THAILAND: Blue Bloods Versus New Bloods

ELIZABETH NAAI WRITES – The “Bangkok shutdown” is drawing a darker, deeper line between the country’s rural, poor, pro-government Red Shirts, and the reform-oriented Yellow Shirts.

While strong influences of sadkina (ศักดินา) – Thai feudalism – make corruption an old friend in Thailand’s national politics, reform is still a new beast whose intentions are not entirely clear.

In response to the prime minister calling a snap election to be held Feb. 2, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee staged a yellow shirt protest, saying no such election can achieve the deep reform the country’s power structure needs.

The government-aligned Pheu Thai Party, meanwhile, supports the election, calling it the only democratic means of restoring a balance of power. Its Red Shirt protestors have held their own demonstrations to make the point.

The narrative surrounding the political turmoil suggests that disparity between the country’s haves and the have-nots lies at the heart the problem. But is this narrative accurately depicting the problem?

“One man, one vote” is heavily criticized by the Bangkok elite and members of the PDRC, who argue that votes of the educated should carry more weight than those of the uneducated electorate. Not surprisingly, this attitude draws scorn from Pheu Thai’s 15 million rural supporters.

But anti-government protesters have a legitimate bone to pick with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai dominated government, as it abused public trust to generate support for proposed amnesty laws. A main aim of those laws was to let the PM’s brother (and former prime minster) off the hook for alleged corruption. As such, there’s valid concern over a party’s ability to manipulate a large, under-educated electorate, as witnessed in the showboat of American politics.

Sunai Julapongsatorn, a politician of 30 years and member of the Pheu Thai Party, essentially likens the PDRC to a leech that grasped power during a military coup 60 years ago, and clutches the “invisible hand” to win elections today. The “invisible hand” is assumedly refers to the monarchy and royalist elite because lèse majesté prohibits criticism of the Thai monarchy.

The PDRC, aka the Democrat Party, is a misnomer because it uses this “invisible hand” to eliminate its political threats, most recently the new elite of high-tech entrepreneurs and deal makers. The new elite is in some regards an existential threat to the old guard, traditional elites, who collect benefits from control of land and banking.

Discussion of politics and finances is surely a quick way to make enemies. Thus, much of the protest has been framed as the haves vs. have-nots, in dynamics of wealth and power. Lèse majesté prevents any real discussion of the “invisible hand’s” role in the political unrest, and possibly, any real chance of a serious discussion of reform.

Since 1932, 11 successful military coups, and seven attempted coups, have rocked Thailand’s political and social atmosphere. Previously successful coups were lead by a united military and the “invisible hand.” The weakened states of both institutions make a coup less likely, but that does little to ease tension on every Thai’s mind. As Red Shirt supporter Lakkana Punwichai remarks, Thais “can’t walk on the streets without fearing each other. This is also a form of war.”

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