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POLITICS-THAILAND: Town and Country Divide Runs Deep

Marwaan Macan-Markar

UDON THANI, Jan 10 2009 (IPS) - Vendors at a bustling municipal market in this provincial city are fairly open about the need for Thailand to have a proper democracy with regular elections. In fact many of them wear red shirts to announce their political choice.

Kwanchai at his ''Follow the Situation'' show on community radio, Udon Thani.  Credit: Marwaan Macan-Markar/IPS

Kwanchai at his ''Follow the Situation'' show on community radio, Udon Thani. Credit: Marwaan Macan-Markar/IPS

Phan Intapanya, who sells freshly harvested jasmine and sticky rice at a small shop, is typical of the men and women in this north-eastern city identifying with a cause that has deeply divided Thai politics between urban elite and rural poor. So is Amorn Rosana, who runs a shop that sells kitchenware.

‘’I have been wearing this colour since last year to show that I support political parties that want to come to power through elections,’’ says Phan, a mother of two, who dropped out of school after the fourth grade. ‘’We have to make our stand known. It is our right.’’

‘’There are many people here who are not wearing red today but support our movement,’’ adds Amorn, pointing to a woman selling flowers and to another chopping chicken at a poultry stand. ‘’They are becoming more political. They are realising the power of their vote.’’

Beyond this city, in the villages spread across the province, similar views are heard.

‘’We have now realised that with our votes we can control our parliamentarians and tell them what we want, not the other way around,’’ says Thanakorn Jantarasena, who grows rice and cucumber in a village 20 km south-west of Udon Thani. ‘’The old ways of parliamentarians ignoring voters cannot work any more.’’

Udon Thani’s ‘’red shirts’’ belong to one side of a bitter political feud that gripped this South-east Asian country through most of 2008. There are thousands of others with similar sympathies and sporting similar colours in the provinces of Ubon Ratchathani and Lampang, in the northern city of Chiang Mai and in areas in and around Bangkok.

On the other side of this divide are the supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a movement supported by the urban middle class, entrenched elites, royalists, conservative bureaucrats and the army.

The PAD’s protests through 2008, including the forceful occupation of major state institutions, succeeded in crippling a government elected to power in December 2007.

Supporters of the PAD, who wear yellow shirts, a colour associated with the country’s revered monarch, have been openly hostile to electoral democracy. This right-wing movement scored in early December when a superior court delivered a verdict that forced the elected coalition government, led by the People Power Party (PPP), out of office.

Little wonder why the ‘’reds’’ here are raging at the way the new coalition government, led by the Democrat Party, emerged. After all, it was not born of a general election, but of parliamentarians bribed to switch sides to form a new coalition that has the support of the military.

‘’When the People Power Party was dissolved, people here were very upset; it was a bitter feeling for us because we had voted for it,’’ says Kwanchai Praipanna, who runs a community radio station that has become the rallying point for this region’s defenders of democracy. ‘’We learnt a lesson that we cannot rely on our parliamentarians anymore.’’

‘’We have to build a strong people’s movement from the grassroots because the vote matters to us,’’ Kwanchai added, during a break after his two-hour morning show broadcasting his views on local and national politics to a wide following of listeners over a 100 km radius. ‘’We have to challenge the PAD, the Democrat Party, the Bangkok media and even the military because they want governments without elections.’’

The PAD has been advocating a 'New Politics plan whereby 70 percent of parliamentary seats would be appointed, while the remaining 30 percent would be open for elections.

At the home of Kwanchai’s radio station – FM 97.50 – some five km outside this town, the walls are covered with pictures of one man who has inspired such thinking: former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a September military 2006 coup and now living in exile to evade arrest for a string of corruption cases slapped against him.

Kwanchai and the hundreds of other ‘’red shirts’’ who gather at the open, airy building, that serves as the studio, credit Thaksin for opening their eyes to the power of their votes during the 2001 and 2005 elections.

By voting for Thaksin’s party in those two elections, they received a raft of pro-poor policies that included a universal healthcare package and micro-credit schemes to open small businesses.

This political equation earned Thaksin wide support across north-east Thailand, home to the rural poor, who make up the largest constituency in the country. Phan, the rice vendor, speaks for many, when she says: ‘’The Thaksin government brought us many benefits than before. We learnt after the 2001 elections that we could get what we want if we voted for the correct party.’’

Such a political awakening among the often marginalised rural voters here began to emerge after the 2006 coup, Thailand’s 18th putsch, say observers of local politics here. It gathered pace, and become more open and vocal, following PAD’s campaign last year, which sneered at rural voters, calling them stupid and lacking in knowledge needed to exercise their franchise.

‘’It is something new that we are witnessing about politics here. The people see benefits of applying pressure from the bottom up to tell the government what we they want,’’ noted Arnon Sannan, editor of ‘Dan Isaan News,’ a Thai-language fortnightly. ‘’The voters here have realised that they can have some control over their lives and destiny through such a democratic system.’’

Yet this mental shift in the provinces is unappreciated in Bangkok, where right-wing, elite views currently dominate. ‘’We have been insulted, treated unfairly, looked down upon. This is political injustice, social injustice,’’ says Kamphan Pongpan, a former elected senator from Udon Thani.

‘’The people in Bangkok do not understand the change that is taking place here, our struggle, our views about democracy,’’ he added. ‘’The people here have begun to look for parliamentarians who reflect their ideas and their needs. They do not want to be controlled by the upper class in the capital.’’

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