Monday, December 27, 2010

Thailand’s great political divide

Published: February 22 2010

The village of Pracha Suksan, deep in Thailand’s rural north-east, remains solidly behind Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial prime minister who was removed in a military coup in 2006.

Tension between the government and Mr Thaksin’s supporters, known for their trademark red shirts, has been growing as the Supreme Court prepares to hand down a verdict on February 26 that could strip Mr Thaksin of Bt76bn ($2.3bn) in assets.

Some 30m of Thailand's 65m people live in the rural northeast, a hard-scrabble region of rice farms and cattle plots. A group gathers in front of the village shop in Pracha Suksan to talk politics and drink tea in the dusk. Preecha Nakhawong, 56, farms cattle. He believes that the courts and the bureaucracy favour the rich. “They don’t want to give us the same standards because, as it stands, it is easy for them to control us,” he says.

Mr Thaksin's opponents say that he bought the votes that got him into power, but Sayan Chanakiatpaisarn, a local businessman, denies that he has received anything but basic expenses from the group's Puea Thai party. He says he has swapped his Mercedes Benz for a pick up to fund the political cause, and likes to unbutton his T-shirt to show the scar of the heart-bypass surgery that cost him Bt30 (less than $1) under Mr Thaksin's cheap healthcare scheme.

Mr Thaksin is currently in self-imposed exile, avoiding a two year sentence for breaching conflict of interest laws while he was in office. He says the charges were politically motivated, and he remains hugely popular in Thailand's rural heartland. “He is honest and he is a man of the people,” said Mr Sayan, who acts as a red shirt organiser in the northern province of Shakorn Nakhorn.

The government used troops to suppress rioting red shirts in April last year. Red shirt officials blamed agents provocateur, but the riots damaged their cause. Pictures such as this travelled round the world, dealing a savage blow to the country's investment potential and crucial tourist sector. The red shirts say they are better organised this time and are working to avoid confrontation.

The red shirts have set up groups in places such as Pracha Suksan to create a more disciplined organisation and to promote the rural poor. Rieungchai Ohnchairat (centre, sitting at table) is a 62-year-old navy veteran who now runs a local community radio station. The red shirts have used local radio stations to promote their political message, and to counter the coverage of national broadcasters, which are overwhelmingly pro-government.

Although political analysts tend to use a shorthand of rich/poor, urban/rural to describe Thailand's political divide, the truth is more complex. Many anti-government protesters are middle class people, who might be put off by Mr Thaksin's demagoguery and the allegations of corruption, but believe that he won a democratic election and should be able to fulfil his mandate. Similarly, the ruling Democrat party always has a strong electoral showing among the rural poor of the country's south.

Mr Thaksin's populist policies including cheap health care, village loans, and streamlined bureaucracy won him the support of a part of society that had been long ignored by Bangkok's politicians. Political analysts quote a saying that "the country elects governments and Bangkok removes them". Analysts say that if there is a general election in the near future, Mr Thaksin's supporters are likely to win, but they warn that powerful forces will resist that happening.

"We think it is possible that the army will try and mount a coup, but we have the determination to stop them," said Jintana Ownchairat, right, 57, a housewife. Since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, there have been 18 coup attempts, 11 of them successful, 18 constitutions and 27 prime ministers. The army has been accused of engineering Mr Abhisit's December 2008 rise to the office of prime minister by persuading a group of erstwhile Thaksin supporters in parliament to change sides.

Sithasak Srisongbat, 57, is a cattle farmer in Pracha Suksan. “The elite groups don’t understand democracy, where every vote is equal,” he says, and denies the charges that villagers are paid for the votes they cast. “We vote for the candidate that we think will be good for us.”

Mr Thaksin's reputation as the CEO-Prime Minister carries a strong appeal in villages such as Pracha Suksan, where they have seen little of the benefits of the past 30 years. One of Sakorn Nakhorn's largest exports is labour: thousands of young villagers leave the area to find work, some travelling as far as Taiwan to work in electronics factories, or Israel to pick fruit.

The red shirts want to bring down the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister they say was brought to power by unelected elites in Bangkok, but they harbour surprisingly little animosity for the man himself. “He’s a good and capable man, but he can’t do much because of the people behind him,” said Preecha Nakhawong, a farmer.


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