Phanuwat Treekunakorn has seen first hand the difference 92 U.S. cents can make to the lives of ordinary Thais. The flat fee to see a doctor helped turn him into a loyal supporter of Thaksin Shinawatra and his family.
“Without it, they could be dying because they have no money for medical treatment,” the 26-year-old said of close friends and the health-care benefit introduced by Thaksin after he first won power in 2001. Phanuwat, who owns a small business in the northern city of Chiang Mai, also helped fund studies at a vocational college with a low-interest loan introduced by Thaksin.
Populist policies that poured money into health care and education in Thailand’s north and northeast helped Thaksin and his allies build a base comprised of people like Phanuwat that has propelled them to victory in every election since 2001. The supporters, called Red Shirts, see Thailand’s 12th military coup last week, the removal of successive Thaksin-linked governments and efforts to block fresh ballots as an attempt by old business elites and royalists in Bangkok to reassert their influence over the country by non-democratic means.
“The coup takes away the power and voice of the people,” said Phanuwat. “It is the army dictating to the people. They step on our head, without even looking at what they are stepping on.”
Thaksin’s removal in a 2006 coup exposed wide ideological divisions in Thai society that have deepened with the military’s latest intervention, which followed a May 7 court order that ousted a government headed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck. The army’s actions risk unleashing a violent response from Thaksin’s supporters who took to the streets four years ago to call for new elections in demonstrations crushed by the army that left 90 people dead.
“In the north and northeast people really love him,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University, the home town of the Shinawatra family. “The north in many ways sees Thaksin as a local son.”
Army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha said last week he seized control to restore order after almost seven months of sometimes-violent protests against Yingluck that stalled economic growth and led to a caretaker government being installed in December. Yingluck’s opponents had called for her government to be replaced by an appointed council as they sought to break the hold on Thai politics of the Shinawatra family, whom they accuse of corruption and cronyism.
People in Bangkok “look down” on people from the north and see them as poorly educated and easily influenced by the Shinawatras, said Phanuwat. “In north and northeastern Thailand, there are lots of educated people. There are many who got doctoral degrees because education is more accessible.”
The coup is a legacy of business tycoon Thaksin’s populist policies and his efforts to match the influence of the established power brokers in Bangkok, according to Chambers.
“It all comes down to Thaksin,” he said. “Thaksin had some tendencies toward being a very domineering prime minister and a lot of people in Bangkok don’t like that. Thaksin is kind of heavy handed.”
The army has imposed a curfew throughout the country from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and television stations deemed political have been shut. The army, which dissolved the Senate and briefly detained Yingluck, has warned people against making statements critical of the military and the coup on social media. It has published lists of people, including journalists and academics, who must report to army offices or face arrest.
In Chiang Mai, Red Shirts are considering their next move, said Mahawan Kawang, 47, the founder of a local pro-Thaksin radio station and a high school classmate of Yingluck. That has been made more difficult by the detention of local leaders, he said.
“It’s going to escalate soon, if there’s no general election and they appoint someone as the new prime minister,” said Mahawan, who went into hiding after soldiers confiscated his radio equipment after the coup was announced.
“I fear for the country’s future and I see no easy way out,” he said. “It’s going to be blood everywhere. They are a group of very angry people with no leaders. They are able to do a lot of damage,” he said of the Red Shirts.
Prayuth today said the curfew would remain and his junta will enact political reforms, without detailing any changes or providing a timeline for when new elections may be held. The severity of the response by the Red Shirts may be determined by the extent to which military leaders adopt the policies of a wing of the anti-Thaksin movement, led by former Democrat party powerbroker Suthep Thaugsuban.
At the center of any exit strategy by the army “will be the imposition of laws and structures that curb the divisive forces that have been tearing Thailand apart,” said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“These reforms may be intended to purge Thailand of Thaksin’s influence and to limit the influence of the Red electorate,” he said. “But their effect in constraining electoral democracy may be even broader than that.”
The suspension of democracy has also angered Chiang Mai factory owner Somjit Chausai, who doesn’t identify himself as a Red Shirt. Somjit, 51, said he doesn’t “like dictatorship. I am old enough to remember what it’s like when we have no democracy because this kind of situation has repeated again and again in Thailand.”
Thailand’s instability stretches back decades, with more than 20 prime ministers since 1946. Until Thaksin governed from 2001 to 2005, no prime minister had ever served a full term.
In Bangkok, some welcomed the military’s actions. Weena Jungprapaikit, a 38-year-old insurance company worker, said because of the anti-government protests it used to take her as long as four hours to get to work each day.
“There is no other way to settle the disputes between those two groups,” she said. “We have tolerated more than six months of unrest and protests. It was tiring. I am kind of relieved it did end.”
People in Bangkok were worried by the decline in tourism and that foreign investors might be deterred by the unrest, she said. “I went shopping at lunch and the vendors are happy. There are more people in the market.”
Apichart Pongsawat, a 24-year-old lawyer, said the views of all sides should be heard, and he was opposed to military intervention. After holding up a sign outside a Bangkok train station that read “We don’t accept the coup,” he was taken into custody by soldiers.
“In a democracy you have to accept people who think differently,” he said. “But a coup diminishes liberty and rights and violates the law. It violates the power of the people.”
The removal of another Thaksin-aligned administration, one that probably would have won an election in February that was boycotted by the opposition Democrats and later annulled, has further raised the stakes, said Chambers.
“This time around there are so many people who are really angry and the Red Shirts are organized,” he said. “They’ve got the numbers, they’ve got the guns and so the army has to be very careful here.”
Phanuwat said violence may be unavoidable: “There is no country that achieved democracy without any loss. I don’t support violence. But the people want real democracy.”