Who could think badly of Thailand? The people are lovely, the beaches divine and the green chicken curry outstanding. The country’s apparently troubled political history of serial coups and quick-vanishing constitutions, say its many admirers, is not as bad as it appears. It masks an odd kind of stability that has made Thailand a favoured destination for foreign investment and foreign vacations alike. True, there is poverty and great disparity of wealth. Where in south-east Asia isn’t there? But the people appear pretty content with their lot, and at least no one is starving. Even the current prime minister, the Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, seems like a thoroughly decent chap, and terribly dishy to boot.
Now take a cold shower. No one would begrudge the goodwill that many people have for the Land of Smiles. But warm and fuzzy sentiments towards Thailand are increasingly at odds with reality. How else to explain the relative equanimity with which the world has just witnessed Mr Abhisit’s government crush those calling for elections (of all things), shooting dead more than 60 civilians?
There has been little of the international condemnation that followed last year’s crackdowns against pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran, let alone those in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Imagine the outcry if, in Greece, the rowdy anti-austerity demonstrators had been mown down with sub-machine guns.
Certainly such comparisons are imperfect. The situation, like any messy confrontation, is far from black and white – or yellow and red in the Thai parlance. The colour codes do not tell the whole story. Analysts too readily reach for simplistic explanations of city versus countryside, peasants versus an urban elite, and republicans versus monarchists. Doubtless too, as Mr Abhisit’s government maintains, the red shirt pro-democracy movement does contain a violent fringe. Though many of the demonstrators terrified into surrender on Wednesday were unarmed women, some of the young men were carrying sharpened staves and homemade explosives. Hotels and other public places have been attacked. It is also true that Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted former prime minister in whose name many of the demonstrators rallied, is a deeply flawed poster-boy for democracy. As prime minister from 2001 to 2006, he was accused of using his power to favour the businesses of his family and associated cronies, while Thai police were blamed for thousands of extra-judicial killings in the name of a war on drugs. Thailand’s Supreme Court sentenced him in absentia to two years in jail for conflict of interest. Technically that makes Mr Thaksin the fugitive from the law Mr Abhisit’s government says he is.
But this is far from the whole story. Those who would now simply call for calm and a return to the status quo ante must face other facts. First, Mr Thaksin was the most popular prime minister in Thailand’s history, the only one to serve a full term and be re-elected. He was ousted, in traditional Thai fashion, by a military coup in 2006. In subsequent elections – after a laughably haphazard period of military rule – a government loyal to Mr Thaksin came to power. That administration, and the following pro-Thaksin incarnation, were both dissolved under dubious clauses of the military-imposed constitution. Those who did not want anything to do with Mr Thaksin finally got their way in 2008 when the government of Mr Abhisit – which has yet to win a popular mandate – was stitched together in a parliamentary deal.
Second, and almost more telling than the way in which Mr Thaksin and his political allies were bundled out of power, is the fact that the red shirt protesters clearly represent legitimate social grievances. Attempts to portray the tens of thousands of mainly poor Thais who took to Bangkok’s streets as “terrorists” or paid mercenaries of Mr Thaksin simply do not wash.
Mr Thaksin was a catalyst for the political empowerment of Thais – mainly, but not exclusively, from the north and north-east – who had previously been excluded from the magic circle of political and economic power. That is why the relatively modest policies he put in place – such as cheap healthcare and better access to credit – won him almost fanatical allegiance. To brand Thaksinomics as merely populist bribes for a rented rabble is condescending. For those desperately seeking to cling on to their comfortable existence, it is also self-serving.
Unlike in previous stand-offs, Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s revered king, has not acted to calm the situation. That may be, as some contend, because he is old and in failing health. Just as likely, he has judged that the forces of Thailand’s underclass cannot, this time, be so easily contained. By Wednesday night the streets of Bangkok had returned to a sort of calm. Yet few could mistake this for any kind of resolution of the underlying tensions. At best, such resolution will require fair elections – and respect for the result. At worst, it will mean more bloody confrontation, in Bangkok or in the countryside. Even the most ardent fan of Thailand must realise this isn’t over yet.