A Deeply Divided Society: What Next for Thailand?

The clearing of opposition camps last week has not resolved Thailand's problems.

May 24, 2010 — -- What began as a protest of the poor has become a mass movement. It is more than just farmers and laborers from northern Thailand who take to the streets as "Red Shirts" -- business people, students and members of the middle class are also revolting against Thailand's political culture and against the influence of the military and the urban elite.

The Reds have no clear command structures. They are a magnet for the disenfranchised, many of whom yearn for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and feel excluded from the networks of power in Bangkok -- from a system in which the graduates of private schools and military academies take all the influential positions.

They are united by their anger with the current government under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was elected not by the people, but rather only by the parliament -- following dubious intrigues by the military. And they are united by a common opponent: the pro-establishment Yellow Shirts -- an alliance of civil servants and the urban upper classes who portray themselves as staunch monarchists.

Deep Divisions Run Through the Military

But Thailand is not just struggling with the possibility of new elections -- Thailand is struggling with itself. The population, the army, even the monarchy are divided. King Bhumibol, who has reigned since 1946, remains silent in public -- his wife is widely seen as a friend of the Yellows. The crown prince, on the other hand, is reputed to sympathize with the Red Shirts.

The deep divisions that run through the military were recently revealed when Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol was suspended because he sided with government opponents. His death by a sniper's bullet made him into a martyr for his followers. Even Thailand's army chief General Anupong Paochinda has acted indecisively -- first coming out in favor of new elections, as the demonstrators have demanded -- and then publicly siding with Prime Minister Abhisit during a TV appearance.

The country is also divided because Thailand's parties are dominated by influential men whose powerbases are built on cronyism in their home provinces. That was also the case under Thaksin, the exiled multi-millionaire from northern Thailand who is now warning of a nationwide guerrilla war.

The Press Has Failed to Inform the Public

It is the structural problems plaguing Thailand that make the future look grim: an army that regularly intervenes in politics (Thailand has had 18 military coups since 1932); a constitutional court that professes to be neutral, yet allows itself to be used for political purposes; a population that is raised to be loyal subjects -- loyal to the king, not to the constitution. The press also fails in its duty to inform the public. Insulting the monarchy can result in a prison sentence; this keeps critics quiet.

The crisis has not been resolved, it has merely shifted elsewhere. The Reds started dozens of fires late last week in Bangkok, rioted in the northern provinces and torched town halls there. Nine bodies were found in a temple in Bangkok on Thursday -- 16 died the previous day during the crackdown on the revolt.

If new elections were actually held this year, then it would simply mean that the Reds would be in the government and it would be the Yellows who would be out protesting on the streets.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen