The bloody clashes between the Thai army and anti-government protesters during the past three days in Bangkok captured the underlying social cleavage between the rural poor of Thailand and the Bangkok-based power elite composed of a mix of royalists, middle-class academics, professionals and retired military officers opposed to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was deposed by a military coup in 2006.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called in the army to break up the violent protests of Thaksin followers after he declared an ?extreme state of emergency? following the attack on the venue of the ASEAN Summit in the resort town of Pattaya by more than a thousand demonstrators. The attack forced Abhisit to cancel the summit, which handed him a huge embarrassment with the evacuation of state leaders, including President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, by helicopter from the rooftop of their hotel.
The declaration of emergency made it worse for Abhisit. It poured oil on the flames as the red-shirted protesters defied the emergency. The groups of demonstrators in Bangkok surrounding Government House attacked the prime minister?s car as it made its way from the Ministry of Interior, where he made the announcement. The mob pulled out Abhisit?s aide. They were looking for Abhisit to confront him with demands for his resignation.
The attack in Pattaya undermined the claim of Abhisit, who was appointed prime minister only four months ago, that his government had restored political stability in Thailand after three years of turmoil following the ouster of Thaksin whose regime was rocked by charges of corruption and abuse of power.
Although Abhisit ordered the army to use ?soft means? and ?prevent as much damage as possible? in quelling the protests, the street clashes left two people dead and 113 wounded. The army claimed troops fired blanks into the crowds and live shots overhead, but Thaksin, speaking from exile in Dubai through CNN, accused the military of lying, saying soldiers used live ammunition.
Through radio broadcasts, Thaksin called his followers to a ?revolution,? which he subsequently explained as a ?peaceful revolution.? He told supporters he was prepared to return to Thailand immediately, but political observers in Bangkok noted that the army had less hesitation this time to move in to restore order in support of the government.
Last year, middle-class demonstrators, clad in yellow shirts, shut down Bangkok?s main airports to press for the resignation of a pro-Thaksin government that was in power at the time. The army did nothing to stop them. That government collapsed after the constitutional court ruled that main parties in the coalition should be dissolved for electoral fraud.
After the 2006 coup, the military rewrote the constitution to favor non-elected institutions and made it easier for judges to dissolve political parties. Thaksin?s supporters won a December 2007 election to restore democracy, but the courts removed two successive prime ministers. Abhisit took office last December after yellow-shirted demonstrators who supported him shut down Thailand?s two main airports for eight days and the court dissolved the previous ruling party for vote-buying.
Thailand has experienced 10 successful coups since the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. In all the military coups in 1971, 1977 and 1991, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has reigned since 1946, stepped in to end the crisis and his interventions invested legitimacy on the governments he favored. The king is reported to be in poor health, and has remained silent in the current crisis. His health is a matter of concern at a time when the influence of the monarchy as a stabilizing element in the often turbulent Thai political system is needed. This issue of the king?s role is related to the future of Thai democracy that has been taking halting steps.
The current protests have raised the issue of democracy. One of the protesters? banners declare: ?Stop Privy Council Rule, Bring Back Democracy.? The demand captures the underlying cleavage between the rural poor, who in 2001 voted for Thaksin, and the Bangkok elite, embodied by the king?s advisers on the council, whom the poor blame for the 2006 coup against Thaksin. The poor have taken to the streets to oust the Oxford-educated Abhisit, who represents the face of the establishment to the rural poor.
Thaksin was a populist prime minister who built a constituency in the rural areas with credits for farmers and health care and improved education. Thaksin has asked his supporters to overlook the corruption and abuse of power charges.
The Financial Times observed that ?the country has undergone rapid economic development over the past 20 years, empowering whole new classes of people who are now starting to agitate for their share of power.? The opposition has redefined the issue ?as democracy versus elitism.?
The Financial Times says this line ?has won the support of many Thais who do not necessarily support Thaksin but have united with his more traditional supporters in opposition to the powerful, unelected and unaccountable centers of power that back Abhisit.?
According to Hitinan Pongasudhirak, director of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, ?Many people feel that the outcome in Thai politics is determined by an old elite, and this is something that they are protesting against. This time the protesters are going against the establishment, not just Abhisit.?