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Unrest In Bangkok Reveals Thailand's Deep Social Divide

Red shirts vs. yellow shirts in Bangkok
Red shirts vs. yellow shirts in Bangkok
Bruno Philip

BANGKOK — The situation that has taken over Thailand's capital this past week has been, among other things, surreal. The government has been paralyzed after demonstrators occupied several ministerial buildings, and even entered, on Dec. 3, the complex where Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s offices are located.

But below the surface, the upheaval is a political reflection of a deep crisis that opposes two Thailands and exemplifies the “social division” that polarizes the antagonistic forces of an increasingly divided kingdom.

What the demonstrators want — led by Suthep Thaugsuban, the former government’s deputy prime minister — is as simple as it is radical: Yingluck Shinawatra’s resignation. They accuse her of leading a corrupt government whose decisions are really being made by the demonstrators’ bête noire, Thaksin Shinawatra, her older brother who was himself head of the government between 2001 and 2006, before being ousted by a military coup.

Since his exile to Dubai, where he fled to escape corruption charges, Thailand’s former strongman allegedly runs the country’s affairs in secret, to the point that his opponents consider him the actual prime minister.

The current crisis focuses on the antagonism between, on the one hand, the “yellow shirts,” fierce supporters of the monarchy, conservative elites and urban middle classes; and, on the other, the “red shirts”, representing the voice of the poorest and farmers who support the government, and most importantly, Thaksin.

When he was in power, this flamboyant capitalist, sitting atop a colossal fortune, carried out social policies intended to achieve higher living standards for the most destitute farmers, especially in the northeastern provinces — the country's poorest region. For the latter, to which Thaksin provided grants to develop the villages and make medical care almost free, he is still a hero. The World Bank’s figures show the average income in the northeast of the country rose by 46% during the Thaksin era.

But an endless crisis has gripped the nation since the coup, in 2006: Shortly after the putsch, two successive pro-Thaksin governments, installed following parliamentary alliances, had prompted the emergence of their “yellow shirt” opponents who, in 2008, went so far as to occupy, for a time, Bangkok’s two airports. The aim was already to force the prime ministers of that time to resign, one after another.

In 2010, as an anti-Thaksin government was eventually elected, it was time for the “red shirts,” whose strength was still centered in the rural areas, to occupy, for two months, Bangkok’s business center and demand Thaksin’s return to power as well as the resignation of the prime minister of that time. These “reds” are an umbrella movement with various factions made up of former communists, farmers and social-democrat liberals. The movement largely drowned in its own blood when the army received the order to disperse the protesters with live bullets. More than 90 people were killed.

Left out of an economic miracle

Since then, a new government led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected with a decisive victory in summer 2011. It was now her turn to face the opponents’ revolt. There is, in this sense, a feeling of déjà-vu in Thai politics.

What makes the political stalemate so hard is that it is taking root in the animosity between urban elites and the rural masses, the urbanized lower classes and the cities’ middle class. The latter, which gained power during the Thai economic miracle in the 1980s and 1990s, is more inclined to hope for a political status quo, where the king would have tutelary power.

Meanwhile, the rural population, with the emergence of the “red” movement, wants to make sure their voices are heard after having kowtowed for so long, buckled by the respect they were expected to show toward the monarchy and traditional authority.

Though Yingluck Shinawatra has increased the number of compromises and concessions toward the alliance between the Royal palace and the army, which has been controlling the kingdom’s affairs for years, she nonetheless still embodies this movement that now has power.

The social and economic inequalities explain the resentment these rural populations feel, and the impression of having missed out on development: The government grants 70% of its budget to Bangkok and its surrounding region. The Northeast, where the population represents a third of the 70 million Thais, only receives 6%.

“Thailand is still dominated by a monarchic nationalism. Many think the role of the king is to guide democracy. The rural population’s rise in power and transformation into a political force, is now seen as a threat to the ‘law-abiding citizens’ moral authority,” historian Thongchai Winichakul wrote in his book Thaïlande, aux origines d'une crise (“Thailand, the Origins of a Crisis”), published in 2010 by the French Institute of Research on Contemporary Southeast Asia.

This is exactly what the “yellow” or even the more moderate opposition are saying: Thailand is “different” and the Western democratic system is not “well adapted” to the country. Universal suffrage elections only gives power to “opportunist” or “corrupt” people.

Hence the vague and strange idea, launched these last weeks by leaders of the anti-government movement, of electing a “People’s Council” to be run by the corporations’ representatives, in order to overcome the weaknesses of governments elected by popular vote. It is hard to imagine a much more paternalist and conservative vision of governing, and indeed one that has such little chance of coming into action.

Moreover, as disagreements are starting to crack the opposition’s unity, some political and business elites are beginning to worry about this protest for another reason: An extended period of instability could harm Thailand’s economic performance.

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