The clashes between red-shirt protestors – mostly trucked in from impoverished north and northeast Thailand – and the current regime drew to a bloody close, as was expected. But now it seems certain, too, that the drama that played out in the nation’s capital the last two months is not an end but only an opening chapter to a new epic that, without serious political compromises, threatens to turn into a full-scale rural revolution.
For too long the city of Bangkok has floated in a kind of First World wealth – replete with sky trains, high rises, luxury condos and marbled mega malls – while its rural populace stayed stilted in the mud of Third World poverty. If anything, the greatest fiction the Land of a Thousand Smiles has managed to tell itself and the rest of the world is that it is a bona fide democracy. But what’s behind that infamous smile is an ancient feudal system that’s been built on the roan backs of peasants for a millennium.
More important, that system relied on the lower class's continual servitude and, in some way, their acceptance of a deeply embedded caste system in which reverence for the king, who is accorded god-like status, translated to the reverence for all folks in higher social strata. The caste and status consciousness, as construed by a simplified if misunderstood religious idea in which past karmic debts sent one to a permanent level of society, is so deeply ingrained that it is reflected in the Thai language itself.
However, that old superior-inferior fiction is eroding and eroding fast. In the last decade or so, what was once remote and rural has been integrated with the rest of the world, thanks in large part to the distribution of electricity to even the most remote areas – provided from sparsely populated Laos next door with its mega hydroelectric dams – which brought TV, radio and Internet and the cheap and ubiquitous cell phones, information being the true form of democracy. Those who once lived in isolated thatched huts are thus highly aware of the wide urban-rural gap, and they possess a deep and growing sense of injustice, which in turn undermined the status quo.
More important, it’s a populace that has become increasingly politicized, thanks chiefly to ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A populist and a multibillionaire, Thaksin introduced effective policies that alleviated rural poverty by half in four years, and, equally enticing, implemented universal health care.
Born in the northern province of Chiang Mai, he also did something else that was unprecedented: He gave the long-suffering rural population visions for upward mobility and shared governance that broke the karmic yoke.
That didn’t sit well with the Bangkok power elite. Not only does it threaten to rewrite the old social order, it threatens to undermine Thailand’s very narrative of itself, its framework, and they reacted. Despite the fact that Thaksin won his second election in a landslide in 2005 with the largest voter turnout in Thailand’s history, they ousted him while he was traveling overseas with a military coup in 2006 and froze his assets. He was found guilty of corruption in absentia.
In December 2007, a pro-Thaksin prime minister was popularly elected to office in the general election. His victory was met by massive protests, this time by protesters wearing yellow shirts who disagreed with the election, claiming fraud. Members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the “yellow shirts” chose the color to honor Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Representing a more urban population – in many ways the educated and white-collar class – they blocked the airport for days and stranded nearly 250,000 tourists. The constitutional court, under pressure to get the country moving again, agreed with the yellow shirts and disqualified the pro-Thaksin prime minister.
Ever since then the Thai government has been busy clamping down on the media, harassing independent journalists, and shutting down Internet websites. But it’s all too late. Thaksin – perceived by some as the devil himself and by others as a national hero – is indeed a divisive character but he cracked open Pandora’s box, and the anger and rage that sparked and flew could no longer be contained.
Before the deadly clashes, the red-shirted protestors who occupied central Bangkok for weeks displayed a talent for political theatre with the color red. It was everywhere. They collected buckets of blood from volunteers and then splashed them at various government agencies. When some red-shirt protestors were shot – by laser-guided rifles from roof tops – their coffins, too, were painted red and paraded across the city. After all, those who lived off the land for generations understand the importance of blood. It symbolizes sacrifice, and sacrifices are all important to bring up new crops, appease the gods and spirits, and engender renewal and transformation.
Before the final showdown, CNN interviewed a woman, a mother of two, who sat behind the red-shirt barricade. Was she afraid the army was going to attack? "We want democracy,” she said. “If they do [attack] I would like them to kill me. I am not afraid." It is the voice of martyrdom, steeped in the language of blood sacrifice.
Now that the army had moved into the protesters’ stronghold and mowed down those who resisted, it seems the battle is lost, and the war has only just begun.
NAM editor, Andrew Lam, is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and the upcoming memoir: East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres due out in September. He visited Bangkok in Early April 2010.