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The Passion of the Red Shirts: Enter the Military and Exit the PM (Again)?

30,000 Red Shirt Protesters
30,000 Red Shirt Protesters

Thailand:  Over the last week the situation in Thailand has deteriorated, with as many as 24 people dead and over 800 injured since the new round of Red Shirt protests begin over 2 weeks ago.  A protest that started off with a festive atmosphere slowly descended into violence, with grenade attacks, and security forces and protesters firing live rounds at each other in the street.   There have also been millions of $US lost in revenues due to the traffic paralysis created by thousands of Red Shirt protesters in and around the central tourism and business districts.  The protest have also shut down parliament.

In a nation where the economy shrunk 6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009, Thai business interests are becoming alarmed.  Fitch Ratings has downgraded the Thai currency from stable to negative due to the situation in Bangkok.  The Set Index,  the Thai Stock Exchange,  has also started to stumble.  Tourism, which accounts for up to 6 percent of Thailand’s GDP, is taking the brunt:

The tourism industry has been most directly affected, with the number overseas visitors slumping by as much as 70 percent following a clash between soldiers and protesters on April 10 that took 24 lives, according to a government spokesman.

Hotel occupancy in Bangkok is down to 20 percent at a time when it is normally at 80 or 90 percent, the spokesman, Puttipong Punnakan, said.

In defiance of a emergency decree from Prime Minister Vejjajiva, the Red Shirt leadership is threatening to protest in business district on Tuesday, which is close to their de facto headquarters.  Red Shirt leaders leaders say it will be the largest demonstration to date.  This is after a weekend of violence  There are already troops patrolling the area, and taking strategic positions along the parameter of the district.  Reversing course from statements made last week by Gen. Anupong Paochinda, the military has publicly stated that if the protesters defy the decree they will crackdown.

Commonly and practically, the political divisions are viewed as the result of class stratification.  The Red Shirts’ base of support being centered in the poor rural hinterland of the northeast, while the current party in power and their supporters are generally, called “Yellow Shirts” (yellow being the color of the monarchy), are generally urban, elites and supporter pro-monarchy (“Amatayatippatai” in Thai).  Still, the issue is a bit more complex:

Thaksin[ousted former PM], a hard-driving telecommunications billionaire, symbolized new wealth in Thailand, which has developed an antagonistic relationship with the scions of older power, who tended to look down on nouveau riches like Thaksin and his close associates. The struggle also is a regional divide, between Bangkok and central Thailand on one hand and the north and northeast, historically possessing different dialects and cultures, on the other hand. And, in a larger sense, the red shirts represent not just the poor but Thais who feel they’ve been excluded: excluded from the benefits of globalization, which has worsened Thailand’s income inequality; excluded from political decision-making, which is concentrated unhealthily in Bangkok; and excluded from the traditional levers of power–the judiciary, the army, the civil service, and the monarchy, all of which tend to be highly conservative.

Still,  for many in Bangkok, the Red Shirts have “worn out their welcome”:

Many Thais have become frustrated with the government’s inability to control the red shirts after its failed attempt to disperse them a week ago and a bungled operation that failed to arrest some of their leaders. All the leaders escaped — one of them lowered by rope from a hotel window — while two high-ranking police officers were briefly taken hostage.

A new faction in Thailand’s color-coded protests, the “no colors,” emerged on the streets of Bangkok during the past week, mostly middle-class demonstrators who are demanding that the government take action to restore order.

There is even a small vigilante movement forming, called the Civilians Protecting the Country, which has stated it would take “strong action against the red shirts” in support of the military, in the event of a crackdown.

As stated in previous posts, the Red Shirts might be evolving away from a purely pro-Thaksin Shinawatra movement, the ex-PM who was deposed in a 2006 coup,  to a general government reform movement.  In truth, Shinawatra was a  corrupt populist who gained the support of the poor, through largess, to the antipathy of the urban elite.  Many still see him as backing the movement, but in it appears the Red Shirts are amassing funds from grassroots sources.  Still, Shinawatra does meet with Red Shirt supporters on the Thai/Cambodian border for strategy sessions.  The Cambodian government has sponsored him for several months as an “economic adviser” to Cambodian PM Hun Sen.  Sen has had his own problems with the current Thai ruling party.

Thailand has little growth in its workforce, so the bargaining power of lower-income groups is increasing. Bangkok’s middle class now has to rely on maids from Myanmar to cook and clean. Income distribution is actually no worse than the average in developing Asia — and better than in neighboring countries like Malaysia and China. Moreover, the Thai economy has been growing steadily. But in Thailand’s open and homogeneous society expectations have been growing faster.

Although future predictions for Thailand are quite murky, what is likely is that PM Abhisit Vejjajiva will soon be out of a  job.  Although he will not want to give in to the Red Shirts demands to dissolve parliament and call for new elections, he may be forced to step down.  His party, The Democratic Party,  is already in trouble, facing possible dissolution after having been found guilty of corruption by the Election Commission. However,  the decision must be  approved by the Attorney General’s office and the Constitutional Court.

The corruption charges are especially profound in light of the fact that the “Yellow Shirts” were ushered to power after former PM Shinawatra lost the favor of the 82 year-old Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. This and massive “Yellow Shirt” protests led the military to depose Shinawatra.  The central issue of the “Yellow Shirts”:  corruption.

There have been 3 governments since the military coup in 2006.  If the current king passes away before these issues are resolved Thailand may face even greater political chaos, because the king is the institution that tends to mediate caustic political disputes.  He can do this due to the reverence Thais hold for him and the vague role of the monarchy as defined in the constitution.  The same will not be true for his son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn  is viewed as hot headed and erratic, deeply unpopular.

It goes without saying that stronger institutions, such as the courts, need to be reinforced to replace an over-reliance on the crown.  Thailand also needs greater federalism, not just to resolve this issue, but to mediate the ongoing conflict in the Muslim south.  If the elites do not come to terms with the fact they need to share power in Thailand with different classes and ethnicities, even beyond the potential violence of the next few day,  these issue will continue to boil to the surface, keeping Thailand in perpetual instability to the detriment of all Thais.

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Comments (3)

  1. Thai Songs Thursday - 20 / 05 / 2010 Reply
    However the current violence turns, the situation is destined to remain volatile for years to come because the two sides are about equally split. If no compromise acceptable to both sides is reached, it could lead to widespread conflict, perhaps even civil war.


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