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Thai beer loses esteem after heiress’s remarks

It was probably inevitable in a country so obsessed with food and drink that Thailand's political turmoil would spill over into beer.

Singha beer, made by the oldest brewery in Thailand, is a national icon and a staple of Thai restaurants around the world. But in recent weeks it has also become a target of an informal boycott by Thais who are angry that a member of the wealthy family behind the beer company is one of the leaders of antigovernment demonstrators who are trying to scuttle elections planned for next month.

(Read more: Violent protests expose cracks in Thai economy)

Thailand's political turmoil defies concise explanation, but the beer boycott is emblematic of one striking division in Thailand today: the chasm between middle- and upper-class protesters in Bangkok, and the millions of voters in the provinces who are bewildered and angered at the protesters' attempts to oust the government and to stop the elections that seem almost sure to return the government to power.

Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, 28, the beer heiress and a major player in the Bangkok protests, was quoted last month in a widely circulated article saying that many Thais lack a "true understanding" of democracy, "especially in the rural areas."

Anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protesters shout at the democracy monument on January 12, 2014 in Bangkok, Thailand.
Getty Images
Anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protesters shout at the democracy monument on January 12, 2014 in Bangkok, Thailand.

Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, whose family owns the Boon Rawd Brewery, said rural areas did not understand democracy.

The remarks incited palpable anger here in northeastern Thailand, a vast and formerly impoverished rice-growing region that has seen sharp improvements in living conditions and education in recent decades, partly because of the policies of Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire tycoon and former prime minister who is the focus of the protests.

For decades, northeastern Thailand was the region that supplied the country with domestic servants, construction workers, taxi drivers. Now, with a third of Thailand's population, it also delivers the votes that have been instrumental in electing the governing party — which includes Mr. Thaksin's sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — that the protesters are so determined to oust from power.

(Read more: As Bangkok 'shutdown' looms, Thailand's 'Teflon' economy put to the test)

To detractors in the northeast, Ms. Chitpas, an aspiring politician who is a direct descendant of a 19th-century Thai king, is a symbol of a Bangkok upper class holding onto vestiges of feudal power and not trusting rural voters to make the right choice at the ballot box.

"She's rich, and she lives in rich people's circles — she knows nothing about rural life," said Patsadaporn Chantabutr, 45, a teacher at an elementary school in a village outside Udon Thani, who like many people here has followed the protests closely. "We reject the idea that we are just hillbillies."

As the boycott was spreading in the northeast, mostly through social media and word of mouth, Ms. Chitpas wrote on her Facebook page that she was fighting for the country and had no intention to "infringe" on other people's rights. She did not deny the words attributed to her about Thais lacking an understanding of democracy, but she added, "I would like to inform you that I've never looked down on rural people at all."

She did not respond to a request for further clarification.

Kwanchai Praipana, the head in the northeast of a group of so-called red shirts that supports the government, says the point of the beer boycott is to send a message to companies with links to the protesters: rural people vote in elections — and with their wallets.

"We want to tell the businessmen who are supporting these protesters that they have chosen the wrong side," Mr. Kwanchai said. "They have to understand that their revenue comes from villagers."

Boon Rawd Brewery, the company that makes Singha and Leo, a cheaper beer that is popular in the northeast, declined to reveal the extent of the damage caused by the boycott. But some shopkeepers say sales of Singha and Leo around New Year's, traditionally a time of heavy drinking, were down sharply.

(Read more: In Thailand, rallying cry is against too much democracy)

Kittisak Srichan, the owner of Khrua Khun Nit, one of the most famous restaurants here, said he removed Singha beer and Singha bottled water from the dining area last month. "I don't want to anger the customers," Mr. Kittisak said. "Customers said to me, 'Why are you selling this? The only thing this beer should be used for is pouring on your feet.' "

Kwanchai Praipana, rear left, the head of a group in the northeast called red shirts that supports the government, says the point of the beer boycott is to send a message to companies with links to the protesters that rural people vote in elections — and with their wallets.

Facebook pages have been filled with images of just that: bottles of Singha and Leo being poured onto feet — a disparaging gesture in Thailand.

Ms. Chitpas — who ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 2011 — and other protest leaders argue that Thailand's democracy has been subverted by the governing party, especially the powerful Shinawatra family that has dominated Thai politics for the last decade. They remain unsatisfied by Ms. Yingluck's decision to call new elections after the protests began — elections analysts say the governing party is almost sure to win.

Instead, the demonstrators want a hiatus from democracy, replacing it with rule by a "people's council" selected from various professions in the country. Many say they yearn for a return to the absolute monarchy because Thailand is not ready for democracy.

In recent weeks the protesters have become more aggressive, trying to sabotage the election registration process. Starting on Monday they plan to "shut down" Bangkok by blocking major intersections, prompting the United States Embassy to advise American citizens to have plenty of cash and a two weeks' supply of food and water on hand. There are persistent rumors of an impending military coup.

(Read more: Thai political strife is far from over)

Ms. Chitpas's political activity appears to have caused considerable anxiety within her family's company. A memo by Santi Bhirombhakdi, the brewery's chief executive and the family patriarch, leaked to the Thai news media last month expressed disappointment about Ms. Chitpas's role in the protests. In it, he said he had discussed her political career "many times" within the family and warned of consequences for the company.

A few days after the memo leaked, Ms. Chitpas's father, Chutinant Bhirombhakdi, announced that he, his wife and Ms. Chitpas would change their surname in an apparent attempt to create some distance between political activities and the family business. He did not specify the new name, but Ms. Chitpas now appears to use her mother's maiden name, Kridakorn.

Mr. Chutinant also said, "I am well aware that all Thais deserve equal rights and freedom and should respect each other's different thoughts."

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For Charuwan Thanom, 53, a shop owner in northeastern Thailand, the change of surname did little to temper her anger.

"There's nothing she can do to restore her image now," said Ms. Charuwan, who made sure that there was no Leo beer at her extended family's New Year's celebrations.

"We had been drinking this beer for many years," she said. "The taste has not changed. My feelings have changed."

(Read more: Thai Prime Minister calls snap election, protesters press on)

But Mr. Kittisak, the restaurant owner, is betting that the boycott will fade away and he will soon drag the cases of Singha beer out of the storeroom.

"Thais have short memories," he said. Nearby, two customers enjoyed a meal of northeastern specialties, washed down with bottles of Heineken.

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