For more than two decades, Chamlong Srimuang has stood out on a Thai political scene dominated by interchangeable local bosses wearing interchangeable black suits. Now in his seventies, the former general turned celibate Buddhist ascetic still sports an army-style buzz cut from his military days. Chamlong became famous in the late 1980s for winning the Bangkok governor's race by calling for clean politics in a country where graft has long been the norm. In 1992, after Thailand's military staged a coup (one of many in recent Thai history) and forced out an elected but corrupt government, Chamlong launched a much-publicized hunger strike, catalyzing a massive—and largely peaceful—middle-class revolt that forced the military to stand down and that led eventually to a civilian government and a more inclusive democratic rule.
Fifteen years later, in 2006, Chamlong again rallied tens of thousands of Bangkokians to demonstrate in the old part of the city agitating for the government to step down. Only this time, they were fighting to push out not an army supremo but an elected leader, Thaksin Shinawatra. As I wandered among the protesters, I found something of a blockparty atmosphere: families sat on blankets snacking on mango ices while a young singer serenaded them from a nearby stage. Many of these largely middle-class demonstrators were dressed in yellow, the color of the Thai monarchy—one institution revered by Thais across the political spectrum. But their message was a little chilling: most expressed the hope that the army would step in to “restore democracy” after Thaksin had undermined the courts and the media. Later, I ran into a prominent Thai official whom I'd known for years and who had become a supporter of these protests, even though he once had been a powerful voice for bringing democracy to neighboring nations like Burma. “They might call it democracy here [in Thailand], because there was an election, but it's not democracy just because someone wins the most votes,” he told me.