High society hits the streets as prominent Thais join protests

High society hits the streets as prominent Thais join protests

BANGKOK - Chitpas Bhirombhakdi is heiress to a US$2.6 billion (S$3.27 billion) family fortune and, according to high-society magazine Thailand Tatler, one of Bangkok's "most eligible young ladies". She can also handle tear gas and ride a tractor.

On Dec. 2, as anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok turned violent, the 27-year-old climbed aboard a front-loader brought in by protesters to break down police barricades.

Chitpas, whose family owns the Boon Rawd Brewery that makes Singha Beer, had dismounted the machine long before police pelted it with rubber bullets and gas canisters. But her gung-ho act showed how members of Thailand's most celebrated families are discarding all past pretence of neutrality to hit the streets in the hope of toppling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Along with their wealth and privilege, these elite protesters share a declarative love of Thailand's aging King Bhumibol Adulyadej and an abhorrence for Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, a billionaire ex-prime minister ousted by a 2006 military coup, whom they accuse of corruption and abuse of power.

For many in Bangkok's high society, anti-government rallies have supplemented - if not quite replaced - customary haunts in posh hotels and restaurants, although only a dwindling hardcore of less privileged protesters sleeps rough on the street.

While visiting the main protest site at Democracy Monument, Naphalai Areesorn, editor of Thailand Tatler, said she bumped into a than phuying - the Thai equivalent of a dame - and others with royally-bestowed titles.

"People you would normally see in the society pages were out there," she said. "All the people from big families used to be called the silent minority. Well, they're not silent anymore."

Banks, construction companies and other big Thai businesses have often openly supported Thaksin-backed parties or the opposition Democrats, said prominent Thailand scholar Chris Baker. "What is different is seeing these figures at demonstrations," he said.

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