By Brendan Brady

The two-month, sometimes violent standoff in Bangkok is over now, with the Thai military having forcibly dispersed the country’s red-shirted protestors.

The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva managed to stamp out the Red Shirts bold display of resistance, in which they occupied the city’s posh commercial centre and fended off initial military movements against their sizeable encampment.

But the dramatic, days-long conclusion to the standoff brought no resolution to the underlying divisions between the Red Shirts and their supporters, who are typically characterized as representing rural and new-money interests, and their yellow-shirted opponents, who are associated with the traditional Bangkok-led establishment.

Red Shirt protesters are welcomed home at the Chiang Mai train station 700 kilometres north of Bangkok, where the protest movement has its strongest support. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

Even as the Red Shirt leaders were being rounded-up by authorities, the opposition movement continued to have mass support in most rural areas, and the violence in Bangkok that left at least 88 dead and more than 2,000 injured appears to have only hardened their resolve.

“Before, political conflicts were just between elites, and small groups would sit down to fight it out or to compromise,” observes Puangthong Pawakapan, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

This time, she said, “it’s dividing all people and compromise is over.”

Awakening

In Thailand’s revolving door of democracies, coups and dictatorships, regimes have risen and fallen frequently. But the country’s Bangkok-dominated political establishment has largely remained intact.

The past 77 years of constitutional monarchy have seen 18 coups, while raucous protests have regularly rocked the capital since the beginning of the country’s democracy movement in 1973.

However, the incoming and outgoing factions have generally hailed from the same insular social strata, a factor that has severely limited every new government’s approach to fundamental reform, many observers say.

If, in the past, the demands of the electorate were often undermined by tradeoffs among the ruling and business elites, the sheer number of those who are today so passionately engaged in political life has complicated those kinds of solutions.

“The old magic and way of holding things together have become obsolete,” says Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“Thai society has become more complicated. Unspoken arrangements within a limited elite no longer suffice to hold the country together.”

Broad-based anger

Indeed, Montesano says, a new resistance movement with a deep grassroots foundation has emerged, uniting rural Thais — with improved access to information and travel — with a growing urban working- and lower-middle class with whom they share common cause.

A Thai soldier stands guard outside a broken bank window in Bangkok on May 21, 2010, in the days following the military crackdown. (Fayaz Kabli/Reuters)

During the protests in Bangkok, many of these rural communities, which had previously seen little room for themselves in national politics, were up in arms, holding town rallies and fundraising for the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the anti-government pressure group more commonly known as the Red Shirts.

Discontent in the countryside had been simmering for more than three years, since a military coup overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra, the last elected prime minister, who is now in hiding.

Despite being a billionaire telecom tycoon, Thaksin was seen as the first politician to have substantively dealt with the concerns of the poor.

His populism, of course, has been viewed with a large degree of cynicism. But rural communities in particular gratefully received his rhetorical overtures as well as his development funds and low-cost health care.

More importantly, in the current context, his patronage network remains a significant force behind the protests.

At the same time, though, the protest movement gained much of its strength from farmers, manual laborers and factory workers who were demonstrating a new assertiveness.

In the early, more peaceful stages of the protests in Bangkok, surprising numbers of local residents commiserated with the tens of thousands of rural Thais who flooded the capital — undermining the government’s characterization of the Red Shirts as merely hired agitators.

Even more troubling for the government and army, though, was the apparent support, both direct and tacit, for the Red Shirts by monks and even some government security personnel.

Monks carry considerable moral authority in Thai society, while the police, in numerous instances, appeared unwilling to suppress the protestors, who mostly derive from the same humble roots.

A new society?

This social awakening, says Federico Ferrara, an academic at the National University of Singapore and author of Thailand Unhinged: Unravelling the Myth of Thai-style Democracy, is leading to an inexorable disintegration of the existing social contract.

Powerful unelected people and institutions “can no longer continue to use such power to subvert the people’s will without encountering some serious resistance or inviting an angry backlash,” he says.

But how much change will be consolidated from this backlash is still not clear.

Jakrapob Penkair, a spokesman for Thaksin during his time in office and now an adviser to the fugitive former prime minister, says that the Red Shirt movement, at its purest, is not pushing simply for regime change but for “new guidelines for society.”

Jakrapob may not be the best representative of the movement, given that his vehement anti-royalist stance is not shared by most rural Thais. But he does speak to their common belief in the need for an overhaul of the country’s political life.

The Red Shirts have mobilized around a gospel of injustice. But while they have enfranchised — at least rhetorically — large segments of the population that were previously subdued, the movement has yet to show clearly how they would transform the political landscape itself.

Only that it can’t be done when the cards are stacked against them.

[Published by CBC News on June 1, 2010]