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Lingering political crisis shows deep class divide in Thailand

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Thailand has already endured four years of turmoil. The death toll has been low so far, but the rage unleashed last April, when red shirts fought the army in Bangkok, was a glimpse of how deep passions run. Splits within the army itself are starting to appear. Even if fears of all-out civil war seem overblown, it is likely to expect more years of political confrontation and paralysis.Now the question arises :  are the ‘red shirt’ people just want Thaksin as prime minister again?  It’s a big question why the poor people have identified and selected a billionaire as their leader? As a red-shirted sea flooded Bangkok this week, the government’s supporters played down the tumult. Rather than the 1m demonstrators the organisers had promised, “only” 100,000-150,000 took part. And they, sneered government supporters, were probably all paid to turn up by the fugitive billionaire and former prime minister they support, Thaksin Shinawatra.

For decades Thai politics suffered from a surfeit of pragmatism. Parties tussled over the perks of office, without letting policies or principles get in the way. When the bickering became too intense, the army would step in—18 times since the advent of constitutional monarchy in 1932.

This complacent analysis flatters Mr Abhisit and also understates Thailand’s difficulties in three ways. First, the red shirts do enjoy considerable popular support, and not just in the poor north-east from which so many hail. Mr Thaksin was a high-handed leader convicted of corruption. But his policies, such as affordable health care, helped the poor. “Populism”, sniff his critics. But popularity is what competitive politics is about, and the present government has shamelessly borrowed his policies. Second, whatever Mr Thaksin’s faults, his supporters have a point. He was ousted by a coup in 2006 and the present government was installed, with the backing of the army, by a parliamentary fix, not an election.

Third, the political system has all but broken down, as the government itself tacitly admits when it argues that an election would not solve Thailand’s problems. It may well be right. Democracy works only when the parties that lose an election accept the outcome. And if, as might well happen, Mr Abhisit’s government lost an election to proxies for Mr Thaksin, the same alliance of military and civilian elites that toppled him in 2006 and his allies in 2008 might again reject the popular verdict. Instability would persist.

In September 2006, following months of street protests, the military launched a coup against the elected government, the first such coup in 15 years. Since then, violent demonstrations – some of them against the military regime and the government it installed, some in support of it, some interested only in causing chaos – have come to dominate life in Bangkok. In spring last year, demonstrators armed with Molotov cocktails and guns clashed with police across the capital, setting fire to buildings and causing at least six deaths and hundreds of injuries. At roughly the same time in the resort town of Pattaya, two hours south-east of Bangkok, demonstrators attacked the prime minister’s car, then smashed their way into the fancy hotels hosting a major regional summit, embarrassing the government by forcing the participating leaders to flee and the proceedings to be abandoned. Meanwhile, Thailand has junked the progressive constitution written in the 1990s, when, after the demise of the previous military regime, the country seemed to have built a reasonably stable democracy.

From the perspective of the elites in Bangkok, the breakdown began early in 2001, with the election as prime minister of Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon and a politician unlike any who had come to power before in Thailand. With promises of huge amounts of aid to the poor and a sophisticated advertising campaign that presented him as a Michael Bloomberg figure, a billionaire businessman who knew how to get things done, Thaksin’s party won the election by one of the largest margins in the country’s history. In office, he fulfilled some of his promises to the rural poor, who are concentrated in the north and north-east, comprise a majority of the population, and voted overwhelmingly for his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party. He delivered inexpensive healthcare and oversaw a programme to distribute micro-loans to every village, designed to help the poor start up small businesses.

These policies were significant: the rural poor had barely benefited from the economic boom of the 1980s and early 1990s, which had transformed Bangkok from a city of canals and floating markets into a high-rise capital of megamalls, office towers and latte bars. According to Michael Montesano, one of the most astute observers of Thailand, by 2007 household income in Bangkok was roughly three times that of households in the rural north-east. Indeed, while the urban middle classes have benefited from trade and globalisation, the rural poor have seen the agricultural sector collapse in the face of competition from China and giant Western agribusinesses.

Boris Sullivan

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