Better the devil you know?

Anti-government protesters occupy the premises of the Telephone Organisation of Thailand compound in Bangkok
Anti-government protesters occupy the premises of the Telephone Organisation of Thailand compound in Bangkok on Saturday. AFP

Better the devil you know?

The recent protests in Bangkok echo the biblical story of Barabbas, which is described in all four gospels due to its shockingly emblematic depiction of the power of group emotion.

After a mob had been roused by fanatics, it bayed for the blood of Jesus Christ; but the governor, Pontius Pilate, knowing the man had done little except preach his own doctrine, held back.

The fired-up rabble would not relent, however, despite Pilate asking them three times to be conciliatory and to engage in dialogue.

Exasperated, he tried another tack and asked if he should release the tranquil Jesus – or Barabbas, a foul thug who had committed insurrection and murder.

“Give us Barabbas!” the crowd roared.

Metaphorically speaking, the duly-elected government of Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is being asked by the mob to make way for a foul-mouthed bunch led by their favourite thug, Suthep Thaugsuban.

Suthep’s past corrupt dealings led to the downfall of then-PM Chuan Leekpai’s Democrat Party-led government in 1995, and later, in another case of alleged illegality in 2009, Suthep was disqualified as an MP.

Soon after, in his capacity as DPM in the previous Democrat government, Suthep signed an order for troops to move against Red Shirt protesters in central Bangkok leading to scores of civilian deaths.

Most recently, wearing his Nazi-like black-shirt uniform, the histrionic Suthep has been whipping up his lemming-like followers into an anarchic frenzy and urging them to occupy public buildings across the capital.

Actually, comparing him to Barabbas is perhaps unfair to Barabbas – and I say that advisedly, having interviewed Suthep many times and lunched regularly for years with his former sidekick, Likit Hongladarom.

All that is not to suggest that Yingluck’s government is without fault.

For starters, it has been unduly influenced by her elder brother, the former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled into exile to avoid serving a jail term for corruption.

Under Thaksin’s apparent direction, it has made profound political mistakes, notably over an ill-conceived scheme to pay rice farmers a guaranteed price for their crop.

And it botched an attempt to pass a blanket amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home – and would have let Suthep off the hook for the murder charges he faces.

But in a civilised society, mobs do not go on the rampage and politicians are not crucified for policy misjudgements; instead, they face internal leadership challenges or no-confidence votes in parliament.

In fact, Yingluck won a confidence vote handsomely last week, but had the vote gone the other way, she would have been obliged to call an election and let the people, young and old, rich and poor, decide her fate.

Suthep’s Democrat Party, ostensibly led by the puppet Abhisit Vejjajiva, will not even accept that outcome to the current unrest because it lacks enough support to win a general election. The only way it can come to power is by fomenting mobs that force military intervention which then leads to a Democrat regime taking over, as in 2008 – and as they clearly hope will happen now.

If it does not happen, then, as in 2006, they will boycott the next election and later argue the poll was fraudulent because they did not take part – and then they will again instigate mob action.

It is a despicable cycle that shows no sign of ending.

Perhaps the only way out is to emulate Pilate and give the people a straight shout-it-out choice between Yingluck and Suthep.

The women and the poorer folks in the countryside will naturally go for Yingluck.

But the fat cats in Bangkok, the guys who decide these things, they’ll bellow: “Give us Suthep!”

So let ’em have him. It’ll serve them right.

Let’s see how long they can tolerate his shady shenanigans, his endemic immorality, his pigsty mouth and gargantuan ego; it’s a fair bet that they’ll soon be calling for nice Ms Yingluck to come back.