It's the impoverished poor led by the Red Shirts who have taken on the dictatorship of the elite and military in Thailand. And, inevitably, the rebellion will flare up again
Satya Sagar Bangkok/Delhi
A traditional elite desperately clinging on to its unearned privileges. Rural and urban poor unwilling to accept the old order and ready to fight and die for change. The transparent failure of every democratic institution, from the judiciary to the media, to remain impartial. And a national army unhesitant to shoot down its own countrymen.
These were among the key ingredients that went into the making of Thailand's spectacular political explosion in mid-May this year that saw at least 54 people dead, hundreds injured and several billions worth of property destroyed.
The events, described as the worst bout of violence in modern Thai history, demonstrated to the world that behind the façade of a cheerful, tourist-friendly, Buddhist country lurks a veritable tsunami of social problems. The signs were always there and simmering: the tremendous concentration of power in a few institutions like the monarchy, military and bureaucracy; the yawning economic gap between rural and urban populations; a Thai elite with little respect for democratic processes; and the cultural disdain that Bangkok's middle classes have for the less privileged but numerically large population of north-east Thailand.
Historically, Thailand has had some of the most draconian 'anti-communist' laws, going back to the 1930s, that have stifled the emergence of even mild social-democratic political formations. This has left the poor at the mercy of a patronising feudal and business-dominated ruling class and with decades of accumulated grievances.
The latest 'Red Shirt' rallies, which started in mid-March 2010, were essentially a continuation of the political turmoil that has gripped Thailand over the last six years. Since 2005, when Thaksin Shinawatra, a controversial telecom tycoon turned politician, won the general elections for the second time in a row, Bangkok has seen almost continuous street protests, first by 'Yellow Shirts' opposed to him and later by 'Red Shirts' supporting him.
The Thaksin phenomenonThe rise of Thaksin Shinawatra and his newly forged Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party in 2001 had been a truly unprecedented phenomenon in Thai electoral history. In a country where all elected governments had been large unwieldy coalitions of five or more political parties, the TRT swept to power with a clear majority. In that election support came from the business-minded middle classes of Bangkok, the people of northern Thailand from where Thaksin hailed, and most importantly, from the populous but poor and highly neglected north-east provinces. In southern Thailand, the older Democrat Party, close to the traditional elites, still dominated.
In a country yet to recover from the blows of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, Thaksin adopted a populist approach and played on national sentiments hurt by the ravages of global capital. From day one, the Thaksin regime took a strident line against the humiliating terms and conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund soon after the crisis.
It repudiated the neo-liberal ideas of curbing government expenditure and instead poured billions of baht (Thai currency) into schemes to revive the rural economy and small- and medium-scale industries. On the social front, Thaksin came up with an instant hit when he launched a universal health insurance scheme that allowed Thai citizens to avail of any medical service for just 30 baht per visit to the hospital. Various scholarship schemes aimed at rural youth and incentives for Bangkok's taxi drivers boosted his popularity as a 'champion of the poor'.
The Thaksin regime's populism made the rural poor believe that it cared for them, something no previous regime had even bothered to do. Urban middle-class voters turned against him in later years, but the poor remained his ardent supporters, providing a bulk of the votes he garnered in successive elections. Interestingly, the brains behind billionaire Thaksin's pro-poor populism were a close set of advisors, many of them Leftwing student guerillas in the 1970s.
Yellow Shirts vs ThaksinTrouble started after Thaksin's TRT swept the polls for a second time in 2005. Worried about him becoming a rival of sorts to the powerful king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, a motley mix of pro-monarchy forces and Thaksin's business rivals started street protests in Bangkok demanding his prosecution for alleged corruption. These protestors, under the banner of People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), were the 'Yellow Shirts', derived from the colour of the T-shirts they wore in the rallies.
In 2006, a military coup sent Thaksin into exile and banned the TRT, inflaming passions amidst both Yellow and Red Shirt groups. The military junta also tore up the popularly mandated 1997 Constitution, charged Thaksin with corruption and initiated moves to seize his assets in Thailand.
Despite this, when the military handed back power to civilian rule a year later, it was the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai party that won the 2007 general elections. However, within a year, two successive Puea Thai governments were dismissed on stunningly flimsy grounds by a brazenly biased Thai judiciary. For example, in September 2008, Samak Sundaravej, a former journalist and veteran politician, was forced to step down from the prime minister's post for hosting two cookery shows on television for which he got a nominal fee!
Several Puea Thai members of Parliament were barred from participating in politics for five years for allegedly buying votes during the 2007 election, a move seen by Thaksin supporters as a clear misuse of the Election Commission's powers by their opponents. All this nasty judicial and political manipulation, plus the use of money power, paved the way for the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, of the Democrat Party, backed by the elite and the military.
What angered the Thaksin camp was also the way Yellow Shirt protestors, throughout 2008, had managed to hold Bangkok to ransom by blocking key roads, taking over the Government House for weeks and even shutting down the Bangkok international airport for six days. But the Thai army and police refused to take action against them in sharp contrast to their willingness to shoot down the Red Shirts since the first day of their gigantic protests in Bangkok. Since then, not only has no one been prosecuted for all these acts of vandalism, one of the Yellow Shirt leaders has even gone on to become the foreign minister in the incumbent and discredited Abhisit regime.
Red Shirts strike backAs a consequence, since early 2009, thousands of 'Red Shirt' rural folk, have been rallying in Bangkok off and on, demanding Abhisit's resignation and fresh elections. The Abhisit government, afraid of losing a general election, has refused to go and insisted that it is still legitimate. The latest round of demonstrations that started in mid-March this year saw, at its peak, a turnout of over 1,50,000 protestors who occupied the affluent, central part of Bangkok and refused to budge till the government stepped down. While many came directly from the countryside, there were also a large number of urban poor who joined, like taxi drivers, sex workers, migrant workers and pizza delivery boys within Bangkok, who also happen to be from the north and north-east Thailand.
The Red Shirts suddenly came to represent all those who had silently slaved away to build Thailand's economy and got nothing for it but contempt from the Bangkok elite for being 'unclean and illiterate'. On April 19, when the army made an attempt to clear the protestors, 21 people, including four soldiers, died and the authorities had to beat a hasty retreat. This was becoming a bloody mass struggle.
Things came to a head in the second week of May when the protestors dismissed a government offer to dissolve Parliament by September this year and hold elections by November. The violence was finally sparked off by the assassination of General Khattiya Sawasdipol or 'Sae Daeng', a serving army general who had openly come out in support of the Red Shirt movement. He was shot in the head, ostensibly by an army sniper, while talking to a group of journalists, causing outrage among the Red Shirts, who immediately set up barricades on several Bangkok streets in preparation for the imminent army crackdown.
It was a completely unequal battle between 30,000 armed soldiers and snipers, and a few thousand Red Shirt youth, some of them armed with catapults and Molotov cocktails. It was not surprising, therefore, that of the 54 people who died in the five-day violence, all but one were civilians, many of them shot by army snipers from high-rise buildings, in what is perhaps the most unethical dimension ofthis State repression. Indeed, journalists too were reportedly targeted by snipers.
In frustration, some of the retreating protestors set fire to various buildings in Bangkok, including the Central World, Thailand's biggest and South-East Asia's second largest shopping mall. There were also mass uprisings in various towns in the provinces, with government buildings set on fire.
What next for Thailand?For the time being things have quietened down in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. The leaders of the Red Shirts have surrendered, but by no means has the conflict ended. There is a strong sense everywhere that in the days and months to come, the Red versus Yellow battle will continue and could even lead to a full-fledged civil war.
This silence is deceptive. The movement was too big, and the sacrifices too many, to die a sudden death. There are several unresolved issues for peace and normalcy to return so easily. First is the issue of fresh elections and under what conditions they would be held.
The Democrat Party of Abhisit Vejajiva is not capable of winning a national election all by its own. Though the elites want electoral democracy to give themselves respectability on the global stage, they are deeply afraid of the consequences of ordinary citizens having a say in who will come to power. Given the popularity of Thaksin and the numerical superiority of his followers, the Puea Thai is sure to win, though many of their leaders have been banned or put under arrest.
Plus, there is the contentious issue of whether or not to restore the 1997 Constitution, arguably the most democratic in much of Asia and one that was forged through widespread public consultation. The Democrat Party and its backers among the Thai elite want the new Constitution imposed by the military coup of 2006 to continue since this is advantageous to them.
Besides, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been around for over six decades. He is sick and his death is likely to set off a bitter war for succession within the royal family. Though they have not said anything against the monarch directly, the Red Shirts have accused some of the king's closest aides, like former army general Prem Tinsulananda, of actively pushing the 2006 coup against Thaksin.
A long-term issue that is at the root of the current crisis is that Thailand has a serious economic and power gap between its urban and rural areas. Bangkok, the capital, accounts for 70 per cent of the country's total GDP and it is the Bangkok elite who have always had their say in how the government is formed and run - something that the rural-based Red Shirt movement has strongly challenged now.
The blatant absence of political representation of marginalised sections of Thai society like farmers, workers and the urban poor continues to be a big contradiction. A simple survey of the spectrum of political parties in Thailand can easily prove that every one of them is a front for one business lobby or the other. In this scenario, Thaksin Shinawatra had - for reasons of his own - given voice to the pent-up demands of Thailand's rural and urban poor. Ironically, it was a capitalist espousing a Leftist agenda. Currently, the Red Shirt movement has gone beyond Thaksin's personal business and political ambitions and marked a paradigm shift.
If it can regroup under a competent leadership, then Thailand will witness the birth of a new Left/progressive party or a coalition for the first time in decades. If the movement does not crystallise under one banner, with a clear set of political demands and vision for the future, the disgruntled Red Shirts could dissipate their energies in acts of vandalism and even terrorism, thus reducing both Thailand and their own hopes to a bloody, chaotic mess.