from Asia Unbound

Bangkok Protests: Reading Beyond the Red

March 24, 2010

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Can Thailand get out of its seemingly intractable political crisis, now going on five years and counting? Thousands of red-clad protestors remain camped out on the streets of Bangkok, railing against the elites who deposed Thaksin Shinawatra and the subsequent government. They’ve enjoyed significant support from working class men and women in Bangkok. The elites – the army, elite business and politicians, the monarchy, the bureaucracy – have tried everything to stop them. As the knowledgeable Thailand blogger Bangkok Pundit notes, the elites tried to keep the protestors from coming to Bangkok by banning their cars, lavishing money on entertainment in the provinces to keep them in town, and other tools – though it didn’t work. Elite Bangkok media, like The Nation newspaper, portray the mostly nonviolent red protestors as rural hordes planning to pillage the capital.

I don’t see much chance of this divide getting narrower anytime soon. As I note in a forthcoming piece in the London Review of Books the fundamental truth is that most Thai elites, having tasted democracy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, are afraid of its impact. Democracy, which would empower the rural poor, would dilute Bangkok elites’ economic and social privilege, and make it harder for them to topple governments they didn’t like, a Thai tradition. At the same time, the rural poor and other red shirts have grown so furious since Thaksin was forced out in 2006 that, if their party came to power again, they likely would take any measure possible to punish Bangkok elites. And no one speaks about the eventual demise of revered King Bhumibhol, who has held the political system together.

This week, The Economist has a lengthy feature on the ailing king’s ultimate demise, but because of strict lèse majesté laws, the magazine is not being released this week in Thailand. This even though the king has publicly said that he should not be above criticism, yet in recent years royalist elites actually have cracked down harder on anyone accused of defaming the monarchy.

What’s needed, then, is both simple and difficult. Thailand needs concessions and a serious, open debate about the future of the monarchy. The king has tried to encourage this, but so far has failed. Thailand also needs to hold another election – Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva seems reluctant to call one – and for all parties, including the military to respect the results, even if a Thaksin proxy party triumphs. Elites simply will have to become accustomed to some loss of power. At the same time, any party elected mostly by the working class will have to realize that it cannot just trample on the long-held privileges of the elites, or run the risk of inflaming Bangkok sentiment again. Other populist leaders, like Brazil’s Lula, have learned as much, and prospered as leaders with a broad popular base. Such a leader is possible in Thailand – but as protests drag on, it looks less and less likely.