Bangkok - News footage from Thailand's capital, as dramatic as it appears fails to capture the sheer dimensions of the Red Shirt rebellion. The insurgents' encampment stretches more than a mile along the Rajdamri corridor, a continuous neat line of white canopies that provide shelter from the blazing sun and protect the food stalls serving satay skewers, broiled squid and spicy curries. The base camp for protesters from "up-country" runs past the now-closed elite Hyatt Erawan, Four Seasons hotel and the Central World mega-mall - a stark contrast between the power of the poor versus the luxury-addicted elite.
Across the capital and throughout Thailand, red is the color of populist revolution on the banners over tire barricades, flags fluttering from motorcycles and bandanas worn by the tens of thousands. Symbolically, the hue is gradually turning from crimson to saffron, however, as increasing numbers of monks take to the streets in protest of the military-backed government's refusal to call snap elections.
The focus on parliamentary elections and the role of the exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra tend to overshadow the fragmentation of this diverse country, not just along class lines. The majority of protesters are from Isan, the historically arid and poor Northeast, where the dominant language is Lao. The thumping music has a distinct burlesque humor and inhabitants tend toward darker complexion. The vast swath of pastures, cassava fields and khao niew, glutinous rice that does not require wet paddies, was once an integral part of the Khmer Empire.
Isan, which comprises about 60 percent of the electorate, has been Red Shirt territory ever since the megaprojects introduced by Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party pulled the region out of poverty following the Asian financial crisis. The northeast quickly became the center of the biofuel boom, as local industrialists converted cassava root into ethanol and bio-gas. Thailand is one of few countries where all filling stations provide 20-percent gasohol.
Being mostly farm folk, the protesters from Isan have little exposure to air conditioning and can therefore handle the 100-degree temperatures and high humidity of Bangkok. The lower ranks of Thai Army, as well, are predominantly from Isan and have strong sympathy for Thailand's rural poor and ethnically marginalized communities.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjavija's Democrat Party is increasingly reliant on the Islamic populations of the three southern provinces and the "river Muslims" of Bangkok. Recently, a leading imam voiced his opposition to the Red Shirts. During last year's street fighting, deadly political clashes erupted outside a major mosque. Those shootings were payback for Thaksin's war on drugs, which had focused on Muslim-run drug-trafficking networks. Throughout Southeast Asia, coastal and river navigation is dominated by Muslims with their seafaring tradition. Informal commerce - smuggling - is a natural part of that profession
Thus the most alarming prospect for Thai street politics is the widening religious divide. Most analysts have overstated the role of Shinawatra as tycoon, ignoring the fact of his being a devout Buddhist aligned with the powerful Dhammakaya movement. During the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, this monastic community famously collected gold jewelry to enable Thailand to pay off its debts to the IMF. Quietly, Dhammakaya was a major force in the formation of the populist Thai Rak Thai, which has since evolved under different names after repeated banning by the electoral commission.
The present impasse with its resort to violence could trigger an open showdown between Thailand's two major religious communities. In event of an ongoing, religion-fueled civil war, it’s certain which side will win. Unless a truly representative Parliament can be elected and restored soon, the politics of the street will inexorably lead to Buddhist domination, much like what has happened in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In Sri Lanka, a similar alliance between the post-colonial elite and a minority religion led to the downfall of both. Anyone still naive enough to believe in Buddhist pacifism need only look at how the Tamil uprising was finally put down.
The royal house of Thailand has depended on its alliance with Buddhist monastic power since the assassination of King Taksin the Great, who liberated Thailand from Burmese occupation in the mid-18th century. That union of temple and throne is now in tatters, with royalist supporters becoming disturbingly involved with Hindu-based worship practices, such as the use of magic talismans and incantations, while on the ground the elite rely on Muslim militias recruited from the underworld to fight the separatist Islamic insurgency in the South and to counterattack the Red Shirts in the capital.
Unlike the island nation of Sri Lanka, Thailand was assembled by seizing territory from its neighbors - the Malays, Laotians, Cambodians and Burmese., not to mention dozens of tribal groups. A disunited Thailand is a temptation for regional conflict. Unless the elite yields its untenable privileges and accepts a secular democracy, populist Buddhist militancy will radically alter the political and demographic landscape. The Land of Smiles could soon become a vale of tears.
Yoichi Shimatsu is former editor of The Japan Times Weekly in Tokyo