Thailand’s very unity is now under threat
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Jan 25th 2014 | CHIANG MAI | From the print edition
STOUT and loquacious, Khamsi Audomsi runs a roasted-banana stall in the covered market of San Kamphaeng, a small town just outside Chiang Mai, the main city of northern Thailand. In front of where she fries up, a greasy wall is festooned with posters and calendars devoted solely to the Shinawatra clan: Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister deposed in a coup in 2006 and now in self-imposed exile, and Yingluck Shinawatra, the current prime minister, who takes orders from her older brother in Dubai.
Thanks to Mr Thaksin’s policies, Ms Khamsi says, her family’s prospects were transformed. A student-loan scheme allowed both her son and daughter to go to university, a family first. Now their relatively well-paid jobs help to pay for her health care. And for this, Ms Khamsi repays Mr Thaksin and his sister with her undying loyalty. She was a founder of the “red shirts”, Mr Thaksin’s grassroots political movement.
It is the sort of story you hear time and again in northern and north-eastern Thailand: how Mr Thaksin’s social policies, dismissed as mere populism by his opponents, helped people to escape poverty. Chiang Mai and the 16 provinces around it are almost solid red-shirt territory; the 20 provinces of Thailand’s poor north-east, a region known as Isan, are even redder (see map). The flames of devotion burn brightest in San Kamphaeng, for this is where the Shinawatras come from and where they return to be buried.
Ms Khamsi and her fellow red shirts are looking forward to the general election on February 2nd. (Ms Yingluck called it in an attempt to break the political deadlock that has gripped the capital, Bangkok, since November.) They can renew their vows and demonstrate once again the strength of the red shirts and the supporters of the ruling Pheu Thai party. Parties run by Mr Thaksin have won every election since 2001, precisely by dominating the rural north and north-east.
For that very reason the anti-Thaksin forces are boycotting the election altogether. Led by a former MP, Suthep Thaugsuban, they have staged mass protests in Bangkok in hopes of ousting Ms Yingluck. Mr Suthep and the Democrat Party, the main opposition, argue that Mr Thaksin’s money has poisoned the electoral process and say they will only participate after the system has been cleaned up. Their disruptive tactics may yet cause the election to be postponed or even cancelled.
Mr Suthep launched his crusade three months ago, at the time of the government’s cack-handed attempt to force through a bill granting Mr Thaksin amnesty for convictions for corruption and abuse of power. In reality, Mr Suthep’s protests are just the latest round in an increasingly bitter struggle for the political soul of the country, between the northern red shirts and an ultraroyalist establishment that controls much of the capital and the southern provinces. The struggle is turning ugly again, and risks splitting the country in two. At least nine have died as men of violence creep on to the stage with sniper rifles and bombs. Each side blames the other for these shadowy provocateurs. On January 21st Ms Yingluck declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and its surrounding districts.
Although the red shirts will dutifully vote on February 2nd, they are mostly focused on how they might protect their government, and Ms Yingluck, from the coup that they are all expecting. A coup might be a military one, under the pretext of stopping violence escalating in Bangkok. Or it might be a judicial one, with the courts barring Pheu Thai politicians from taking office because of alleged offences against the constitution. Both have happened before, and the red shirts see both the army and the courts as tools of the Bangkok political establishment.
If Ms Yingluck, who was elected in a landslide in 2011, is forced out of Bangkok, she will be welcomed in Chiang Mai, where she will be encouraged to keep on governing as the legitimate rival to whoever takes over in the capital. That might trigger the split between north and south.
Indeed, many red shirts say Bangkok is already lost. Mr Suthep has nearly free rein there, closing down most government offices. The police have charged him with insurrection and seizing state property, but no attempt has been made to arrest him. The imposition of a state of emergency for 60 days may not make much difference.
Thus most red shirts in the north and north-east now contemplate—indeed they seem to be preparing for—a political separation from Bangkok and the south. Some can barely wait. In Chiang Mai a former classmate of Mr Thaksin’s says that in the event of a coup “the prime minister can come here and we will look after her. If…we have to fight, we will. We want our separate state and the majority of red shirts would welcome the division.” Be afraid for Thailand as the political system breaks down.