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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

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."


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