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Thailand's Protesters Highlight Rifts, Political Participation

Recent protests in Thailand have raised questions about the development and stability of the country's democracy. The demonstrations were sometimes violent and highlight a growing division within the Thai population. But they also mark a transition in citizen participation in the country's politics.

Demonstrations last year by yellow-shirted protesters who flooded the streets of Bangkok and seized the international airport, hurt Thailand's image as a tourist destination.

It was an act of defiance that damaged the economy. But it succeeded in removing from power those leaders who the protesters say were populist and corrupt.

Then earlier this month, red-clad anti-government demonstrators embarrassed Thailand's new leaders by forcing the cancellation of an Asian summit and making Bangkok's streets look like a war zone.

They failed to oust Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, but his Democrat Party spokesman Buranaj Smutharaks acknowledges the country has deep divisions.

"We do not deny the fact that Thailand is still a country divided as well as there is a large discrepancy between the haves and have-nots. There's a large rural-urban divide," he said. "We're undergoing one of the most difficult economic crises that the country has ever faced. And, I think all these factors play into the general state of discontentment with the rural populace."

The red shirt protesters are mainly from the countryside and say the current government is illegitimate because it was brought to power by parliamentary procedure rather than through popular vote.

They are supported by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and fled Thailand to avoid an indictment on corruption charges. He remains admired in the countryside for providing cheap social services such as health care.

But even some of those who support Thaksin's policies on subsidies say the protests are adding too much damage to Thailand's already battered economy.

Khun Achara is pregnant and she credits Thaksin's leadership for introducing a low $1 fee for her medical check-ups. But at a small hospital outside Bangkok, she told VOA she, nonetheless, wants the protests to stop.

She says since the protests disrupted the economy her salary has gone down by half. She says her family would normally earn almost $800 a month but now she is only taking in about $300. Her husband earns only $170 because factories cut expenses like overtime pay.

Although the red shirts claim to represent the Thai countryside, many Thai farmers are not interested in protesting.

At a small rice paddy outside the Thai capital, a farmer stands on the back of a motorized plow, guiding it like a chopper motorcycle though the muddy soil that supports his family.

When asked if he supports the protests, he tilts back his straw hat and wiggles his bare feet, colored gray from the mud.

He says farmers are only concerned about having a good price for their rice. He says he does not pay much attention to politics.

But, like many Thai people, he acknowledges the demonstrations have encouraged him to pay closer attention to politics.

Tim Meisburger, the regional director for the Asia Foundation, says increased public participation means Thailand's democracy will be the real winner in the conflict.

"A lot of people that never before were involved in politics have been involved in politics directly in these demonstrations whether yellow or red. And, that's something new for them. That is empowering to them," he said.

Meisburger says the protesters are more likely to be involved in politics in the future and to vote. And he says that will strengthen democracy in Thailand.