Political wounds linger in Thailand

Analysts agree that Thailand is witnessing growth of a political voice from rural areas.

    Many from Thailand's rural communities have filled the red shirt ranks [EPA]

    A nearly four-kilometre arc of road that cuts through the historic part of Bangkok, the Thai capital, has brought into sharp relief a political wound that is far from being healed in this kingdom.

    This was the site of the largest anti-government protests the country has seen in years.

    Sandwiched between the parliament to the north of the stately, tree-lined Rajadamnoen Avenue, and the iconic four pillars of the Democracy Monument to the west, it is the area that an angry legion of protesters has occupied since March 13.

    They have been demanding that the coalition government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister, step down or call a new election.

    At stake is a question of faith in this South-east Asian nation's parliamentary system.

    But the red-shirt wearing members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) are not the first protesters to gather in the streets in this divided country of nearly 68mn people.

    Recent political trends

    The current clash between the streets and the legislature is the latest in a trend that emerged shortly before the country’s last military coup in September 2006 - which forced out of power the then-twice elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - and shows little signs of abating.

    During his time, Thaksin was hounded by yellow-shirt wearing protesters who held round-the-clock protests across parts of Rajadamnoen Avenue, accusing him of corruption, nepotism and the abuse of power.

    This time, the red shirts, whose numbers swelled to 150,000 at the height of their round-the-clock rally since the weekend, literally spilt blood to make their point that the 15-month-old Abhisit administration lacks legitimacy.

    Tuesday's blood sacrifice by the thousands of UDD supporters was an innovative move in the ongoing Thai style of civil disobedience against a sitting government.

     In the heat of the baking tropical sun, UDD leaders and their supporters lined up near the main protest site to donate blood that was collected in 48 water containers.

    Afterwards, thousands of assembled red shirts spilt the blood from some of these containers near the entrance to the nearby Government House, the prime minister's office, as a symbol of "sacrificing blood for Thai democracy," as one UDD supporter said.

    "The blood of the red shirts is warm, but the blood of Abhisit is cold," Natthawut Saikua, a co-leader of the UDD, told journalists about a political act never witnessed before down Rajadamnoen Avenue, site of many large street protests going back to 1973.

    Show of political strength

    Thousands of demonstrators lined up to donate blood in a show of protest [GALLO/GETTY]

    "The red shirts have become a powerful player on the political stage. They cannot be ignored anymore," says Michael Nelson, a German academic who has written on Thai political parties.

    "Nobody would have imagined in the early 1990s that the rural people who are red shirt supporters today would have come out to show their political strength."

    "They were never considered an important factor in previous years as a group that will assert their political views," he says. "They were totally quiet."

    The blood 'donation' protest followed an earlier march by thousands of red shirts to a military camp where Abhisit had taken refuge during the protests. They had given the prime minister a noon deadline to dissolve the parliament and call for new election.

    But Abhisit stood firm. "This government was set up and backed by a majority of MPs (members of parliament) in accordance with the constitution, the same way as the previous two Cabinets," he said, to justify why the dissolution of parliament was not the answer to Thailand’s political problems.

    But his words have had little impact on the protesters, whose supporters from the rural north and north-east and Bangkok and its suburbs have lost faith in the political system due to the manner in which Abhisit emerged as premier some 15 months ago.

    Cobbled together

    The ruling coalition was cobbled together by a deal shaped by the country's powerful military in an army camp in December 2008, rather than through a popular mandate at a general election.

    It followed a controversial court ruling that led to the dissolution of a political party backed by the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin, which had won the general election in 2007.

    The triumph of the military-backed Abhisit administration over Thaksin's allies was the second time that voters who supported Thaksin, many of whom are UDD cadres, saw their elected party forced out through non-electoral means.

    The first moment of disenfranchisement came during the 2006 coup, the country's 18th putsch.

    Thaksin, who is living in exile to avoid a two-year-jail term for corruption, remains widely popular among voters in the rural north and north-east due to a raft of pro-poor policies he implemented during his five-and-a-half- year term in office.

    The former telecommunications tycoon has since emerged as the political godfather of the UDD.

    Restoring democracy

    Despite the heavy odds they face, UDD supporters like Parada Cinghin, who was among the nearly 80,000 men and women from the rural north and north-east who rode to Bangkok last week in an unprecedented convoy of red, are prepared to stay the course to "restore Thai democracy through elections, not with the military's help."

    "I slept for three nights on the street to show my support," said the 60-year-old grandmother who had served in diplomatic postings for the Thai foreign ministry. "There are others like me here who gave up the comfort of our air-conditioned homes to do this for the first time."

    "We are prepared to stay longer if we must," added Parada, who lives in the north-eastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima. "If we cannot get the government out this time, we will try again."

    Analysts who have followed the latest street protests of the red shirts agree with the sentiments voiced by Parada.

    "What we are seeing is a very impressive show of numbers, faces and emotion that is not going to disappear," says Chris Baker, a British academic who has written extensively on Thailand.

    "It shows that Thailand's political community has expanded to include a large number from the rural areas."

    "There is no easy ending; no final battle going on," says. "This is a continuation of a trend caused by the coup, because for a large number of people parliament has lost its legitimacy."

    Published under an agreement with IPS.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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