from Asia Unbound

What’s Rallying Thaksin’s Supporters?

March 09, 2010

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In the wake of the February 26 court decision seizing the majority of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s assets, the whole Thai political class is wondering what happens next, and Thaksin’s supporters are promising to bring hundreds of thousands of protestors to Bangkok next week. After the decision, and the expected protest, can Thailand heal its increasingly sharp divisions?

I don’t think so. Wandering through Chiang Mai, the biggest city in northern Thailand – and Thaksin’s traditional power base – virtually everyone I met was in a fighting mood. Outside one of the city’s oldest temples, groups of working-class men – noodle stall owners, tuk-tuk drivers, construction workers – dressed in red, Thaksin’s color, had camped out semi-permanently, selling souvenir paraphernalia bearing Thaksin’s face to earn a bit of money. In other words, fighting Bangkok had become their life – and once a cause becomes your life, it’s a lot harder to compromise.

The court decision, which left Thaksin with the money he’d made before becoming prime minister, was, according to some Thai elites, a kind of compromise, since it would allow Thaksin to retire a very rich man. The government thus seemed to be counting on either Thaksin exiting the political scene because his fight was only about getting back his assets or his supporters being mollified by the court. A few Chiang Mai businesspeople told me that Thaksin had been allowed to keep the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars, suggesting that maybe Thaksin didn’t have it so bad – the exact response the government wants.

But working class Thais, the foundation of Thaksin’s support in office and now in exile, weren’t buying it. Some offered surprisingly sophisticated analyses of the political situation. One tuk-tuk driver, whose three-wheeled taxi was festooned with Thaksin memorabilia, told me that the Bangkok government had accused Thaksin of having the telecommunications company he’d run, Shin Corp, profit from the gains in the Thai stock market when he was prime minister, but when the market went up all manner of companies, including many owned by Thaksin’s enemies, did well. Another tuk-tuk driver wondered why the courts had spent so much time investigating Thaksin but seemed to pay little attention to allegations of graft against a range of figures in the Democrat Party, which now rules the country.

Yet another Chiang Mai local, who owned a small convenience store, offered a sentiment I heard many times across northern Thailand, saying simply, “The government [in Bangkok] thinks [Thaksin supporters] are stupid, that they can just shut us up and we’ll accept it, like in the past.”