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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thailand unravelling

Red Shirts' anger has its root in deep-seated inequalities


Despite some 18 coups in its contemporary history, Thailand has long been a bastion of stability in Southeast Asia. It has avoided bouts of mass violence that have marred regional neighbours like Indonesia and Cambodia, and has become a major destination for tourists and an economic dynamo in Asia.

However, the current crisis that has parts of Bangkok looking like Beirut has the potential to unhinge Thailand from its stable moorings. Since the first clashes erupted in April, 67 people have been killed, and more than 1,700 have been injured. This degree of violence is unprecedented in Thailand.

At its core, this crisis has its roots in deep-seated inequalities between the rural sector and the ruling institutions and social groups based in Bangkok. The conflict between the Red Shirts and the Thai government stems from the September 2006 coup that ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirts, primarily rural people from the poorer areas of Thailand in the north and northeast, are avid supporters of Thaksin.

Incensed by the coup as well as by recent court rulings and backroom deals that eliminated governments led by Thaksin allies, the Red Shirts have been pushing to force out the current government of the Democrat Party, which took charge of government in 2008 when a number of Thaksin's parliamentary allies switched sides to give the Democrats a majority. That shady deal and repeated efforts to oust Thaksin and his allies are what so enrage the Red Shirts.

At a deeper level, the Red Shirts' support for Thaksin and visceral opposition to the Democrat-led government is a result of Thaksin's pro-poor policies. These policies, often called populist, included a universal health-care program known as the 30-Baht (75-cent) policy, a debt-moratorium program for farmers, and a Village Fund scheme that would have given every village in the country 1 million baht ( $25,000) to jumpstart small-scale entrepreneurial projects.

The record of these policies in alleviating poverty has been mixed, although the health-care scheme has been the most successful. But the actual success of these policies is less important than their political effect. The policies have created a powerful social base for Thaskin's party and a devoted following for his leadership. Unlike any prime minister in Thailand's history, Thaksin has successfully created a bond with the rural poor, established a track record of policy innovation in favor of the rural sector, and mobilized them to political action. This has created a major challenge for elites in Bangkok.

The Bangkok elite - the aristocratic class, the military, and large parts of the middle class - remain deeply opposed to Thaksin and the Red Shirts, especially because they view Thaksin as a corrupt prime minister who used his public office to protect and advance his capitalist interests.

But opposition to Thaksin is also due to his attempts to challenge King Bhumipol Adulyadej's traditional role as supreme leader of the nation. Since his accession to the throne in 1946, 82-year-old Bhumipol has been one of the most successful and unifying monarchs in Thailand. But the monarchy has also shown little tolerance for politicians who could displace its position as patron and builder of the nation. This is exactly what Thaksin sought to do through the force of his charisma, as much as through his pro-poor policies.

Thailand now finds itself on the brink of civil war. In the past, when Thai politics appeared to have reached a point of no return, Bhumipol was able to step in and bring the conflict to an end. This is no longer possible because the conflict involves the monarchy's role in the polity, but also because the king has been ailing for much of the past year. A recent effort by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to negotiate was rejected by the Red Shirts, pushing the government to use military force to dislodge the protesters. But a military strategy will only inflame rural discontent in the long-run. Both sides need to submit to an impartial negotiator, whether from within Thailand or from abroad, so that negotiations can be credible and earnest.

Once the violence subsides, the larger issue that Thailand needs to confront is the deep marginalization of the rural poor. The Bangkok elite has long ruled on the assumption that the rural poor would accept their fate and would never pose a serious challenge to the state and to society's conservative norms.

This is no longer the case and puts the burden on the elite to change its thinking if it wishes to remain relevant in the midst of political and social change.

Erik Martinez Kuhonta teaches political science at McGill University.

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