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Thailand: Cracks in the mirror
Publication Date : 08-12-2013
Some time in early 2006, over breakfast one morning, as rumours of a military coup swept across a city sweltering in the summer heat, my informant leaned forward and wagged his finger at me.
"All you need," he said, "is 10 tanks and a thousand men controlling 10 sq km of central Bangkok - and you control the entire country."
That has been the irony of Thailand for generations.
Elites have frequently battled for power in Bangkok, often over the bodies of innocents - in 1973, 1976 and 1992 for instance - while the world has watched, appalled at and possibly puzzled by the violence wrought by a seemingly relaxed and tolerant culture.
While the capital seethed, it was business as usual in the rest of the country. As bullets flew on the streets of Bangkok, tourists on faraway islands enjoyed slow sunsets, beach massages and sighing seas.
The unrest rarely made more than a superficial dent on the Thai economy. In 2010, throughout the fierce battles in Bangkok that left 92 dead, factories in the country's industrial parks and on the eastern seaboard, the heart of its export sector, never missed a beat.
In the current tumult, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban's calls for a general strike have fallen flat.
Yet, the political battles of recent years have challenged the fundamentals of Thai society, peeling back the layers of carefully cultivated homogeneity and congeniality, exposing the fault lines of an essentially feudal nation making a halting transition to egalitarian democracy.
Thailand's ruling class is colliding with the new political awareness and assertiveness of a usually acquiescent population, and contending with the twilight of an institution from which it derives its legitimacy and social status - the monarchy.
Thai politicians, anticipating a vacuum as the monarch ages, are jostling for positions of advantage. When I asked a senior Thai politician what would happen after 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is no longer here, he sighed and said: "Nobody in Thailand will listen to anyone any more."
I came to Bangkok in 2003, two years after billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra came to power, approaching politics like a business. For his ambitious embrace of the free market, he was the darling of the business community. He was also a hero of the rural masses in the country's north-east, who felt they had not been given the time of day before then, by any government.
On one of my first trips to the north-east, which remains the bastion of Thaksin's support, a villager told me: "We know politicians are corrupt, but at least Thaksin works for us."
Another villager told me how the universal health-care scheme started by Thaksin, which charges 30 baht (US$1) per visit, had saved his life, enabling his heart surgery. Academic and author Chris Baker said the scheme turned health care into a right for poor villagers, rather than a privilege of those with money.
For the rural masses, the sense of empowerment has fuelled a fierce loyalty to Thaksin, which has been transferred to his sister Yingluck, now the Premier. Said an anthropologist friend: "Thai bureaucrats had always seen themselves as servants of the King. Thaksin forced them to change, to accept that they are servants of the people."
Days after the coup d'etat of September 19, 2006 that ousted Thaksin, I visited a northern province to gauge the response to the army's takeover. I sat at a round table at a community centre on the outskirts of a small town, together with half a dozen farmers.
The rural masses are often made out to be simple uneducated rabble by the Bangkok elites and upper middle class. These farmers did not have the best education, but they were well-dressed and well-informed, they owned their own pickup trucks, and their sons and daughters were studying or working in Bangkok or even abroad.
And they were bitter that their electoral choice had been kicked out by the army. The "red shirt" movement, which emerged in a backlash to the coup that ousted Thaksin, calls this phenomenon "Ta sawan" or "eyes open".
Old habits die hard, though. In 2008, after Thaksin's second surrogate political party had been dissolved by a court, and Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva had been voted to the prime minister's chair in Parliament - to the sobbing rage of Thaksin's supporters who were outside lobbing rocks into the grounds - I met a senior Democrat Party MP, Dr Charoen Kanthawongs, a prominent lawyer.
When I asked him what the answer was to the obvious geographical divide between Bangkok and central Thailand - areas that have a high number of Democrat supporters - and the north and north-east, which lean towards Thaksin, he said he was not too worried because "you see, people in the north-east are employees of people in Bangkok".
"My servants are from the north-east. Petrol station attendants in Bangkok are from the north-east."
In other words, the "servants" would know their place. This has been a common refrain. In 2010, as pro-Thaksin red shirts gathered in Bangkok to demand that Mr Abhisit step down, a woman who was among a group of royalists gathered in a small counter-demonstration told me angrily: "Those people owe their jobs to us."
In the capital, Thaksin is a relative outsider from the northern city of Chiang Mai. Impatient, ambitious and increasingly overbearing and authoritarian, he was partly responsible for his own downfall.
In 2003, he raised eyebrows when he gave the Royal Thai Police - an agency notoriously corrupt and quick on the trigger - carte blanche to crack down on drug traffickers. More than 1,000 suspects were killed, many of them innocent. When the United Nations expressed concern, he snapped: "The UN is not my father."
Then came the Malay-Muslim uprising in the south in 2004, during which Thaksin seemed to condone harsh crackdowns by security forces. At one point, he tried to blame Ramadan fasting for the "weakness" of 78 Muslim youths who died of suffocation in military trucks.
Displaying a certain amount of hubris, he boasted that he could stay in power for 20 years. He was seen handing cash to children on his tours of upcountry rural communities. At one time, he and his Cabinet colleagues alone accounted for well over 10 per cent of the market capitalisation of the Thai stock exchange.
When he sold his company Shin Corp in 2005, he cited a loophole that exempted him from paying tax - which enraged hundreds of thousands of hard-working Thai taxpayers.
As a backlash put thousands on the streets of Bangkok in early 2006, he toured his strongholds in the north-east, driving tractors and sleeping in villages, addressing cheering crowds. He told a reporter: "Look at this - I would be crazy to step down." He likened to a "barking dog" Sondhi Limthongkul, the opportunistic media tycoon and self-appointed leader of the royalist "yellow shirts" howling for his ouster on the streets of Bangkok.
But it was a different Thailand away from the north. In Bangkok, the army rolled out its tanks on the night of Sept 19, 2006, and Thaksin's days in Government House were history.
However, the army could not put back in the bottle what Thaksin had unleashed - a sense among the masses who support him of their political rights.
Since I arrived here 10 years ago, a new Thailand has emerged, one that is unwilling to accept the old feudal order. The issue goes beyond Thaksin, even as he remains a trigger of change and the most divisive face of Thailand today.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy on paper, but in reality, there is tension between its democratic process and the fact that the King - and specifically King Bhumibol Adulyadej - is the country's highest moral authority. The armed forces, the bureaucracy and the Bangkok elites, many with their royal titles, draw their identity, legitimacy and social status from proximity to the monarchy.
The hierarchical nature of Thai society is evident at the big receptions at Government House on the occasion of the King's birthday. Civil servants and Cabinet ministers turn up in their uniforms, with stripes, sashes and medallions that denote their ranks. Military officers are decked out in full dress uniform, with swords and medals. A band plays light Western classical tunes amid a free flow of wine and champagne. Within the ornate confines of the Italianate Government House, such glittering, mannered receptions seem like something straight out of a period movie.
The conflict cuts to the heart of the old paradigm, pitting the long-suffering rural masses against the urban elites in an increasingly open confrontation. In the process, old taboos have been smashed.
One night in 2009, red shirt activist Jakrapob Penkair stood atop a truck and hurled abuse outside the home of Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda for his supposed part in the coup that toppled Thaksin. Mobs hurled rocks into the compound of the elder statesman's residence - something unthinkable until that evening.
The flip side of Thailand's easy-going culture - where it is considered bad manners to raise your voice and challenge authority, and outward appearance and saving face are very important - is a dark one. Corruption is rampant, politicians and businessmen can be thuggish, and the police are a law unto themselves.
The political conflict has lifted the lid on regional divisions in Thai society as well. Many Thais are no longer content to keep their peace. The social consensus that has kept Thailand nominally united under the benevolent and all-powerful Monarch has frayed.
Yet, the culture of Thailand is often described in three words: sanook, sabai and saduak. Sanook means fun, sabai means relaxed and saduak means convenience. During the street skirmishes of 2009, which occurred during the Songkran water festival, I saw children happily splashing one another with water as red shirt mobs armed with rockets and slingshots battled troops just a block away.
Last week, overnight protesters and police who had come to blows for days were suddenly exchanging roses and hugs. But the smiles amid the mayhem are deceptive; Thailand is going through seismic change, which is bound to keep testing the spirit of sanook-sabai.
The author is Indochina Bureau Chief, The Straits Times.