Thailand in Chaos

A Class War Pits Rich against Poor

by Barbara Crosette, November 27, 2008


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. So far.
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 Red Shirts.

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.

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