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The bitter divide in Thailand
Publication Date : 05-12-2013
This week’s clashes in Thailand highlight unforgiving divisions that may take generations to heal.
Traipsing the streets of Bangkok has become something of a lifelong habit.
I first visited in the mid-1970s and was there most recently towards the tail end of 2012.
Most of my traipsing occurred when I lived there from 1988 to 1990 and yes, I can assure you that back then One Night in Bangkok really could make a hard man humble. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was one of Thailand’s most stable periods of democracy.
The gentleman conservative PM Chatichai Choonhavan presided over a democratically-elected coalition government and Thailand seemed to have finally overcome a legacy of more than a dozen military coups (both attempted and successful ones) which led to lengthy periods of military dictatorship under Plaek Pibulsonggram, Sarit Thanarat and Thanom Kittikachorn who between them held power for most of the time from 1938-1973.
I developed an interest in the period of time that began in October 1973 following the fall of Thanom and ended with a bloody crackdown in October 1976, three years later.
Under the admittedly unstable multi-party democracy led by the Pramoj brothers, Kukrit and Seni, the country enjoyed political and social freedoms like never before.
Many interesting figures like the assassinated socialist Boonsanong Punyodyana and beauty-queen-turned-guerilla-turned-poet Chiranan Pitpreecha were prominent during this time. However in the late 1980s, Bangkok was in the throes of a major industrial boom.
Rapid construction, nascent democracy, the glamorous Miss Universe Porntip Nakhirunkanok and boxing twin champions called Galaxy were interspersed with then heavy smog and massive traffic jams to create a unique if not entirely lovable vibe.
Sadly, Chatichai Choonhavan was removed by power-hungry general Suchinda Kraprayoon in 1991, and I dare say the political situation has never quite been as promising since.
These past few years, however, have seen Thailand’s economic prosperity peppered with bouts of crazy violence. First of all, the heat turned up on the separatist movement in Thailand’s southern provinces, claiming an estimated 6,000 casualties in attacks that began in 2004.
Then, following a military coup against tycoon-turned-populist Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, the political landscape shifted yet again, with pitched battles between pro-Thaksin Red Shirts and anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirts often occurring right in the heart of a slick, new cosmopolitan Bangkok.
There were some ironic political alliances with Thailand’s left wing rallying behind Thaksin and its middle-class largely stacking up against him.
The latest violence comes as current Pheu Thai PM Yingluck, Thaksin’s younger sister, fights off yet another round of Yellow Shirt agitation prompted by an amnesty Bill making it easier for him to return.
Former deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban led an unruly round of protests that resulted in four deaths and resurrected simmering tensions.
Asia News Network editor Yvonne Lim is in Bangkok now, drinking it all in: “I think when the Yingluck government moved to pass the amnesty bill, that was what prodded the sleeping dragon awake.
“But the discontent was there all the while, just lying low and seething. I hear it when I talk to taxi drivers about how they have to work their lives away just to send their kids to university because the ‘economy is so bad’, when I talk to the street vendors about how they cannot afford to take holidays even to Malaysia because they can’t afford it.
“On the outside, the country looks like it’s progressing. There are hi-tech malls, advertising is top notch, but there are lots of people still struggling to survive. And then you also see the discontent in the almost weekly yellow shirt protests. The fact that they’re protesting every other week must mean something. These are the people – the urban poor who are angry with a government who won popular votes among the rural folk, but not in the capital.”
Indeed, many members of Thailand’s middle class are pushing for a non-democratic takeover because they are so opposed to the Shinawatras!
“If a coup really happens, I support what’s going on because our country can only progress if this corrupted government is going out. However, the government has so much money to support their own side that things can’t really change. It’s a corrupted democracy. For real democracy, we need cleaner politics,” said Supanuth Chuerattanakul, 25, a social entrepreneur who lays the blame firmly on Thaksin and his family.
“The more educated generation of Thais receive the right information and we want the opposition to win.
“The current government party is buying people, which is not what the country wants. If the opposition wins, there might be another riot but we are prepared for it. Thailand won’t grow unless we stop the hatred between the people. The people are fighting because of Thaksin’s family. Once Thaksin’s family is away, we will have more peace.”
Yet another ceasefire has been drawn, but it appears very temporary with both sides calling it a victory.
Leftist intellectual Giles Ji Ungpakorn believes that Yingluck’s government has come up trumps.
“On the government’s side, the fact that it refrained from using violence against the unruly mob of royalists is very much to its credit and it has strengthened its position on the moral high ground. Its legitimacy far outweighs the royalist thugs already because the government was clearly democratically elected, while the royalists call for a dictatorship.”
Prosperous, beautiful Thailand needs to find a stable pathway, one that acknowledges the will of the people and the need for compromise, or chaos and bloodshed could pay an unwelcome visit.