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Originally published April 17, 2009 at 2:28 PM | Page modified April 20, 2009 at 9:28 AM

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Guest columnist

Thailand demonstrations expose deep divisions

Last week's demonstrations in Thailand have exposed the deep divisions in Thai society, writes guest columnist Darryl Johnson, former U.S. ambassador to Thailand. The divisions that have been laid bare by these demonstrations will take considerable time to heal.

Special to The Times

THAIS celebrated their traditional New Year on April 13 with solemn ceremonies in the morning followed by a wet and wild festival of water throwing later. The water must be clean and it's all good fun.

This year the scene was very different, with crowds of redshirted youths confronting uniformed troops, throwing petrol bombs and sending unmanned buses careening toward buildings and crowds. Fortunately, the number of dead and injured is reportedly small, due to the restraint shown by the troops.

The mob attacked the prime minister's car and called on him to resign and call new elections. But the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has shown no intention to step down, having just come to office in December. Instead, he declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and five neighboring provinces and ordered the armed forces and the police to restore order. Several of the ringleaders were detained while most of the rest were given free one-way rides back to their homes.

Why this uncharacteristic violence in the streets of Bangkok? First, there is the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown by a military coup in September 2006 after allegedly using his official position for personal gain. Thaksin was first elected in 2001 on a platform of cheap health care, a revolving-credit program for villages, a pause in the collection of land taxes, and a village craft program.

Although he was one of the wealthiest people in the country, he reached out to the poorest and they rewarded him with their votes in 2001 and again in his sweeping re-election in 2005. He called himself a "CEO" manager, ruling efficiently if not always cleanly.

But Thaksin was not popular in Bangkok because he was seen as an upstart who did not play by the traditional Thai political or social rules, and his policy initiatives were condemned as "populist." His downfall came after his family conveniently sold their shares in the family-owned telecom company to the Singapore sovereign wealth fund for $1.9 billion, virtually tax free. Now living in exile, he has telephoned his followers in Thailand on several occasions, most recently last weekend when he called for "revolution." Needless to say, this call did not get a warm reception with the current government.

Prime Minister Abhisit, a British-born and -educated lawyer, is the latest in a string of successors to Thaksin, the first two of whom were seen as proxies for Thaksin, and served for only a few months before being driven from office by anti-Thaksin demonstrators. Abhisit, by contrast, is the head of the former opposition Democrat Party, and is the very image of a sophisticated leader. But his Democrat Party has had trouble getting votes outside of Bangkok and the near South. His coalition therefore includes local leaders whose loyalty is suspect — some of them previously served under Thaksin.

Since he took office in December, Abhisit's troubles have intensified with almost daily demonstrations by thousands of roving young men who support Thaksin and claim to support democracy. For Abhisit, one big problem is the sagging economy, which has been hurt by the financial crisis in the U.S. and declining trade with most of Thailand's trade partners, including China.

In a major embarrassment for a country that prides itself on its hospitality, Abhisit was forced to cancel the recent meeting of the leaders of the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), plus leaders from China, Japan and Korea, and the United Nations secretary general. This event was supposed to be a combination of work and play at one of Thailand's many high-end resorts. But demonstrators broke through the police lines and into the conference site, forcing the delegates to flee for their safety, some by helicopter.

The role of the royal palace is also important but opaque. Thais of all political stripes revere their king, who will turn 82 in December. The anti-Thaksin, pro-royalist demonstrators have worn yellow shirts because that is the king's color. Their opponents have worn red shirts and wrapped themselves in the national flag — red, white and blue stripes.

Thaksin and some of his followers reportedly believe that the palace, and some members of the king's privy council, supported the September 2006 coup. But others deny there was any such collusion. While the king has acted as a peacemaker during previous periods of political tension, notably in 1992, his powers are moral, not political or managerial; he reigns but does not rule.

What are the prospects for Thailand now? In the near-term, order will be restored, by force if necessary. But the military does not want to take power again and will probably support the Abhisit government. They will also make every effort to keep Thaksin out.

But the deep divisions in Thai society, which have been laid bare by these demonstrations, will take considerable time to heal. And the Land of Smiles is not smiling at the start of this New Year.

Darryl N. Johnson was ambassador to Thailand (2001-2004). He teaches part time at the University of Washington's Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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