Prayuth played a key role in the 2006 coup against Mr. Thaksin.
"The army chief has distanced himself from the [Gen. Boonlert] campaign," said Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung.
"Once the military turns its back on you, that is the end of the story," Mr. Chalerm said.
Gen. Boonlert meanwhile was planning a fresh protest.
"We will certainly organize another rally to push this government out," Gen. Boonlert said in a speech.
"There will be many more people at the next rally."
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.
His websites are:
Hello My Big Honey
(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)