LAMPHUN (Thailand) — Each time Mr Muean Chimoon leaves his wooden house in northern Thailand, he pays homage to a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a father figure and long a symbol of national unity.
“We have a King who loves everyone,” said Mr Muean, a retired bus driver who exudes the renowned cheerful insouciance of rural Thailand.
But when the conversation turns to politics, Mr Muean’s smile disappears. He lashes out at the “arrogance” of protesters in Bangkok who want to overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, which has overwhelming support in the north and north-east.
“Bangkok has always wanted to choose their own Prime Minister,” Mr Muean said. “They don’t care what northern people think — they just care about themselves.”
Thailand is the land of the Thais, of course — but also of the Lanna, Lao, Mon, Malay, Khmer and Chinese, among other ethnic groups subsumed into the country over the centuries.
Eight years into Thailand’s political crisis over the influence of the Prime Minister’s family, some of those ethnic identities are resurfacing. The country’s political divisions roughly follow the outlines of ancient kingdoms and principalities, rekindling bygone impulses for greater autonomy from Bangkok.
“I’ve never seen the country this divided,” said local council member Ponganand Srisai in Baan Nong Tun, a rice-farming north-eastern village.
Banners on the roads calling for secession have been among the most extreme expressions of the north’s bitterness toward Bangkok. The Lanna kingdom, including Lamphun, was annexed by Bangkok in 1899. For decades, its people have spoken a dialect distinct from the Thai officially recognised and promoted by the central government. At the time of annexation, the region had its own written language, which used a different alphabet from Thai.
Prominent commentator Tanet Charoenmuang, a proponent of greater autonomy for northern Thailand, said northerners perceive government institutions as favouring the capital at the expense of the provinces.
“Thailand has been an overcentralised state, and a sense of localism is quietly re-emerging,” Mr Tanet said.
The army appears to have taken the notion of secession very seriously, vowing to investigate and bring legal action against anyone advocating leaving Thailand. The reign of King Bhumibol, who was crowned in 1950, has long cemented Thai identity. The King, now ailing, and his absence from civic life has added to a sense that the country has lost its rudder.
Three governments supported by northern and north-eastern voters have been removed from power since 2006, one — Ms Yingluck’s brother Thaksin’s — by a military coup and two in highly-politicised court judgments. In the past months, protesters in Bangkok have demanded the overthrow of the government and a reduction in the influence of the Shinawatra clan, which is from the northern city of Chiang Mai.
The prospect that a fourth democratically elected government could be removed by the courts in coming weeks has been met by seething anger in villages across the north and northeast. Protest leaders call government supporters “buffaloes,” an insult connoting upcountry ignorance.
Mr Ponganand describes southerners, who on some days make up the bulk of protesters, as extremists.
Government supporters say a sense of solidarity has emerged between northern Thailand and the vast northeastern Isaan plateau, where the maternal tongue, a form of Lao, is similar to the Lanna language of the north.
Ms Chalida Chusirithanakit from the north-east, says the current round of protests has kindled “a real sense of pride in being Isaan people,” especially among the government’s Red Shirts supporters. “They feel they have struggled and have been oppressed for a long time,” she said.
Support for Ms Yingluck and her party is so strong in Maha Sarakham province that “even a dog in a red shirt could run in an election and win,” she added. The New York Times