Thailand in Chaos
A Class War Pits Rich against
by Barbara Crosette
www.thenation.com/, November 27,
Add Thailand to the list of countries
that are giving democracy a bad name. Weeks of confrontation between
a discredited prime minister and a peripatetic street mob of his
opponents has made this rapidly developing nation ungovernable.
With the closure of the country's two main airports this week,
Thailand is now also increasingly cut off from the world. Underlying
this tragedy, a destructive class war between rich and poor, urban
and rural, yellow shirts and red shirts, is raging.
The sides in this battle are not what
might be expected. The urban educated elite, the professionals
with cell phones, the democrats who have stood bravely against
military rule in the past are now the ones determined to provoke
an army coup to overthrow a populist government they have been
unable to defeat at the ballot box.
More than half a century of alternating
military rule and mostly incompetent civilian governments has
led to this. There have been eighteen coups in Thailand since
1947. Civilian leaders were never out of the shadow of what wags
called the Green Party, for the color of military fatigues.
Then along came a communications multimillionaire
named Thaksin Shinawatra, who jumped into politics with what he
thought was a bullet-proof formula for staying in power. Holding
out the lure of instant largesse (buying votes is a Thai tradition,
but not on this scale), he built a solid populist base in the
neglected Thai northeast and other impoverished agrarian areas.
Some call it "rural fascism." This challenged, and to
some extent panicked, the urban middle class, which had come to
believe it owned the right to democratic political leadership.
Thaksin, at the head of a political movement
he cleverly if clumsily named Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais),
became prime minister in 2001. Clouds of corruption and the abuse
of power hovered around him from the start. Human rights groups
documented what appeared to be politically sanctioned killings
of thousands of narcotics suspects in northern Thailand and alleged
Muslim militants in the Thai south. Nonetheless his rural base
held, and he was reelected by a landslide in 2005.
Thaksin, unpopular in Bangkok, was overthrown
in the most recent military coup, in 2006. His party was banned
and, yet again, a new constitution was written. But in an election
this year, Thaksin's old party under a new name, the People Power
Party, returned with a parliamentary majority. Both Thaksin and
his wife were ordered to stand trial on corruption charges. She
did; he fled into exile in Britain and has since meandered in
exile, having lost his British visa.
The return of a barely disguised Thaksin
front brought opponents to the streets almost immediately, and
a crisis has built quickly this fall. The current prime minister,
Somchai Wongsawat (Thaksin's brother-in-law), has become a pathetic
cipher, announcing on television that he is in control, though
he can no longer govern in Bangkok and has to run from place to
place with his office staff.
The army, begging not to have to stage
another coup--exactly why is not clear, though it is assumed it
has had its fill of politics--has asked Somchai to leave gracefully
and call a new election, which might defuse the protests that
have disabled parliament and closed the airports. He has refused.
Meanwhile the opposition, grouped loosely into the People's Alliance
for Democracy and clad in yellow in deference to King Bhumibol
Adulyadej and the color of the royal flag, has proved only that
it can shut the country down. The king, a power behind the scenes
who rarely ever intruded publicly in politics, did step out of
character a few years ago to criticize Thaksin for the harm he
was doing to the country's reputation. That made him a symbol
of democracy to the urban Yellow Shirts. Thaksin's heirs are the
But many Thais are now wondering with
some alarm where the urban elite are taking the country. This
week, in the biggest show of numerical power and dedication, the
Yellow Shirts were able within a few hours to roll over passive
security services to seize Suvarnabhumi, Thailand's showcase new
airport and one of the largest and most sophisticated in Asia.
Score one. But this happened just as the height of the lucrative
Thai winter tourist season was beginning and the country was weathering
the global recession relatively well.
Within days, the Europeans and North Americans
were fleeing--those who could get out through provincial airports--and
the currency and stock market teetered. The middle class, having
tasted the glory and exhilaration of street theater, appears to
have lost its bearings, not the least in demonstrating to the
rural cousins in red shirts how democracy should work.
Barbara Crossette, UN correspondent for
The Nation, is a former New York Times chief correspondent in
Southeast Asia, based in Bangkok.