Thailand: Put on a Shirt!

A sea of red-clad bodies courses through the central business district of Bangkok. Seen from the Skytrain, it is a heaving mass that ebbs and flows. It is an impressive demonstration of political will and solidarity. But once on street level, the red mob reveals itself to be a rabble of street urchins and toughs. Similar to the Argentine piqueteros who instantaneously appear whenever the political caldron begins to simmer, the so-called Red Shirts are mostly hired hands trying to give political legitimacy to narrow economic interests.

On the surface, former Premier Thaksin’s movement, the National United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), is an attempt to break Thailand’s oligarchical political system. Thailand is dominated by a small cadre of military and economic rulers, and it is preventing the country from achieving its full potential. Former Premier Thaksin made great strides in pushing the nation ahead, by investing heavily in infrastructure in order to mobilize the country’s resources. This is why he enjoyed so much support from the lower income strata. However, he also managed to do very well for himself, and it became very apparent to the electorate. This is the reason why he was forced to resort to hired guns to populate his rallies. This is not a spontaneous grassroots movement or revolution. The barricades are mainly manned by paid protesters, trucked in from the poorest parts of the city and given 500 to 1,000 baht per day to make noise and disturb the peace. Given this situation, the government is in a difficult situation. The most it could do was to try to prevent bloodshed. Initially, Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, an Oxford-educated economist, successfully parried countless provocations. However, the escalation of violence by the unruly mob eventually turned into bloodshed over the weekend, and now the situation is spiraling out of control. Unfortunately, this is a very sad turn of events. Thailand was at the cusp of a strong economic recovery and in the throes of a major transformation.

There are several issues on the table that must be addressed. The first is the fate of the monarchy. King Rama IX is extremely ill, and his days are numbered. Unfortunately, his successor, the crown prince is extremely unpopular—and also said to be ill. This will make the succession a very difficult affair. Although the end of a monarchy would not be cataclysmic for some countries, many of Thailand’s elites draw their legitimacy from their royal connections. The system provides entitlement for people with the right connections. The second issue is one of social mobility. Although Thailand is a modern country, it still has many elements of class and segmentation. This prevents the full mobility of resources and talent. The third issue is the economic model. Thailand is starting to break into higher-value added commodity production and light manufacturing. New infrastructure, a young and well educated labor force is providing the country with the necessary ingredients for a more advanced stage of economic development—thus allowing it to join the ranks of countries, such as Singapore, Taiwan and Korea. However, the country’s rigid political and social structure is preventing it from doing so. On the surface, Thaksin appeared to be leading Thailand’s charge into modernity. Unfortunately, he was really more interested in recovering the ill-gotten loot that the government seized when he was driven from office. That is why his main supporters are hired hands.

Nevertheless, against this backdrop, major forces are mobilizing to determine the outcome. A kaleidoscope of colors reflects the major factions. The Yellow Shirts are the elites who are fighting to keep the status quo. The Pink Shirts represent groups who do not want to dissolve the parliament, but want a more democratic process. Blue shirts are composed of people who strongly support the monarchy, and the Orange Shirts are groups who purport to be neutral in the whole affair. There are also fringe groups of White, Purple and Black Shirts, who only add to the mayhem. Unfortunately, all of this fragmentation is undermining the strong economic recovery. The government recently raised its 2010 growth forecast to 5%. Even this may be a low estimate. A look at the throngs of people filling the malls, airports and highways confirms that Thailand is on the move. The escalation of violence may now force households and businesses to trim back their consumption and investment, thus derailing the strong expansion. Such an event would be very sad for a country that is in the midst of such a profound change. However, with so much at stake, the only reasonable thing for a Thai to do is to put on a colored shirt and head for the street.

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