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Thai population polarized as Bangkok violence rages

MinnPost Asks: Gerald Fry

Bangkok's Central World shopping mall was gutted by fire after army soldiers advanced towards an encampment of thousands of anti-government "red shirt" protesters on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Bangkok’s Central World shopping mall was gutted by fire after army soldiers advanced toward an encampment of thousands of anti-government “red shirt” protesters on Wednesday.

Because of the political violence raging on Bangkok’s streets, 19 University of Minnesota students missed their flight this week to a seminar in Thailand. Their trip was canceled.

About 45 people have been killed during the past week and hundreds injured in the clash between government forces and Red Shirt protesters who seek the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They favor former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who himself was ousted in a 2006 military coup.

Gerald Fry, the professor who would have led the Minnesota group, has made more than 50 trips to Thailand, sometimes living there for years at a time. His 2005 book, “Thailand and its neighbors: Interdisciplinary perspectives,” is one of several he has written about Southeast Asia. He also has written articles about Thailand for the Harvard International Review and other publications.

MinnPost: Not only are groups like yours canceling trips, but guests at the upscale Dusit Thani hotel in Bangkok had to take shelter in the basement this week. Other hotels have closed completely. This has to be devastating for Thailand.

Gerald Fry:
Tourism is about 7 percent of their GDP, and in the last couple of months they’ve lost about half of that business. … Thailand has so many appealing dimensions, that tourists will come back once things return to normal. But it’s a very tough blow.

MP: What is the core of the conflict?

For the first time in Thai history, a political leader — Dr. Thaksin — has totally polarized the population. The people who love him obviously are willing to die for him. The people who hate him — the Yellows — protested for months and brought down the government supporting him. This polarization is deep.

I know both the current prime minister and Dr. Thaksin personally. They are well-educated men, very bright people. … But people like me — who have sympathies for both of them — are very far and few between in Thailand.

MP: Still, this isn’t entirely new. Hasn’t Thailand seen 22 coups since 1932?

There was violence in 1973, 1976 and 1992 — but these events are outliers over a long, historical period. So violence is rare. Now it is spiraling out of control.

MP: One clear difference this time is the weakened state of Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. He is 82 years old and reportedly in poor health. Is his decline a factor in the crisis?

Gerald Fry
Gerald Fry

GF: In all of those previous periods of violence he stepped in and said basically, “Stop the fighting, make up, and go home.” In 1992, he called the different factions to the palace. They were on their knees. He told them to stop fighting, and they did. But because of his illness and other reasons, he has chosen not to act on this one so far.

MP: I can’t help but draw parallels to English literature and think about Thailand in a Shakespearean sense — that a malaise falls upon the land when the king is weakened.

It is almost Shakespearean. The Thais are loving, kind people. Now they are fighting it out on the streets of Bangkok. The city has become a war zone.

MP: One take on this crisis is that Thailand is undergoing a class struggle in which the rural masses are bent on overthrowing the elite hierarchy, which includes the king. I doubt that because even the rural people I’ve met in Thailand seem to adore the royal family.

You are quite right in your perception. They love their royal family. … Even so, there is a class dimension to the current conflict.

During the global economic crisis, the disadvantaged have suffered. The king traditionally had been very active in his efforts to visit remote areas and help disadvantaged people. … In a way, Dr. Thaksin, has taken over the populist agenda of the king at a time when it is not easy for the king to be out there in the countryside.

A Buddhist monk who was detained by Thai army soldiers stands with his hands tied during an operation to evict anti-government "red shirt" protesters from their encampment on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A Buddhist monk who was detained by Thai army soldiers stands with his hands tied during an operation to evict anti-government “red shirt” protesters from their encampment on Wednesday.

MP: Isn’t the true explanation simply that in Thailand — as in Iran and many other places — a skilled politician has rallied the uneducated masses to work his will?

Yes. Dr. Thaksin is tremendously wealthy. … The rumor is that the demonstrators are being paid 500 bhats (about $15 U.S.) to 1,000 bhats a day. I don’t have any hard evidence to support that. But keep in mind this is the dry season in the north so they can’t do any farming. So this is potentially employment for people from rural areas.

MP: What are Thailand’s options?

What would make the most sense would be a coalition government where the two sides actually sat down and compromised. But the hatred is so intense it would be difficult to work that out. … Even if the Reds lose, they are still going to be angry, and they could carry out sabotage throughout the country. So it’s really a mess.
MP: How do Thailand’s neighbors see this?

A lot of travelers use Bangkok as a gateway for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In that sense, this is horrible for those countries. They want it to be resolved and quickly. … But neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations never interfere in each other’s politics. So this is an internal affair that the Thais are going to have to figure out on their own.

Sharon Schmickle covers international affairs, science and other subjects for MinnPost.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/20/2010 - 09:26 am.

    What happens next, what Abhisit does, or does not do, will matter far more than the last few days.

    The protests are over, but the social divides have only deepened, and to the pre-existing grievances and sense of injustice, whether well founded or not, has been added anger, frustration and a perception of deep double standards. The Reds manifestly were not treated the same way as the Yellows whose earlier protests proximately set in motion the protests of the last couple of months.

    Thai politics are quite impenetrable to foreign analysts and tend to ignore the culture of bargaining in Thailand. Any compromise must realistically satisfy key power centers, whether that is democratic or not is another question.

    A relatively optimistic scenario would be elections, leading to a “red shirt” type government that shows moderation and avoids immediately challenging the interests of opposing powers. Then Thailand might enjoy a return to a new period of peaceful growth and, hopefully, reforms that benefit the poor.

  2. Submitted by Kevin Reichard on 05/20/2010 - 03:19 pm.

    For a much better look at this conflict by someone actually on the ground in Bangkok — a former Minnesota journalist, Jack Kurtz — check out his excellent blog: Jack’s a frequent visitor to the area (he took his vacation time at the Arizona Republic to spend two months in Bangkok and the region) and a very astute political observer.

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