This past weekend, over 100,000 protestors from rural Thailand descended on Bangkok in a push to oust the government and, possibly, return to power their hero, populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who spoke to the crowds, dressed in red (Thaksin’s color), from an undisclosed location overseas. Demanding that the government resign, the red shirts have massed along major arteries in Bangkok and marched on the army base where leaders of the government are holed up.
Thailand’s media seems unable to remain neutral on the red shirt protests. The Nation, a prominent newspaper representing the Bangkok elites who support the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, consistently portrays the red shirts as dangerous rural masses intent on causing violence, though so far the demonstrations have remained peaceful. (See nationmultimedia.com for coverage of the protests.) Other papers, more supportive of Thaksin, portray the protestors as a kind of peaceful party, rolling into town on their pickup trucks, blasting Thai country music, and joyously affirming their right to demonstrate.
But the heated debate on the red shirt protests misses an essential point. Whether the rally succeeds in ousting Abhisit’s government or not, it marks a major milestone in the development of Thai politics. For decades, it was assumed that Thailand’s rural poor had no voice – that people from the rural areas would just accept whatever political decisions were made in Bangkok, even though the Bangkok elites comprised a small minority of the country’s population. By and large, that assumption held: The elites, working through the monarchy, bureaucracy, courts, and Democrat Party, did manipulate Thailand’s political system to ensure they stayed on top, and the rural poor simply went along with any changes. Even when the rural poor elected a leader sympathetic to their interests, elites in Bangkok could bring down the government, through a coup, maneuvers in Parliament, or street protests.
Now, the reverse has happened. The elites have their leader, and the rural poor have come to topple him.
This weekend’s protest, by far the largest in years – it could still swell to 200,000 or even 300,000 – shows that the rural poor have gained their voice, and even are willing to come to Bangkok, where they feel alienated and alien, to express it. Even if Abhisit’s government does not fall, and Thai politics returns to the stalemate of the past five years, the red shirts have made their point. Thai politicians no longer can simply mouth platitudes of support for the poor, and then decide Thailand’s course for themselves. The rural poor now will have a say in determining the country’s direction – and what’s so dangerous about that?