Thailand on the Precipice

Project Syndicate  |  May 21, 2010

By Sin-ming Shaw

BANGKOK – The two-month siege of downtown Bangkok by the so-called “Red Shirts” has ended in bloodshed. More than 60 people, including two foreign reporters and a few soldiers, died in the Thai army’s suppression of the urban rebellion.
The Thai government had no choice but to use force after negotiations with the protestors broke down. Both sides deeply mistrusted the other, even though the government’s five-point “road map” for a peaceful resolution implicitly acknowledged the existence of serious socioeconomic problems and included an early general election this November – a concession to the protestors, who argue that the government lacks legitimacy because it was never elected.
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Much of Thailand is now under an all-night curfew, imposed after radical Red Shirts set fire to more than 35 landmark buildings in Bangkok. The militants’ targets included branches of Bangkok Bank, the country’s largest and a pillar of the establishment; Siam Square, owned by the Palace; and a deluxe shopping mall owned by one of the richest Thai Chinese families.
That anarchic fury reflected the disappointment of radicals at their leaders for prematurely surrendering to the authorities rather than fighting to their last breath. Those who did not surrender wanted to show their defiance. The fires were also a volcanic outburst of class hatred by the disenfranchised, rural and urban, against the Bangkok-based wealthy ruling class.
That class is an interlocking network of millionaire generals, big-business owners and their marriage-linked clans, and the Palace, an institution protected by lèse majesté laws that carry severe penalties.
The ruling elite, whose public face at present is the attractive, mild-mannered, Oxford-educated prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, is pinning all the troubles on one man, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, exiled abroad and a fugitive from Thai justice. In this narrative, Thaksin masterminded the siege by hiring a small group of rogue army officers, and by paying the poor to go to Bangkok to start a civil war.
It is entirely plausible that Thaksin did help finance the protest. It is also likely that some radical hot heads wanted to overthrow the government by mob action. But to insist that protesters, old and young, fathers and mothers, numbering as many as 150,000, were willing to risk their lives sitting under a scorching Tropical sun for two months only for money strains credulity. That the elite believes this story is one indication of just how condescending and out-of-touch its members are.
Many in the elite have even turned their ire at foreign news media for allegedly distorting the truth by overplaying the protesters’ grievances. CNN and BBC have been attacked for their alleged bias in showing the “human side” of the protesters and giving insufficient time to the uglier aspects. Both outlets ran live broadcasts throughout the protest, showing all the drama that the cameras could capture.
While official “spin control” is in full throttle, a growing number of thoughtful analysts are voicing concern that facile caricatures do not serve Thailand’s interests. After all, the sense of disenfranchisement among voters in the country’s populous north and northeast, as well as among the urban poor, is real. It is not something manufactured by Thaksin. Nor are the peasants so ignorant to be easily conned by a crafty politician promising much delivering little or none.
This patronizing view conveniently ignores the fact that in the last four elections, Thaksin and his allies won by lopsided margins. Thaksin’s rural development policies were clearly welcomed by people who, for the first time, felt connected to the leaders they had elected.
So the ruling elite engineered a coup to secure the power they had failed to win at the ballot box. They then made use of the “Constitutional Court” to ban Thaksin’s party, the largest in the country. But, even as it made Thaksin’s party illegal, the Constitutional Court failed to unearth any evidence of widespread violations. Instead, it ruled on a minor side issue that many claim was based on a retrospective law.
Thailand’s Old Boys Club – generals-turned-politicians, political parties backed by tycoons with an eye on fat government contracts, and that unnameable hereditary institution whose only agenda is to maintain its longevity – has misgoverned the country for the past half-century. Under its stewardship, one of Asia’s more promising economies has instead become a borderline failed state, enervated by 17 coups since World War II.
Few who now hold the reins of power in Bangkok could honestly throw the first stones. Yet they do.
A peaceful resolution of deep-rooted problems requires wise political leadership, as well as recognition that past injustices cannot be redressed all at once. The art of politics is about skillful compromises, with no side getting exactly what it considers fair and just. But the country’s underclasses must see long-overdue and concrete changes in the right direction – that is, furthering what Thaksin tried to do. In fact, Thaksin may well have to be included in any national reconciliation.
Change is easier promised than accomplished. Unless the ruling elite embrace an honest and earnest effort at national and class reconciliation and soon, Thailand could well descend into a civil war along class lines that would make the turmoil of the past two months in Bangkok seem like a brawl in a bar.

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