By Danielle Sabai
[This article was written before the Thai government's crushing of the Red Shirts' protest site in Bangkok on May 19, 2010. However, it provides important background to the events. This article first appeared at Danielle Sabai's Asian Left Observer.]
May 17, 2010 -- The political crisis engulfing Thailand is not a clap of thunder in an otherwise calm sky. The discourse about a country where “everyone lives in harmony and where there is no class struggle but a people united behind its adored sovereign” has nothing to do with reality. For several decades, the Thai people have been subjected to authoritarian regimes or dictatorships and a king in their service. The Thai élites have however not succeeded in preventing regular uprisings against the established order, including those in 1973, 1976 and 1992, all repressed by bloodbaths.
Since 2005, Thailand has faced a new and deep political crisis, longer than the previous ones, and whose outcome cannot be, as in the past, the stifling of the aspirations of the Thai people. The economic boom of the period from 1986-1996 has brought about irreversible changes in society, notably the formation of a working class of around 7 million and structural political reforms. Unlike in previous crises, ordinary Thais – peasants, urban workers and the middle classes of Bangkok, the less well-off – have become conscious of their political weight and begun to make demands.
The 1990s: Eruption of civil society
The roots of the current conflict are anchored in the depths of Thai society. The economic and political upheavals of the 1990s upset a balance which dated from the 1930s and had been established with the end of the absolute monarchy. After the military coup of 1991 and the repression of 1992, civil society entered what had previously been a very restricted political field.
Following a process lasting several years and a public consultation, a 16th constitution, called the “constitution of the people”, was adopted in 1997. For the first time in the history of Thailand, the two chambers were elected by universal suffrage. The executive and legislature were separated. The constitution contained safeguards to combat corruption and defend human rights. If it allowed real democratic advances, it nonetheless had numerous limitations. It was necessary to hold a university degree to be a member of parliament. A sign of the contempt the élites have towards the people and a good way of maintaining privileges. The party list system was criticised by the smaller political formations which found it difficult to elect MPs. The electoral procedures set up tended to strengthen the two party system so as to ensure political stability: between 1995 and 1997, Thailand had four governments! For the same reasons, the role of the prime minister was strengthened. This was used by Thaksin to strengthen his own power when he was prime minister.
The repression of 1992 led to a reflection on the need for transparency in politics and on the role and place of the military inside society. For many years, the army would be confined to barracks. But in reality it never renounced the exercise of power and the civilian governments never challenged its privileges. The army remained a powerful financial and political institution which exercised its power behind the scenes.
The first half of the 1990s also saw strong economic growth and an acceleration of industrialisation. Hundreds of thousands of rural youth, in particular women, left to work in manufacturing and services in and around Bangkok. Wages were low and living conditions difficult but it was still preferable to working the land, which was not very fertile in the case of Isaan. Work in Bangkok did not simply offer a possibility of earning money and helping parents and children left behind in the village. This migration of young people to the capital is indicative of the transformations underway in Thai society : it offered them the possibility of being “Thansamai”, access to a different, “modern”, lifestyle, of freeing themselves from “traditions” which were seen as backward and onerous . As is the case everywhere else, Thaïs aspire to the same standard of living that they see on television and they would like to enjoy the fruits of growth.
The economic boom ended suddenly with the outbreak of the great financial crisis of 1997 which hit Thailand first before spreading to a series of Asian countries. Many companies went bankrupt. Those linked to services protected by the state came out best. This was true of the enterprises owned by Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire who had made his fortune in telecommunications through licences and concessions which he had obtained from different governments and the military in the 1990s . The political and economic stability caused by the crisis strengthened him in the idea of launching a political career. The political withdrawal of the army had opened up a political space. In the business milieu, the idea spread that the army was no longer able to manage public affairs in an increasingly complex and globalised world. In 1998, Thaksin founded his own party, the Thai Rak Thai (TRT -- Thaïs Love Thaïs) with some of the vast wealth that he had emerged from the crisis with. In 2001, he was elected on the basis of a political programme which attempted to respond to a variety of sometimes contradictory social demands. Once elected, he implemented a “pro-poor” policy which considerably improved the lives of millions of ordinary people. Thaksin created a health system which was virtually free of charge (less than a euro for a medical consultation), helped indebted peasants through a debt moratorium of several years’ length, and set up a micro credit system to favour development projects in the villages. It should not however be forgotten that he is a millionaire businessman whose policies serve his own interests first. Corruption, authoritarianism and nepotism prospered while he was prime minister.
Nonetheless, for the first time a Thai politician had taken an interest in the fate of millions of his citizens. His policies clearly followed a classic populist tradition: satisfying the demands of the peasants and workers in order to provide himself with an electoral base and the stability necessary for business to prosper. Meanwhile, muzzling the workers’ movement by maintaining laws restraining trade union activity and an electoral system which, by obliging urban workers to vote in their rural region of origin, blocked the emergence of left wing parties. The war on drugs, waged early in his first term, led to thousands of deaths and arbitrary arrests. Thaksin also resumed the war against the Malay minority in the deep south of Thailand. Despite this state violence, which Thaksin had demagogically used to strengthen his legitimacy, the social aspects of his policies made him immensely popular. This made him the sole Thai politician to win a consecutive second term. He was triumphantly re-elected in 2005.
The germs of a new political crisis
The bases of a new political crisis were now in place. When Thaksin came to power, Thailand had been led for nearly 70 years by an élite which held money and power: the army, the higher bureaucracy, the monarchy and some big industrial families. They shared a deep contempt for the people who they saw as uncultured and not suited for democracy. More than twenty coups since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 attest to it. They are all in favour of democracy, but a “Thai version” of democracy that would allegedly be “better adapted” to Thai history, values and culture . In opposition to Western values, “Asian values” were supposed to stress the primacy of the group over the individual, respect for others, a sense of community, frugality, education, acceptance of hierarchy . In fact, all this served as ideological justification for a very inegalitarian system and deeply anti-democratic laws allowing a few among the privileged to enrich themselves and remain in power. The citizens took no part in the decisions of those who governed while the latter were not motivated to account for their actions. The feeling of belonging to the nation was inculcated in people asked to subordinate their own interests to those of the county. At the heart of this ideological construction, the king played a central place. As “father” of the nation that he incarnates, he regularly visits his “children” to listen to their problems, which he reinterprets “properly”. The monarchy is at the centre of (very) many charitable works and development projects in the countryside. The “self sufficiency economy”, the economic “theory” elaborated recently by the king illustrates the paternalist mechanisms and maintenance of social hierarchies very well. . “Sufficiency has three key principles: moderation; wisdom or insight; and the need for built-in resilience against the risks which arise from internal or external change” . The message is clear: the peasants and the poor are asked to make do with what they have. If the poor are poor, it is because they have not implemented solutions adapted to the resources at their disposal. Emergency laws like the ISA (Internal Security Act) and the crime of lèse-majesté help smother any opposition.
The political game is completely emptied of content. Political links are above all business and clientelist relations: large scale vote buying and collusion between business and politics. In the 1990s, more than half of MPs originated from the world of business . The different political parties do not represent any alternative but are set up to participate in government coalitions where they hope to benefit from opportunities to do business. A sort of return on investment – establishing an electoral base costs a lot of money.
On the other hand, the improvement in living conditions brought about by the economic boom of the 1986-96 period decreased social tensions and demands. With the crisis of 1997, things changed. Hundreds of thousands of factory workers in the Bangkok area were dismissed and many returned to the countryside without payment. The idea developed by Asia’s ruling élites (in particular Mahathir in Malaysia and Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore) that economic growth should come before democracy was seriously shaken. The Thaksin years made people conscious that the electoral game could also benefit the less well of. It was possible to implement redistributive and more egalitarian economic policies.
Thaksin benefited fully from the system. During his first term, he favoured “friendly” companies and placed “loyalists” at the head of the army. The traditional establishment felt threatened: the financial opportunities, the juiciest contracts were escaping them. The king’s privy council lost control over army promotions, the main lever of maintenance of the order. The Democrat Party, the main opposition party allied to the establishment, was not in a position to compete with the TRT at the electoral level. It had not won an election for nearly 10 years. The king himself felt threatened. Thaksin’s popularity competed directly with his own. The traditional order was challenged.
The countryside elects governments, Bangkok overthrows them
The establishment sought by every means to free itself of Thaksin. An opportunity came in January 2006, when he decided to sell his company Shin Corp to Temasek, a company owned by the state of Singapore. Royalist forces organised around Sondhi Limtongkul launched a nationalist campaign for the resignation of the prime minister and succeeded in linking together the numerous struggles of the time against the privatisation of the public electricity company EGAT, against the free trade agreements with the USA, against decentralisation in education and so on. However, despite numerous demonstrations against him and a public intervention by the king, Thaksin triumphed again in the elections of April 2006.
It was too much. The army took the military option, undoubtedly with the approval of the “palace”.  On September 19, 2006, while Thaksin was abroad at the UN, a new military coup was organised, this time without any bloodshed. The objectives advanced were the fight against corruption and the necessity of restoring the “unity of the country” which had been disrupted by several months of uninterrupted demonstrations. The establishment, the royalist forces but also a great part of the intelligentsia and middle classes celebrated the overthrow of the “corrupt” Thaksin.
In the year following the coup, everything was done to destroy Thaksin’s instruments of power: the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) was dissolved, 111 MPs from the party were deemed ineligible for the five years to come. Part of Thaksin’s assets were frozen (nearly 2 billion dollars). A new constitution was written under military diktat. However, despite the maintenance of martial law in Thaksin’s bastions in the north and north-east, the military could not prevent a victory for the People’s Power Party (PPP), heirs of the TRT, at the election of December 23, 2007. The victory of the forces allied to Thaksin revived the crisis. Very quickly the new government of Samak Sundaravej envisaged amending the new constitution to forestall a new dissolution by the judiciary which had been considerably strengthened by the new constitution, with the power notably to dissolve a party if one of its members was found guilty of a crime.
From May 2008 to December of the same year, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) waged an unrelenting struggle to force Prime Minister Samak to resign. The Yellow Shirts  are in no way the progressive force their name would imply. The movement is led by Sonthi Limtongkul, a press magnate and former business partner of Thaksin, ruined by the 1997 crisis. He linked up with a whole range of disaffected elements: royalists who felt threatened politically and economically by Thaksin’s business clique; military men who did not accept seeing their grip on society reduced since 1992 ; members of the Democrat Party, the traditional ally of the royalty and army and rejected by the business periphery ; judges from the various high courts; intellectuals and members of the middle class tired of corruption and scandals ; monks belonging to reactionary Buddhist sects. All supported the military coup. Among the main leaders were Chamlong Srimuang, Phanlop Phinmanee and Prasong Soonsiri, three of the main veterans of the war against the Communist insurrection of the 1970s and 1980s. All were horrified by the people who they deemed to ignorant to be able to vote and participate in political affairs. They are opposed to democracy and mobilised so that the new constitution would put in place an elitist system under which only 30% of the seats in parliament would be directly elected by a popular vote. They consider Samak’s government, elected democratically by the majority, as illegitimate. On several occasion, the Yellow Shirts received the explicit support of the very reactionary queen Sirikit.
From May 2008, supported by the Democrat Party and Abhisit, the Yellow Shirts remobilised. For several weeks they occupied the office of the prime minister. In September, Samak’s government was dissolved by a judicial decree. Samak, something of a gourmet, was sentenced for having received payment for his participation in televised cookery shows! In response, a new government was formed around Somchai Wongsawat, brother in law of Thaksin. The struggle culminated with the siege of Bangkok’s two airports in late November 2008 , stranding thousands of passengers for a week and undermining a Thai economy already disturbed by the world economic crisis. On December 2, 2008, the PPP was dissolved by the constitutional court for electoral fraud. On December 15, following a reversal of alliance organised by the army inside parliament, Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected 27th prime minister by the deputies.
A military coup and two judicial decrees have overthrown three governments whose democratic legitimacy was not in doubt. For most Thais, it appeared increasingly clear that the democratic game was rigged and that the judges were in the service of the rich. To this day, the leaders of the PAD who blockaded the two Bangkok airports have never been brought to court. The countryside elects governments and the élites of Bangkok overthrow them if they do not like them! This reality shows also how spatial and class differentiations pan out in Thailand. The élites and the rich live in Bangkok, the poor originate from the provinces. In Bangkok, peasants are referred to using the very contemptuous term “baan nok” (“outside house”). To live in the countryside is to be backward, uneducated, uncivilised and naïve.
Who are the Red Shirts?
Faced with the situation opened by the putting in place of the Abhisit government, in early 2009 the “United Front for Democracy and against Dictatorship” (UDD), the Red Shirt movement, was set up. This political and social movement was set up originally by the unification of Thaksin’s defenders and the pro-democracy forces that had emerged after the coup. The alliance mobilised a popular base mainly made up of peasants, villagers and urban workers, in particular in the north and north-east of the country, fed up with the double language of the judiciary, the absence of democracy and the maintenance of deep inequalities despite a real modernisation of the country. Although he has partly adopted on his own behalf the political reforms of Thaksin, Abhisit appears as what he is, the representative of the traditional elites. The unity of the movement was achieved around the slogan of resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit and new democratic parliamentary elections.
Thaksin’s wealth has largely contributed to developing the struggle, at least initially. Nonetheless, the Red Shirts movement has changed a lot since its emergence. If Thaksin remains a “hero” for many Red Shirts who feel he has contributed to an improvement in their living conditions, the demands are now on another level. The objectives of Thaksin and the leaders of the UDD are to say the least divergent. The leaders of the Red Shirts claim to be the champions of social justice and democracy. Themes which do not suit Thaksin perfectly. In addition, his chances of returning to power are thin and his main objective could well be to recover the 1.4 billion dollars seized by the judiciary in March. In fact, Thaksin has withdrawn from the movement and as Chang Noi, a well known Thai journalist, says, “Thaksin could well not wish to ride this tiger now he knows how big and ferocious it is” .
As to its composition, the UDD has from the beginning been a broad and diverse movement. Unity around the slogan of Abhisit’s resignation and for immediate elections does little to conceal the very different political views and objectives among the leaders. According to Tumberblog  a certain number of leaders like Surachai Danwattananusorn “Sae-Dan”, Jaran Dithapichai, Weng Tojirakarn or Vipoothalaeng Pattanaphumthai are former Communists. Others like Jatuporn Promphan are MPs from the Puea Thai party, an heir of the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) and of the People’s Power Party (PPP). Most are royalists or in any case do not publicly challenge the constitutional monarchy. The law forbidding lèse majesté bans any debate on the monarchy. The “crime” can be punished by 3 to 15 years imprisonment. That does not favour freedom of expression and several Red Shirt personalities, like Giles Ji Ungpakorn and Jakaprob Penkair have had to go into exile to avoid prison.
At last, in August 2009, after several months of after discussions, divergences appeared publicly among the leaders of the movement. Jakaprob Penkair and “ Sae-Dan” left it to form their own group, “Red Siam”. The split took place around the tactic advocated by the main leaders of organising a petition to request the royal pardon for Thaksin. A key question: the appeal to the king poses the question of the place of the monarchy and its desirable and possible evolution. The detractors have argued that this petition accords to the king the power to interfere in an undemocratic manner in the struggle of the Red Shirts and would perpetuate illusions about the intentions of the monarchy. For their part, the three leaders of the group “Kwam Jing Wannee” (The Truth Today), Jatuporn Promphan, Weera Musikapong and Nattawut Saikua, fight for minor reforms in the context of the current monarchy. Jatuporn explained very clearly to the newspaper “The Nation” : “We want democracy under the King as head of state, therefore our activities are limited to attacking Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda or lower figures to prevent an escalating fight transgressing the constitutional monarchy”  The leaders of Red Siam, who are more radical, believe that the monarchy should be reformed. Nonetheless they do not challenge the current framework of the constitutional monarchy. 
In terms of the rank and file, the Red Shirts are not the dangerous “terrorists” and conspirators against the monarchy portrayed by the government. They are ordinary people. The product of systematic brainwashing from the cradle, they are mainly of religious, nationalist and royalist sympathies . That is what makes this political movement different from the previous revolts in 1973, 1976 and 1992. For the first time, it is ordinary people from the provinces, the peasants, workers, the poor and also the less well off middle classes of Bangkok who are mobilising. The basis of the movement extends to a part of the middle classes who have become aware of the high cost that the coup has represented, whether in political or economic terms and now support a movement which seeks to re-establish democracy. Many inhabitants of Bangkok have come to show their support for the Red Shirts or to join them.
The UDD has highlighted the specificity of this revolt in updating obsolete terms in the Thai language like “phrai” (serf) and “amart” (nobles). These terms illustrate the oppression and the injustices visited on those who “have nothing” in opposition to the privileged. It certainly amounts to a class struggle, a revolt of the wretched against the established order. The movement has stripped bare the machinery of this profoundly inegalitarian system, at the centre of which lies the monarchy.
End of reign
Is the monarchy still at the centre of the system? The question is legitimate. The political crisis has seriously destabilised the institution. The systematic references to the monarchy by the royalists themselves, first by the army to legitimate the coup then by the Yellow Shirts to legitimate their mobilisations against the “pro Thaksin” governments have helped deconstruct the image of the “palace”, guarantor of national unity and arbiter of partisan conflicts, elaborated over several decades. The doubts have been sown by the Red Shirts and it will henceforth be hard for the establishment to maintain its grip over society by invoking the protection of the monarchy.
The crisis has also revealed that the monarchy is no longer in a position as in the past to weigh on events or smother the protests. The king is dying, and has been in hospital since September 2009. The question of the succession is posed and has opened another political crisis inside the élites. The legitimacy of the monarchy rests to a great extent on the almost God-like image of the current king. Indeed, the designated heir to the throne, prince Vajiralongkorn, is utterly without the “qualities” of his father Bhumibol (“the blessed man”). He is weak politically, known for his decadent morals and detested by the majority of Thais. Salacious stories about his private life circulate on websites before being censored. He is moreover linked to Thaksin who has in the past partly subsidised his lifestyle. The financial stakes are huge. “Forbes” magazine estimated in 2009 that the Thai monarchy was the richest in the world with 30 billion dollars of net assets. Its financial and industrial investments in all sectors of the Thai economy are colossal. The smooth running of business depends, as all understand, on the maintenance of the established order. Given the lack of charisma and legitimacy of Vajiralongkorn, he will not be in a position to have any political authority. Princess Sirindhorn could play such a role as she is much appreciated but the law would only allow it if the heir died. Internal struggles for the succession are intense. Each of the claimants has built alliances with factions of the army and police, which partly explains the indecisions of the government until recent days.
At the other end of the social scale, we are very far from the high life. A recent report from the UNDP  on Thailand tells us that inequality has not ceased to grow in recent years. The UNDP compares the share of income of the richest 5% to that of the poorest 5%. The results are revealing: In relatively egalitarian societies like Japan or Scandinavia, the ration is around 3 to 4, i.e. the richest 5% are between three and four times richer than the poorest 5%. In the rest of Europe and in North America it is from 5 to 8. Among Thailand’s neighbours, the ration is around 9 to 11. In Thailand it is in the region of 13 to 15. These inequalities are increasingly rejected by the population.
What outcome to the crisis?
As these lines are written, the military forces have for three days been organising a violent repression of the Red Shirts. According to numerous testimonies from foreign journalists and inhabitants of the capital, the military are firing on the demonstrators with live ammunition. Several civilians have been killed in ambushes by snipers. The confrontations began on May 13 after the head of security at the Rachaprasong camp, Sae Deng, was seriously wounded in the head by a bullet fired by a sniper. The government denies responsibility for this assassination attempt but it seems obvious that only a crack sharpshooter could have such precision and not wound the International Herald Tribune journalist with whom Sae Deng was speaking when he was shot. Already there have been around fifty deaths and it is probable that the real number will never be known because according to the Asian Human Right Commission the army has removed numerous bodies.
The Abhisit government had made an offer to the Red Shirts last week. The national and international press speculated on a possible agreement which would satisfy the two parties. Abhisit proposed a five point “roadmap” centred around elections on November 14. It was hard for the Red Shirt leaders to reject the plan outright. But Abhisit offered no guarantee. He refused to set a date for the dissolution of parliament and to withdraw the accusations of terrorism and conspiracy against the monarchy. In these conditions, while stating that they accepted the plan and wished to negotiate its implementation, the Red Shirts refused to leave the neighbourhood they had occupied for 6 weeks. Even if it is very difficult to obtain information on the subject, it also seems that the UDD had serious internal differences on the position to be adopted towards Abhisit’s proposals. At the beginning of the week, the Red Shirt leaders demanded that the deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban was charged in relation to the confrontations of April 10 which led to around 20 deaths. A request that the government used to justify backtracking on its election proposal and the repression which began on Thursday.
The situation is very complex and changeable and it is difficult to know how it will develop in the coming days and weeks. In the immediate, all scenarios can be envisaged. The repression could temporarily bring a halt to the Red Shirt demonstrations. The army could also meet significant resistance, indeed a development of the provincial mobilisations. In this case, a resignation of the government is probable with elections. But it is also possible that a section of the army could take the situation as the pretext for a new coup. An open struggle between different factions of the army should not be ruled out in that case.
The current impasse in the conflict is sadly not surprising: was Abhisit’s plan to end the crisis sincere? The proposal raises numerous doubts. When Thaksin attempted to renew his electoral mandate in April 2006, after powerful mobilisations against him, Abhisit and the Democrat Party boycotted the elections. Did Abhisit really want elections on November 14? Information disclosed by the press reveals him as among the hardliners in the government who wanted repression rather than negotiations. Inside the government, other ministers also did not want elections they were virtually certain to lose.
The date of the elections, November 14, also posed a problem. The value of an immediate dissolution of parliament, beyond its symbolic value, is that it allows the winning side to be in power on October 1 at the time of the annual reorganisation of the army command. Abhisit’s proposal would allow him to play for time and be in position at this strategic moment.
More fundamentally, in order for the elections to be organised, guarantees are needed so that they should be just and democratic and so that their outcome is respected by all. Indeed, the Yellow Shirts did not conceal the fact that they rejected the proposed elections. The élites are not ready to make concessions. In addition, no democratic development is likely while the monarchy and the army, hand in hand, will accept no opposition to their omnipotence. Thus one can imagine that a new electoral victory for the Red Shirt would have led to Yellow Shirt demonstrations to overthrow the new elected government. For now, the democratic game seems completely blocked
Finally and undoubtedly most significantly: the failure of this attempt to exit the crisis is surely revealing of the fact that the majority of Thais no longer believe that elections alone can put an end to the crisis. A deeper political change is needed. The problem is that decades of repression mean that today there are no political parties based in the workers’ movement capable of being candidates to power and to offer a progressive political solution to the crisis. A number of leaders of the old workers’ parties, whether social democratic or Maoist-inclined Communist, trade unions or peasant associations have been assassinated by the different dictatorial regimes. The workers’ movement has still not recovered. That is why political opposition takes the unexpected form of the Red Shirts: a political movement which is neither a party nor an association, heterogeneous and marked by contradictions but whose essence is its organic link with the people. We should hail the courage of these tens of thousands of workers and peasants who have occupied the commercial and business centres of Bangkok for many weeks and who are now experiencing the assaults of the army. They deserve our support.
[Danielle Sabai is a South East Asia correspondent for International Viewpoint and Inprecor.]
 “Thai Women in the Global Labor Force”. Mary Beth Mills. Rutgers University Press. 2002.
 See on ESSF: The coup d’etat: a step backwards for Thailand and Southeast Asia
 See “Very Thai? The Myth of a “Thai-Style” Democracy”. Federico Ferrara. And on ESSF: Thai-Style “Democracy,” 1958-2010
 See L’Asie du Sud-est prise au piège. Sophie Boisseau du Rocher. Perrin Asie. 2009. p. 118.
 “Thailand Human Development Report: Sufficiency Economy and Human Development”. Overview, page xv, UNDP, 2007.
 L’Asie du Sud-est prise au piège. Sophie Boisseau du Rocher. Perrin Asie. 2009. p. 118
 A euphemism used in Thailand to refer to the king indirectly, for fear of committing the crime of lèse majesté!
 In the Buddhist religion every day is associated with a colour. Yellow refers to the day of the king’s birthday, Monday. The PAD chose this colour to stress that the movement was royalist and to imply that the king supported it.
 The siege was only possible with the passive support of the security forces.
 Chang Noi….
 “Split Emerges in Red-Shirt Leadership”. The Nation: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/200…
 On this issue, see Giles Ji Ungpakorn, Da Torpedo’s case pushes Thailand back to the Dark Ages and Split in the Reds: When Differences Become Intolerable
 See Danielle Sabai, Thailand: The other side of the scenery
 Thailand Human Development Report 2009. UNDP. Page 79. http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/nati…
By ANDREW WALKER
May 19, 2010 -- Armored vehicles and snipers may win the battle to push the red-shirt protesters out of Bangkok, but the government is losing the war to hold back the course of Thailand's history. The nation's economic and social aspirations have outrun its elite-focused political institutions. The key to understanding Thailand's current conflict, which is a grim reminder of murderous confrontations between protesters and security forces in 1973, 1976 and 1992, is rural Thailand, where about two-thirds of the population lives.
Half a century ago, 96% of Thailand's farmers were living in poverty. This has plummeted to only 13%. Life expectancy has increased, infant mortality is close to developed-world standards, and primary schooling is near universal. The rural population in Thailand can now be described as a "middle-income peasantry" in which subsistence rice farming, commercial agriculture and extensive off-farm employment is combined to produce levels of household income and consumption unthinkable a few decades ago.
This rural prosperity has been seized upon by some critics of the red-shirt protestors to undermine their claims of disadvantage, as if only abject poverty is a legitimate basis for political mobilization. But the rise in living standards is only part of the story. Thailand's rural transformation has two very important weaknesses. One of them is economic, the other is cultural. Both are political.
The economic weakness is inequality. Thailand has been very successful in managing absolute poverty, but it has failed to deal with relative poverty. Many developing countries face the challenge of a widening gap between rich and poor, but Thailand's performance is particularly bad. Since the mid-1980s Thailand has been significantly more unequal than its main regional neighbors.
National statistics, which understate the affluence of the survey-avoiding rich, show that Thailand's inequality has grown steadily worse, dipping only temporarily after the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s. The recent Human Development Report produced by the UNDP shows that eight out of the 10 most disadvantaged provinces in Thailand are in the rural north and northeast, precisely the areas where red-shirt support is strongest.
This economic distance between the city and the countryside has a disturbing cultural counterpart. In urban Thailand there is a rich store of contempt for the peasantry. Farmers are all too readily dismissed as ignorant country bumpkins who happily sell their votes to the highest bidder.
For a while in the 1980s and 1990s there was hope that civil-society advocates would be able to present a more sympathetic image of rural life. But many of them got sidetracked by their anti-capitalist agenda and constructed an anachronistic stereotype of communal lifestyles and subsistence-oriented farming. This compounded the middle-income peasantry's cultural marginalization.
Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra capitalized on these flaws in Thailand's modernization. His unprecedented political success owes much to the fact that he shaped his policies around rural aspirations for economic, cultural and political inclusion.
Mr. Thaksin's focus on grass-roots development was certainly not new in Thailand, but it was packaged in very attractive terms for an economically sophisticated electorate: Rural households can turn their assets into capital; villagers can manage agricultural credit; farmers can implement infrastructure projects; local hospitals can provide universal health cover. Some of Mr. Thaksin's policies smacked of tokenism, others were much more substantial, but all of them signalled a shift away from rural marginalization toward more energetic engagement and respect.
The red-shirt protesters who massed in Bangkok more than two months ago don't accept that they can be excluded from playing an active part in the modern life of the nation. They are angry because Mr. Thaksin was overthrown in a military coup in September 2006. And they are angry that their peaceful post-coup votes in 2007 were also disregarded when Mr. Thaksin's allies were forced out of government by the yellow-shirt occupation of Bangkok's airport and the Constitutional Court's dissolution of the governing party. They don't accept the legitimacy of the way current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was maneuvered into power by his royal, judicial and military backers. But most fundamentally, via the red shirts, rural Thailand is vigorously asserting its right to be represented in decision-making about the country's future development.
In Thailand, iconic images of national unity often feature King Bhumibol Adulyadej dispensing royal wisdom and benevolence to crouching peasants. These images celebrate a model of elite patronage, with livelihood support wisely granted by the king and his loyal bureaucracy. These old ideas are certainly enduring, especially in Mr. Abhisit's staunchly royal governing party, but they have much less potency in the modern rural world of contract farming, off-farm employment and mobile phones.
Mr. Thaksin's populism encouraged new ways of thinking about power and participation. Mr. Abhisit may succeed in sweeping the red shirts out of Bangkok, but with the Thai understanding of legitimate power taking on a much more inclusive flavor, they will certainly be back.
Mr. Walker is a senior fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific at Australian National University. He is co-founder of the New Mandala blog on Southeast Asia.