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There was a distinct atmosphere in Bangkok’s seamy-yet-bohemian red light district, Soi Cowboy, about 10 days ago. Combining a determined frivolity with a decadent languor, plus a desperate, eerie, fin de régime hedonism, it was reminiscent, perhaps, of Paris in June 1940, shortly before the Nazis arrived.
At the end of the road, where the neon lights of the girly bars give way to the whizzing taxis of the Asoke intersection, there was a vast camp of whistling and jeering protestors. These Yellow-shirted protestors were threatening to overthrow the elected Thai government of Yingluck Shinawatra and her “Red shirt” devotees. Chaos surrounds the imminent elections; the country is officially in a state of emergency. But, as Thais like to say, ”mai pen rai”. Who cares. What gives. Let’s try the happy hour at Baccara go-go bar.
And you can see why Thais have – or had – this flippant attitude. Every year seems to bring a conflict between the Reds and the Yellows; and every year it gets harder to work out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
This is probably because there are no good guys and bad guys. Anyone who tells you the ongoing Thai crisis is like a Peasants’ Revolt, or the French Revolution, and the Reds are the poor and oppressed and the Yellows are the evil bourgeois overlords, is talking total noodles.
To explain as simply as possible: Yes it is true the Reds derive much of their power, and votes, from relatively impoverished northern Thailand. Yet the Reds are led by a cabal of elite Thais, from generals to businessmen, at the apex of which stands exiled ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is Yingluck’s brother, and their extended family has allegedly made billions from peculiar telecoms deals.
These people are not the Siamese equivalent of Wat Tyler.
Equally, the Yellows, while definitely possessing a more middle-class, Royalist mindset, derive plenty of support from poor people in the south, and they also represent many urban union-members – who suffered under Thaksinite corruption.
In other words it is very complicated, and very tribal, and maybe even a little boring, which is why much of Bangkok likes to ignore the whole thing and hope it goes away, or they hope the beloved royal family – especially the revered, 85-year old King Bumibhol – will intervene and save Thailand from itself, as he has done several times before.
It is, moreover, usually quite easy to ignore the riots and protests, as they happen in distinct and avoidable parts of the city. I personally remember the strife of 2010 when 80 people died in Red-Yellow street fighting. Five blocks away, the main worry of my hotel manager was that, as she tearfully confessed to me, her restaurant had run out of sea bass.
But this time around, as the days of protests have continued, and as the Yellow protests have intensified, a new, more ominous mood has settled on Bangkok. This time, people wonder, increasingly, if nationwide bloodshed will shame the country; this time, ordinary Thais fear that the army will truly seize the streets, and Thailand – southeast Asia’s most stable and prosperous nation – will be a democracy no more (indeed the Yellows have detailed plans to limit the political franchise, i.e. to roll back democracy as we know it).
And I wonder if these doomsayers are right. Because Thailand might just be one symptom of a worldwide phenomenon: a march away from western-style liberal democracy, towards new styles of politics: especially one-party Asian autocracy, with state-directed capitalism.
The reasons are obvious. As a brand, western democracy is damaged. When developing nations look to the democratic West, they see a dwindling and weakened superpower in America. Meanwhile, Europe has economically imploded, and anyway seems determined to abandon national liberties in favour of a feeble, mincing Federation, run, ineffectively, by bankers and bureaucrats.
The contrast with the success of the Chinese/Singaporean model is stark. Autocratic China is still enjoying powerful growth: it will soon surpass America in economic size. Singapore, meanwhile, has gone from equatorial backwater to being maybe the richest city in the world, without ever bothering too much with that annoying, listen-to-the-voters stuff.
So if you were a developing nation – especially in Asia – which political model would you choose? The western democratic model of failing France, enervated Britain and shrinking America? Or the Chinese and Singaporean style of politics, which actually delivers the goods?
We will know the answer soon enough; it may not suit western liberals. In the meantime, let us hope the Thais see sense and spare their lovely country the hideous stain of civil war: God Save King Bumibhol of Siam.