Befitting a nation that promotes its beaches and smiles, Thailand is undergoing a social revolution in slow motion. Though there was bloodshed in Bangkok the past few weeks, political deaths have been a rarity in the struggle between Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his exiled predecessor Thaksin Shinawatra. But the larger backdrop to their battle means Thailand won’t experience peace for some time now. Political patch-ups will be temporary as Thailand is now a nation deeply divided over the future character of its society.
Until recently, Thai politics was seen as an unserious combination of uncompetitive democratic parties and a mild military, overseen by a benign monarchy. The past five years showed that all this hid the existence of two Thailands. One was a Bangkok Elite that controls the institutions of government and preserves its domination through selective repression. The Other Thailand was revealed in the successive election victories of Mr Shinawatra. This was a largely rural populace, untouched by Thailand’s economic success and denied a genuine political voice for decades. Mr Shinawatra’s populist measures and anti-establishment rhetoric aroused the political consciousness of this formerly passive Thai underclass. Regional and class lines have now hardened to the point that Mr Vejjajiva’s own populist palliatives are failing to paper over these differences.
Thailand is ripe for revolution. If its establishment is intelligent about it, it can ensure this social change is nonviolent. The continuing strength of ‘red-shirt’ support among the peasantry of the Isaan region and Bangkok’s working poor indicates that the social genie can’t be put back in the bottle. There needs to be a recognition that a society where the top fifth of the population controls two-thirds of all wealth isn’t sustainable. And that a system where citizens of certain class and regional backgrounds had no representation in the ruling structure is doomed. Compromise won’t be easy. Mr Shinawatra was rightly criticised for authoritarian tendencies when in power. The evidence of a new red-shirt leadership is a positive fallout. But will there be anyone among Bangkok’s ancien regime who is prepared to grasp the nettle of change — before violence becomes the norm rather than the exception in the Thai revolution? Let’s hope so.