Mahawon Kawang is an outspoken, passionate man; thick gold chain around his neck, large ring on his finger depicting a dragon's head. He has a tough demeanour, and comes across as someone who doesn't suffer fools gladly. He sits down with us at the Yupparat Alumni Association, a surprisingly large and busy office, of which he is the president.
Mahawon pulls out his phone and flicks through his photo albums. Photos of himself with Yingluck Shinawatra at various important gatherings and, more interestingly, their photographs from when they were classmates at Yupparat many years ago. In fact, when he was the school's student president many moons ago, she was the secretary. This is a great source of pride for him and it's obvious that his dedication to her is absolute.
Mahawon is a local businessman. He plays in the stock markets and also owns a minimart in the Chiang Mai University area. More importantly, apropos this interview, he's the director of a community-based radio station; a very red radio station. He tells us he's not officially the leader of the red movement, but he is seen as a leader. His job, he tells me, is to provide the community with information, to provide mainly red shirts (of which he says there are around 100,000 in the greater Chiang Mai city) with information about politics. He also says that occasionally he speaks on stage during red shirt rallies.
"Suthep's mob are not acting in accordance with the law," he tells me after I ask him about his thoughts on the current situation in Bangkok. "In 2010, when we went to Bangkok, we were protesting to return power to the people, following the coup and the then-government's illegal seizure of power. The PDRC are acting illegally to try to oust a legitimate government. That is the big difference."
Mahawon emphasises, over and over again throughout the interview, that the current constitution, which the PDRC wish to tear up, was in fact drafted while under the Democrat government. This is a point he feels strongly about. Much of what he says, he says roundly, and he doesn't mince words.
Because of what Mahawon feels is unlawful activity by the PDRC, he states with confidence that it's only a matter of time before arrests are made and the government is back in power, led by Yingluck Shinawatra. "For sure Suthep will soon get arrested," he says. "PDRC support is dwindling. The government is just waiting for the appropriate time to make arrests to avoid any violence or loss of life. The court has made its rulings."
Of Thailand's political crisis, an impassioned Mahawon says, "The red shirts believe that elections are the solution. But why," he asks, "is Suthep so afraid of elections?"
When asked whether the anti-government protesters have legitimate cause for complaint, he says, "There was no evidence of corruption in the Thaksin government, but when Abhisit was in power there were many cases of corruption against him. Thaksin was not corrupt; all he did was sign something for his wife."
And what about the infamous rice pledging scheme?
"There has never been any government that has given more hope to farmers," Mahawon says resolutely. He seems to get most worked up when talking about this scheme, which is presently an albatross around Yingluck's neck. At one point he throws his pen down, and states his case. He believes that Yingluck's plan had "every intention to support the farmers, but now with the shutdown, the PDRC has made it impossible to pay them. The government was in the process of getting loans, but the mob has made it impossible."
"The government," he adds, "has always known that in 2015 there will be a world-wide rice shortage. That is why they bought all the rice; people just had to be a bit patient to wait for their money. At that point Phua Thai will win the hearts and minds of the farmers, and then the Democrats will have no future." He believes the initiative was "economically sound" and now Suthep is trying to scupper the plan so he might further his own agenda and attempt to besmirch the name of Pheu Thai. "The Democrat Party is an old party," Mahawon says, "but they never gave hope to the Thai people. They never brought in new and innovative ideas. All they do now is attack Pheu Thai; they don't achieve anything for the people."
When questioned about the widespread self-interest political leaders seemed predisposed to, Mahawon admits that "most people understand this self-interest, about 70 percent of Thai people." He then punctuates his statement: "But, there are just some issues we cannot talk about. It's just normal. But it's up to the people to vote to make changes happen." Changes, he adds, that can only happen under a legitimate democratically elected government. Mahawon feels that the PDRC is not actually about improving policies, or corruption, or instating reform, but "hatred towards the Shinawatras." Envy, he says, and control of power and money, is what drives the Democrats, not reform.
He makes no denial that Yingluck and her brother are working together, something that the siblings have avoided confirming in words, if not in action, through the years. "Of course they are; they are brother and sister, and so they help each other. That's natural, we are lucky that she can pull from all of his experience," he says.
"The PDRC can't compete with Thaksin, that's the reason they hate him. It's envy. They can't match his policies; the elite know they can't beat him. They know that if Pheu Thai is the government it will bear more fruits for the people." Fruits, he insists, that the elite don't want the common people to have.
He tells me that Suthep is not ready to talk. The reds want to talk, but members of the PDRC don't. "Suthep's group want to instigate violence so the army will get involved," he says, and although he feels that this won't happen, he does say that if there is a coup the reds will band together from all over Thailand to fight.
"If there is a coup," he adds, "we will also have the world's support." In fact, he talks proudly of having given numerous interviews to the international press and appears to be very comfortable in sharing his often strong opinions. "I speak English, but let's do this in Thai so we are clear," he tells us.
Mahawon insists that the red shirts don't want violence, noting, "In 2010, we were the ones killed." When asked about the numerous cases of red-instigated violence, he insists that they were all "third hand violence" which he says is difficult to understand, and perhaps may have happened from any group, even "someone who is angry about the police getting hurt."
"The policy of the red shirts is peaceful. If the government wanted violence they'd just do it, but they don't want any violence to happen. The government has been restrained."
When we called him before going to press to ask about the recent red shirt attack of the PDRC stage at Jed Yod and how it conformed to his non-violent claim, he admitted, "I am uncomfortable with what happened. The anti-government protesters had their rights to protest violated by a splinter group of the Rak Chiang Mai 51 group, who split from the mainstream because they didn't agree with the current leadership. However, I do sympathise with DJ Uan [who led the charge] because he was provoked verbally on radio by the PDRC. It is the personal rights of the reds to do what they did."
Back to our interview; we change the subject from violence and talk about the rising rumours of a split country.
"The red shirts are not thinking about splitting the country, we just want justice; if every side conforms to the law, the matter is finished." Mahawon acknowledges that certain people have talked about a split country, but says, "these things were said impulsively." He does add, however, that Chiang Mai is ready to become the proxy city to hold a government if it ever should come to that: "We have the communications, the airport, the infrastructure, if that should ever happen."
As for the reform that the PDRC talks about, Mahawon believes that such reform can "only take place within a legal framework. Right now the reform that they talk about has no basis on law. Suthep's council, what law is this based on?"
Mahawon explains that the red shirts are a mixed lot. "Not all support the Shinawatras," he admits. "On every issue there's a different opinion." Wars on drugs, or tablets for school kids, might be divisive issues. However, he states that all red shirts support democracy, and the elected government. They stand together on this one big issue.
When asked whether it is possible to take Thaksin out of the equation in order to find peace, he begins to get agitated, his voice is raised and his answer an emphatic, "No." He forces himself to take a breath before continuing, "he was treated unfairly and he didn't deserve that."
Mahawon's support for Thaksin is without question, repeating over and over that Thaksin was never corrupt. He also denies the accusation made countless times by the Democrats, that Pheu Thai were involved in vote buying. "It is not about vote buying, it is about the community helping each other out when anyone is in need."
As for the insults people have hurled at the red shirts, or country people, such as too stupid to vote, buffalo, or the misogynistic attacks on Yingluck: "I feel sorry for these people, that they say these things. If you say such things, doesn't that really mean that you are stupid? I myself have an MBA, am I stupid?" Mahawon explains that it's the reds who were accused of vulgarity in the past, but now it's the elites, or phudee. It seems things have flipped, he says. "We don't want to get involved with this vulgar rhetoric."
"Sure it's a class war," he replies when I ask him about economic disparity, the big and little people of Thailand. "The elites used to benefit from the poor, they were always first in the queue, and they reaped all the rewards."
I remind him that the Shinawatras are also billionaires.
"But they are not afraid of equality, that's the difference," he says. "The other side are afraid of equality. They're afraid that they will lose their power if the farmers are educated, that they will lose business. The rich know that if they allow the democratic process, they will lose out."
Mahawon believes that Thaksin will come home. "Thaksin will soon be back, but there will have to be changes at the highest echelons of the elite. He also has a lot of loyalty in the army, but right now there are a lot of things he can't do because some people in the elite are untouchable."
But can there be a middle path, more equality and justice without the Shinawatra family?
When asked about the dangers of an all-powerful government, with no opposition and checks and balances, he says, "as long as the people vote for them then they are legitimate." He continues by pointing out the good the Pheu Thai and its various incarnations have achieved - the 30 baht medical scheme, the tablet, the first car rebate, minimum wage, etc.
And so we come back to Yingluck, his school friend. "She's a good person," he says. "She wasn't interested in politics in school, but it runs in the family. She's never damaged the country, she's never shamed herself, and soon she will be running the country again."
In spite of my many attempts, Mahawon will brook no criticism about the Shinawatra family, insisting that red politics, the future of Thai democracy and the Shinawatra family were inextricably interwoven. He appears to relax a bit by the end of our interview, taking our nodding heads as agreement and understanding. After a photo shoot, another quick flip through the phone photo album as we ooh and ah over how cute Yingluck was, and a promise to keep in touch, we take our leave.
Photo by Plengsak, Wikimedia Commons