What next for Thailand?

Mail & Guardian Online

Dec 09 2008 06:00



The Thai crisis that has paralysed Bangkok’s airports, devastated the economy and polarised the nation between the monarchists and the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra camp is far from over, despite a court ruling disbanding three of the parties in the government coalition and forcing the prime minister’s resignation.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International airport has now reopened. The thousands of yellow-clad demonstrators, who dramatically occupied and closed down all flights at the airport a week ago demanding the PM’s resignation, won their demand to unseat the alleged “puppet government”.

The country’s highest court dissolved the three major ruling parties including the party of prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, for vote-buying and corruption during the last election campaign in December 2007.

The controversial court ruling was delivered at a time when Somchai’s government had ceased to govern, amid escalating violence and mounting rumours of a military coup in this highly coup-prone nation.

The last military coup was just two years ago when the military seized power, urged on by monarchists, leading to the ousting of billionaire prime minister Thaksin in 2006, accused of serial corruption, and offending the monarchy. Although PAD stands for People’s Alliance for Democracy, PAD leaders would have welcomed a military coup once again, despite that fact the country has already endured 17 coups since World War II.

While the PAD has finally agreed to hand the international airport back to the Thai authorities, Thailand’s bitter political polarisation and hatred between pro- and anti-Thaksin camps remains unresolved. Mobilising against the yellow-shirts of the PAD are the red-shirted supporters of Thaksin, under the banner of the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DADD).

The wearing of yellow by the PAD signifies a deep reverence and allegiance to the king. The gap between these monarchists, the middle-class elite and the bright lights of Bangkok — the bastion of the “yellow army” — and the great majority of citizens living in rural areas with insufficient schools and lack of affordable healthcare — the constituency of the “reds” — has become a mighty chasm of mutual class hatred which many fear could soon descend into mass bloodshed and civil war.

So, what next for Thailand?

Not only the economy, but all the institutions that should support democracy have taken a savage battering. The courts have lost credibility and are no longer accepted as neutral by millions of Thaksin supporters. The political parties were seen to be corrupt and incompetent. It seems that only in Thailand can some 5 000 demonstrators overwhelm security forces at a major international airport in spite of all modern-day terrorist alerts, and so easily chase away attempts by the police to enforce a public emergency and evict the demonstrators. Senior police officers are fully aware that rich and powerful patrons funded and sustained the airport seizure.

The middle class in the developing world has long been identified as a major catalyst for democratisation against dictatorship. But electoral success in the vote-rich rural areas of Thaksin and Thaksin’s allies has convinced many sections of the middle class and the ruling elite to endorse a regression back to a more limited democracy. The PAD is clear in its intent to dilute the voice of the majority. They have become contemptuous of the “ignorant, easily-corrupted masses”.

This attempt to thrust Thai democracy into reverse gear has already pushed Thailand to the brink. The only way to avert more bloodshed is for the PAD to abandon its arrogant elitism and alliances with the military. And the best antidote to Thaksin’s people would be the building of bridges across the urban-rural divide and a much-needed dialogue with the countryside. — © Guardian News and Media 2008



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