Thai politics widens rich-poor gap

Marwaan Macan-Markar

Vendors at a bustling municipal market in this provincial city are fairly open about the need for Thailand to have a proper democracy with regular elections. In fact many of them wear red shirts to announce their political choice. Phan Intapanya, who sells freshly harvested jasmine and sticky rice at a small shop, is typical of the men and women in this north-eastern city identifying with a cause that has deeply divided Thai politics between urban elite and rural poor. So is Amorn Rosana, who runs a shop that sells kitchenware. “There are many people here who are not wearing red today but support our movement,” adds Amorn. “They are becoming more political. They are realising the power of their vote.”

Udon Thani’s “red shirts” belong to one side of a bitter political feud that gripped this South-east Asian country through most of 2008. On the other side of this divide are the supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a movement supported by the urban middle class, entrenched elites, royalists, conservative bureaucrats and the army. The PAD’s protests through 2008, including the forceful occupation of major state institutions, succeeded in crippling a government elected to power in December 2007.

Supporters of the PAD, who wear yellow shirts, a colour associated with the country’s revered

monarch, have been openly hostile to electoral democracy. This right-wing movement scored in early December when a superior court delivered a verdict that forced the elected coalition government, led by the People Power Party (PPP), out of office.

Little wonder why the “reds” here are raging at the way the new coalition government, led by the Democrat Party, emerged. After all, it was not born of a general election, but of parliamentarians bribed to switch sides to form a new coalition that has the support of the military.

“When the People Power Party was dissolved, people here were very upset; it was a bitter feeling for us because we had voted for it,” says Kwanchai Praipanna, who runs a community radio station that has become the rallying point for this region’s defenders of democracy. The PAD has been advocating a ‘New Politics plan whereby 70 percent of parliamentary seats would be appointed, while the remaining 30 percent would be open for elections. Kwanchai and the hundreds of other “red shirts” who gather at the open, airy building, that serves as the studio, credit Thaksin for opening their eyes to the power of their votes during the 2001 and 2005 elections.

By voting for Thaksin’s party in those two elections, they received a raft of pro-poor policies that included a universal healthcare package and micro-credit schemes to open small businesses. Such a political awakening among the often marginalised rural voters here began to emerge after the 2006 coup, Thailand’s 18th putsch, say observers of local politics here. It gathered pace, and become more open and vocal, following PAD’s campaign last year, which sneered at rural voters. Yet this mental shift in the provinces is unappreciated in Bangkok, where right-wing, elite views currently dominate. “We have been insulted, treated unfairly, looked down upon. This is political injustice, social injustice,” says Kamphan Pongpan, a former elected senator from Udon Thani.