The pillars of smoke that marred the Bangkok skyline on Wednesday were a symbol of the political challenge facing Thailand.
The military storming of the Red Shirt protest camp and the arrest of the movement’s leaders has been treated as an anticlimax. What was far more significant was the inability of the Thai security forces to control the looting that followed and the sympathetic violence that broke out in cities in the northwest. Putting an end to the Red Shirts’ occupation of a section of downtown Bangkok was the easiest task facing the Thai authorities. The real problem is that the land of smiles is formally a house divided. The Red Shirt protests have come to represent the economic disaffection and regional aspirations of north and west Thailand, areas that constitute a third of the population.
These areas now see the exiled populist Thaksin Shinawatra as their leader and the present Bangkok regime as illegitimate. Throughout the crisis what was striking was the inability of any of the country’s national institutions to provide a bridge between protesters and government. The legislature and the military were either silent or paralysed by internal divisions that mimicked those playing out on the streets. The most telling silence, however, came from the royal palace where serious questions can now be asked about how much reverence the Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, commands in his country’s outer fringes.
Thailand is a standard tale of a Southeast Asian tiger whose coastal elite oversaw an economic miracle. However, they failed to write the sequel that was to develop modern political structures. The Thais liked to claim that being the region’s sole monarchy was actually a source of political stability. The truth is out. The political system proved unable to accommodate Mr Shinawatra or find an acceptable platform for the fringe provinces. This was a polity waiting for a crisis to happen. With any luck the Bangkok leadership will accept that they need to overhaul their system, make it genuinely more representative and more flexible than it presently is. The Red Shirt movement has thrown up a new tier of non-establishment political leaders that can be engaged by the government. The Thai leadership’s political sensibilities need to undergo rapid evolution if they don’t want the battle of Bangkok to be replicated on a national scale.