Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2015
On 26 February 2010, Thailand's Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It ruled that the businessman-cum-politician had abused his power by enacting policies during his six-year tenure of office (2001–06) that directly benefited his family-owned communications companies at the state's expense. The verdict called for the seizure of US$1.4 billion of the US$2.3 billion worth of Thaksin's and his family's assets frozen after the military toppled his government in a 2006 coup. Thaksin reacted to the decision by calling it “unfair”; he later claimed that it was a reflection of the “double standards” in Thai society that favour the rich over the poor.
Two weeks later, Thaksin's affiliated pressure group, the red-shirtgarbed National United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), mobilized over 100,000 protestors, mainly from the country's northern and northeastern provinces, in Bangkok to protest the court decision and call upon Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and hold new elections. Within four days, the numbers at the UDD's protest site had fallen off significantly, dipping on March 16 to around 20,000, including hundreds of red-shirt-wearing street vendors. Thaksin was quoted in the local media imploring politicians in the Thaksinite Phuea Thai Party to boost protestor numbers. He claimed that the government had “bribed” UDD demonstrators to quit the rally.
Protestor numbers, first at the UDD's original Phan Fa bridge site and later at the heart of the Ratchaprasong luxury shopping district, waxed and waned dramatically, depending on the time of day and on planned protest activities. By late April, there were frequently fewer than 2,000 people milling around the largely vacant protest site in the mornings and early afternoons. That ebb and flow raised important questions about whether the protest was populated in the main by politically awakened poor rural farmers, who in their economic plight often slept on the streets of the protest site, or instead by the middle classes, who had the means to stay in hotels or the option of returning home after attending rallies after work on weekdays or on the weekends. The fluctuating and often low numbers also gave the lie to the notion that the UDD was an organic social movement rooted in rural Thailand, as popularly portrayed in the mass media and by the UDD itself.