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Analysis: Thai Protests Underscore Deep Divisions


Thailand is once again in the grip of political unrest. The country has been on a political pendulum and has vacillated between civilian and military rule for many years.

Last year thousands of opponents of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, sporting yellow t-shirts, took over Bangkok's two airports. The move shut down the country's air links for a week and severely damaged Thailand's vital tourist industry. They claimed victory when the pro-Thaksin government was forced out by a court ruling.

Now it is the turn of Thaksin's backers, who are besieging the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva which took power four months ago. A new state of emergency was imposed after red-shirted protestors, much to the government's embarrassment, broke into the venue of a Southeast Asian leaders summit in Pattaya Saturday and forced the meeting's cancellation.

Some analysts believe the two camps are divided by economic and geographic factors. Matt Gertken, East Asia analyst for the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says the Thaksin's supporters are primarily rural and poor from northern Thailand, while his opponents tend to be middle to upper class and urban. "I think that the driving factors behind this kind of ceaseless convolutions in their politics are deriving mainly from the provincial and rural base, and its contests for power with Bangkok and the urban base," he said.

But other analysts are concerned that the current upheaval is symptomatic of deeper divisions within Thai society.

Duncan McCargo of the University of Leeds in Britain is one of the leading Western analysts of the intricacies of Thailand's politics and society. He says portraying the unrest as a clash between the urban rich and rural poor oversimplifies a complex situation.

"What's going on here is that Thai society has been split down the middle. And down the middle doesn't just mean between particular parts of the country and different social classes, although that's one dimension of it. But down the middle means that families are split, husbands and wives can't talk to each other about politics, people who have been childhood friends, meet regularly, socially, have done so for decades, can't really get together anymore," he said.

Thaksin, a billionaire who was accused of corruption and ousted in a 2006 military coup, is now calling for a revolution.

Gertken says the two main institutions of enforcement, the army and the police, are split. "In general it's safe to say that the military is anti-Thaksin, while the police, the national police, have been relatively supportive of Thaksin. In part that's because Thaksin was formerly a policeman, and in part that's because there's always been a tension between that national police and army at least in the last 50 years in Thailand," he said.

In some past political crises, the country's constitutional monarch, King Bhumiphol Adulyadej, has intervened. The king has no power, but is greatly revered and wields enormous moral authority.

But the king, who is now 82 and the longest-serving monarch in the world, has been silent. Why hasn't he intervened? Duncan McCargo says the king must be careful about how he uses his influence.

"The difficulty is that the monarchy can't get out too far ahead of public opinion and popular sentiment. If you were to try to make that kind of intervention in a very highly polarized situation like this, it would be dangerous for everybody because you haven't got the basis for a national consensus. It's very difficult to reconcile those two groups of people. Any sort of intervention that was made by a member of the royal family would struggle to adopt a middle position. And without adopting a middle position you're only going to have the potential to polarize things further," he said.

Former prime minister Thaksin has been broadcasting nightly to the protestors from exile, spurring his supporters on as the crisis deepens.

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