Thai Crisis Splits Families as Years of Turmoil Prevent Healing

Cod Satrusayang’s family has found a way out of their Thai crisis. They’ve stopped talking about politics.

Until that deal was made, Cod said, most gatherings would end in a fight. Cod’s mother, who comes from a wealthy family, sides with protesters calling for an appointed council to run the country, while his father, from a lower-income family, says elections should decide who governs.

Cod’s family is not alone in its differences. Eight years of turmoil have exposed rifts throughout society, between rich and poor, urban and rural, north and south. The polarization has become so entrenched that even if Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is eventually declared the winner of the election held Feb. 2, it is unlikely to bring respite to a kingdom some analysts have said is lurching toward civil war.

“It’s actually dividing us more than just on a regional level but in many cases on a family level,” said Cod, a 28-year-old Bangkok-based writer. “There is definitely a fundamental schism within Thai society and it’s not going to be resolved soon. Honestly if my parents can’t even see eye to eye when they’re sitting at a dinner table, I don’t see how the bigger picture works.”

Suthep Thaugsuban, the former opposition party powerbroker leading protests to oust Yingluck, has cast his movement as a fight of good against evil and called on the military, civil servants and everyday citizens to choose a side. The tensions have dimmed the prospect of a compromise to end the protests, which have led to 10 deaths since October and left Thailand without a functioning parliament, raising the possibility of intervention by the monarchy or military.

Digging Bunkers

“Both sides are now digging their bunkers deeper and deeper,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher in Bangkok for Human Rights Watch. “They don’t listen to each other. They don’t even know what is outside their bunker. And with this bunker, you’ve got to jump into one or the other. They don’t respect people who simply sit on top.”

The split is partly rooted in the five-year rule of Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and whose allies have won the past five elections. A billionaire telecommunications tycoon, Thaksin swept to power on promises such as cheap health care that made him popular in the rural north and northeast, even as the opposition Democrat Party retained its traditional stronghold in the south.

Before Thaksin, politicians had a “very distant” relationship with the nation’s poor, said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University. “Political parties weren’t built from below, they were built from above. Thaksin came along, made promises and then delivered on his promises.”

Thaksin Enemies

Still, Bangkok’s middle class bristled at Thaksin’s “tendency toward tyranny,” Chambers said. Thaksin would talk of being prime minister for 20 years and say that he saw no problem with a strong, single-party government. Local and international rights groups accused him of infringing on media freedom, and said his war on drugs led to extra-judicial deaths.

Thaksin also tested two powerful groups: Those close to the palace and the military, Chambers said. Many royalists thought Thaksin was “stealing the king’s thunder” with his populism, while he angered generals by trying to exert civilian control over the armed forces.

Ultimately, Thaksin was ousted on the grounds that he was corrupt, had abused his power and disrespected the monarchy, and now lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid a jail term for a corruption conviction.

Red, Yellow

Thailand has a history of instability, with 11 coups since the end of direct rule by kings in 1932. Until Thaksin, no prime minister had ever served a full term. Even so, the turmoil has worsened since 2006 as more people have fallen into one of two camps: Red or yellow.

The current protesters are aligned with the original yellow-shirt movement, best known for seizing Bangkok’s two airports during a 2008 campaign to bring down a Thaksin-allied government.

In broad terms, the yellow side comprises Bangkok’s middle class, royalists and retired generals who see politicians as corrupt and the poor as easily swayed. They have called for several versions of an appointed government and are aligned with the Democrats, who have not won a national vote since 1992 and boycotted the recent poll as well as a 2006 election.

On the other side is the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or red shirts, who point to the coup and subsequent court rulings that dissolved parties allied with Thaksin as proof that Thai society is unjust and filled with double standards. They took to the streets in both 2009 and 2010, calling for new elections.

Values Clash

At its heart, the split is “a clash of two values in politics: One that is rooted in people’s power and one that belongs to the aristocracy,” Sunai said. It “has been going on since the overthrow of absolute monarchy and has has kind of lingered on.”

The divide has created a chilling effect on people who want to remain neutral, he said.

“Both sides see their struggle as the absolute good, which cannot be,” Sunai said. “It leaves no room for challenge, for criticism. And when you challenge something that is so absolutely good, you become absolutely evil. And that’s why there is no mercy for critics.”

It is still possible to prevent civil war, Sunai said. Still, “if we don’t have breathing space now, if violence doesn’t stop now, we fear for the worst.”

Pheu Thai

The current protests began when Yingluck’s government tried to pass an amnesty bill that would have thrown out most post-coup political charges, including those against Thaksin. The bill was also disliked by many red shirts because it would have spared politicians who ordered a deadly army crackdown on their protest in 2010, including Suthep.

Once the bill was tabled, the protest morphed into a broader bid to topple Yingluck and then to stop the election. While Yingluck denies her brother is still in charge, her Pheu Thai party campaigned in 2011 on the slogan “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts.” The protesters have said no election held under the current system would be fair due to Thaksin’s influence.

“The protesters have bought into this very much outdated rhetoric of vote buying and they believe either that the Pheu Thai party is literally buying votes, or that the populist spending policies in which the Pheu Thai party involves itself are tantamount to buying votes,” said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

‘Losing Touch’

Part of the misunderstanding is due to urban Thais “losing touch with realities in provincial Thailand,” where increased off-farm employment, education and economic growth has left many aware of the importance of politics in improving their lives, Montesano said.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University and author of “Reinventing Thailand: Thaksin and His Foreign Policy,” agrees the unrest goes beyond Thaksin and corruption.

“It’s about the overall anxiety of the traditional elite, the older power, who can’t accept the shift in the political landscape,” he said.

Royal Question

One undercurrent of the tensions that hinders a swift resolution is concern over the next royal succession, with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch, now 86 and ailing.

“In many ways, the nervousness is about who gets to be close to the next king and who gets to play a leading role in the next reign,” Montesano said. “Part of the urgency Suthep is showing is due to this fear that a Thaksinite government will be in power when the king passes away and that will allow the Thaksinite government to play some leading role in managing the transition.”

The protest movement under the People’s Democratic Reform Committee is independent of the monarchy, said Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for Suthep. “The PDRC, like all Thais, holds a deep reverence for this institution that remains separate from the current conflict,” Akanat said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Hate Everyone’

Cod said for everyday Thais it is hard to see a way out of the divide. Rather than pick a side, he has chosen to “hate everyone equally.”

“I think once you become acquainted with the system and you know what’s going on, the rational position is to hate everything. Think about it. What’s to love?”

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