Saturday, May 22, 2010

Thailand and its Red Shirts

Michael Hennigan at a red shirts' rally in central Bangkok, Saturday, April 03, 2010

British-born Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was a contemporary of British Prime Minister David Cameron at Britain's top public school, Eton, and at Oxford University.

The son of medical professors who was born in Newcastle, had what is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory this week in the ejection of the Red Shirt demonstrators of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, from the centre of Bangkok, involving a death toll of 80 people.

Abhisit became prime minister in 2008 through the violence and judicial shenanigans of his elite, aided by the 193-day protest of his yellow shirt supporters that culminated in a 10-day siege of Bangkok's airports, which brought down an elected government that was widely supported by the poor.

The Financial Times Asia columnist David Pilling commented this week: "There has been little of the international condemnation that followed last year's crackdowns against pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran, let alone those in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Imagine the outcry if, in Greece, the rowdy anti-austerity demonstrators had been mown down with sub-machine guns."

Thaksin Shinawatra, a member of a wealthy Chinese trading family from Thailand's second biggest city, Chiang Mai, became a police chief and then a billionaire telecom entrepreneur, before wining an election in 2001, by appealing to the poor of Thailand. He was the only prime minister since the end of absolute monarchy in the Kingdom of Siam in 1932, to serve a full term and be re-elected in 2005. He was ousted in a military coup in 2006.

Military rule was a shambles and following a general election, a pro-Thaksin party, People's Power Party (Thailand), led by Samak Sundaravej formed a government with five smaller parties in December 2007. Samak was disqualified from office by the Constitutional Court of Thailand in September 2008 for accepting a fee for being a host of a TV cooking program. Opposition politician Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister with the support of the army and the yellow shirt protesters in December 2008 and appointed a leader of the movement as his foreign minister. Other leaders of the middle class protest movement also escaped sanction.

The Red Shirts recent protest began in March and their principal demand was for an early general election. When I saw the protestors in early April, near the Central World shopping centre, Asia's second-biggest which was set on fire this week, they ranged from young to old and it was clear that the thousands of farmers who had made the journey from the rice fields of the north and norh-east, must have had deep grievances.

Thaksin had likely been corrupt and had waged a war on drugs involving many extra-judicial killings. In a society where there is a huge gulf between the well-off and the poor, he however, won the allegiance of poor farmers and the urban poor through cheap healthcare and better access to credit.

So after winning three elections, the poor viewed Abhisit Vejjajiva's uunelected government as a dictatorship of the wealthy.

Thailand's popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was born in the United States in 1927, is said to be in poor health and has not intervened in the crisis.

Fair elections and a fairer society, can only end the fracture in a country that calls itself, Land of Smiles.