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Bangkok protests deepen Thai political divide

Phichet Thabudda, 58, like most people living in Thailand’s provinces, has been glued to the TV for the past few weeks watching the Bangkok political drama unfold. Since late October, the capital city has been the scene of escalating anti-government protests, manned by middle-class Bangkok denizens and rural poor from the southern provinces, traditional strongholds of the opposition Democrat Party.

Few people from the north-eastern region, called Isan, have joined the demonstration.

When Issara Somchai, a former Democrat parliamentarian from Ubon Ratchathani, 510 kilometres north-east of Bangkok, told a rally on December 13 that he was ashamed to be from Isan because so few north-easterners had joined the protest, it didn’t go down well in his home province.

Particularly offensive was his remark that Isan people had become “slaves” of Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive former premier who is said to be still making most major policy decisions of the government from abroad.

The following day, Phichet led 100 protesters to Issara’s house in Ubon and burned him in effigy. Issara wasn’t home.

“We decided to tell him if he was no longer an Isan person he was dead to us,” Phichet said.

It has been a running theme at the protests in Bangkok that the people of Isan, staunch supporters of Thaksin’s political machine, are politically naive and easily bought.

Isan is the poorest region in Thailand and a traditional source of much of the country’s cheap labour, housemaids and buffalo jokes.

“We are not Thaksin’s slaves,” said Phichet, a local leader of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement. “He is our slave because we voted for him and his sister.”

Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is Thaksin’s younger sister.

The protesters led former Democrat Party parliamentarian Suthep Thaugsuban say they want to “uproot the Thaksin regime,” blaming the billionaire tycoon for the corruption that pervades the political system.

But Thaksin, who has been living abroad since 2008 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a corruption conviction, is revered in Isan, where an estimated 80 per cent of the voters selected his Pheu Thai Party in the last election of July 2011.

His political parties have won every national election since 2001, in part due to the populist policies he introduced to secure the votes of the poor.

In 2001, Thaksin broke new ground by promising a budget of 1 million baht (31,250 dollars) to each village nation-wide, and a health care system for the poor. More importantly, after winning the election, the party delivered the goods.

“We used the million baht here to buy fertilisers and buffaloes for our rice fields,” said Pramuan Dokduang, headman of Ponngam village, in Ubon.

“He (Thaksin) is like a father,” Pramuan said. “He takes care of the villagers, the Isan people.”

The direct benefits from elections created a sense of political empowerment.

“With Thaksin in power, it opened the door for them to participate in politics for the first time,” said Chaiyan Rajchagool, a political scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University.

When Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in September 2006, his provincial constituents were outraged, but not organised enough to respond.

Another elected Thaksin-backed government was toppled by a constitutional court ruling in 2008, and that time his provincial supporters rose up, in the guise of the Red Shirts. They led the anti-government protests against former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in 2010, leading to bloody street battles with troops that left at least 92 dead.

The Red Shirt movement has became entrenched in the northern and north-eastern regions, and claims an estimated 10 million followers.

But many were outraged when the Pheu Thai Party pushed through an amnesty bill on November 1 that would not only have pardoned Thaksin, but also Abhisit and Suthep, who have been indicted on murder charges for ordering the 2010 crackdown.

The government backed away from the bill after it was rejected by the Senate.

Some observers believe that if Suthep had ended his protest after the bill was dropped, the Democrats might have had an advantage in the next election.

Instead, he has pressed for a complete and perhaps unconstitutional victory, and the Democrats are boycotting the upcoming February 2 polls.

“For the majority of the Isan people, the political turmoil in Bangkok is inducing them to go to the polling stations and vote for Pheu Thai,” said Chaiyan.

“I think the turnout on February 2 will be even higher than before and they will get even more votes than in 2011.”

Peter Janssen, "Bangkok protests deepen Thai political divide," Business recorder. 2013-12-23.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political relations , Political environment , Political parties , Democracy , Thailand , Bangkok