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Thailand's Uneven Democratic History Continues


As the Thai government and opposition protesters move toward a reconciliation agreement, attention will shift to plans for elections. The protesters, dressed in red, say democracy was stolen from them. But just a few years ago, yellow-dressed protesters were trying to remove red-supported leaders they said had corrupted democratic institutions. Political analysts say despite the rhetoric, both groups fall short of democratic ideals.

Thailand has a patchy history with democracy.

Since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the country has fluctuated between elected, appointed, and military governments. The military has spent the most time in charge.

There have been 18 coups or attempted coups.

"The reason we've seen so many coups throughout the decades is that bureaucratic cliques have competed for control of the state," said Michael Montesano, a researcher at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "The most powerful bureaucratic cliques were cliques of soldiers. The reason they were most powerful is that they had the guns. And, most coups in Thai history have been a matter of competition between cliques in the Thai army vying for power."

Most of the red-shirted protesters now on Bangkok's streets follow a group called the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship.

UDD leaders say it is a working-class movement opposed to the military and urban elite, which they say robbed the majority of the right to elect political leaders.

A coup in 2006 forced the red shirt patron, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, out of office. He lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.

For nearly two months the "reds" have blocked off a central commercial district, demanding elections. Deadly clashes with security forces have scared away tourists, damaging the economy.

Some of the protesters want the charges against Mr. Thaksin overturned and for him to return to power.

Andrew Walker, a professor of politics at Australia's National University, says while the demand for elections is democratic enough, the protesters' relationship with Mr. Thaksin raises doubts about their commitment to democratic principles.

"The difficulty in the Red-Shirt political campaign is the reputation Thaksin has in some quarters for not respecting basic democratic institutions and being a super-rich businessman who, in a sense, is manipulating his electoral followers," he said.

The Red Shirts' blockade mimics methods used by yellow-shirted protesters who call themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy.

Two years ago the Yellow Shirts blockaded the main government offices for months. And their one-week occupation of Bangkok's international airport cost the country billions of dollars. Within weeks, court rulings ousted two governments close to Mr. Thaksin.

The Yellow Shirts claim to fight against politicians like Mr. Thaksin who they say damage corrupt democratic institutions and challenge the authority of Thailand's revered monarchy.

Yet the Yellow Shirts made clear they do not want majority rule. They want to change the parliament into a mainly appointed body rather than an elected one.

Danny Unger, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Illinois, says for many Thais, democracy is a zero sum game.

"To a large extent it's a fight about power despite all of the talk about ideology. On both sides, the bottom line, or at least for very critical groups of supporters, is a question of who is going to control the critical levers of power," he said.

The Red Shirts demanded elections within three months. On Monday, the government offered a reconciliation plan that includes holding elections in November.

The Red leaders have indicated they will accept the offer. But a final deal may depend on such issues as an independent investigation of violence that occurred during the weeks of protests, and an amnesty for the protesters.

Still, for the first time since the protests began in March, it appears Bangkok may soon return to normal. The threat of long-term political tensions and violence appears to be fading for now.

However, many political analysts, and Thai voters, fear that even if the protesters go home and elections are held, the country's problems will not be over. A Red-Shirt victory at the polls, they say, may well provoke new Yellow-Shirt protests, starting the cycle over.

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