Thai Violence Exposes Social Division Widened by Thaksin Ouster

Smoke billows from a commercial area of Bangkok
Smoke billows from a commercial area of Bangkok where Red Shirt demonstrators had their camp in downtown Bangkok on May 19, 2010. Photographer: Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images

When Thailand’s army ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, generals hailed the coup as bloodless. Four years on, clashes between troops and his followers left 85 people dead, a capital in flames and a nation broken in two.

To Thaksin’s opponents, who wear yellow as a symbol of their allegiance to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the former prime minister is a corrupt billionaire who orchestrated protests in Bangkok in a bid to regain power and topple the monarchy.

To supporters clad in red, he’s a champion of the rural poor who sought to close one of Asia’s widest income gaps, and a victim of an urban elite that uses the courts and army to perpetuate its rule.

“There are no neutral people,” said Sanit Nakajitti, a director at PSA Asia, a Bangkok-based security and risk consulting company. “When I meet someone, in three sentences I can tell if they are red or yellow.”

Amnesty for Thaksin, 60, living in exile to escape a prison sentence he calls politically motivated, is the one concession Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has been unwilling to make. Their division mirrors the nation’s, which risks further violence that may undermine an economy reliant on foreign investors and tourists.

“Thaksin’s conviction is a point of contention that will never be reconciled,” said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political science lecturer at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “The government has won the battle, but to win the war it must try and isolate him from the people who see him as a superhero who can cure all economic ills.”

Early Election

Abhisit vowed on May 21 to “rebuild the house” through a reconciliation plan announced earlier this month that includes addressing economic disparities and rewriting political rules. In the national address, in which he didn’t mention Thaksin’s name, he pledged an independent investigation into the violence over the past two months.

Red Shirt supporters rioted on May 19, venting their anger on symbols of wealth and privilege. The stock exchange and 10 Bangkok Bank Pcl branches were set ablaze; the Central World mall and Siam Theater were gutted by flames.

Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., Japan’s two largest automakers, last week suspended production in Thailand. Financial regulators closed the stock exchange and ordered banks in the capital of 9 million people to shut. The benchmark SET Index dropped 3.9 percent since May 4 and the baht is trading close to a two-month low.

“I never imagined it would come to this,” said Karl-Heinz Heckhausen, former president of Daimler Chrysler Thailand who has lived in the country for 12 years. “At the moment for investors, nobody is coming.”

Poor Northeast

The Red Shirts, whose six-week occupation of a central Bangkok business district led to the military crackdown, hail mostly from the country’s northeast, the poorest region, where a third of the population live. Income levels in the provinces supporting Abhisit’s party at the last election were more than double those that backed the pro-Thaksin alternative, a United Nations report released this month showed.

Thaksin, the only elected prime minister in Thailand to serve a full four-year term, appealed to the lower class with a platform of $1-a-visit health care and low-interest loans for villagers. Abhisit’s government has attempted to build on those policies by offering free school supplies and low-income housing.

“The big lie of the leaders and of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin was that this fight was about democracy and income inequality,” Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said May 21. “Not once did the Red Shirts offer any solutions or suggestions as to how they would address these issues.”

Thaksin blocked all attempts by protesters to strike a peace deal with the government, Abhisit’s aide, Korbsak Sabhavasu, told Bloomberg News a day before the crackdown.

‘Before the Coup’

“The problem is that Thaksin wants something we cannot give, Korbsak said. ‘‘He wants to go back to before the coup; he wants his passport back; he wants to come home without any time in jail.’’

Thaksin isn’t behind the protests and it’s unfair to say he’s using the movement for personal gain, spokesman Noppadon Pattama said May 18.

After the coup, a military-appointed panel drafted a constitution that declared ousting Thaksin legal. It also added a clause used to dissolve the pro-Thaksin party that won the first election after the coup, paving the way for Abhisit to take power in a December 2008 parliamentary vote.

The Red Shirt rallies in Bangkok started two weeks after a court seized $1.4 billion of Thaksin’s fortune. During the protests he addressed the group, also known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, via videoconference and using his Twitter account.

‘Untrue Accusations’

‘‘There are questions about my relationship with the Red Shirt movement, and many untrue accusations,” Thaksin said in a May 20 statement. “I will continue to morally support the heroic effort of the UDD and their leaders to seek democracy and justice for Thailand.”

Pro-Thaksin parties won the past four elections while Abhisit’s Democrat Party last won the most seats in a nationwide vote in 1992. Earlier that year, the admonishments of King Bhumibol prompted a military commander and middle-class protest leader to prostrate themselves before him on live television after clashes left dozens dead. King Bhumibol, 82, has been hospitalized since September and hasn’t commented publically on the protests.

“Traditionally, the king would have stepped in and stopped all this,” said Ernest Bower, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There’s now a sense that because he hasn’t, there is a vacuum being created. And if you’ve got the guns and money, you may be able to hold on and have a major role in the leadership of this country in the future.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE