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Thai crisis exposes class struggle

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

For weeks the yellow-shirted protesters of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have hogged the limelight in Thailand.

Pro-Thaksin rally in Bangkok on 1/11/08
Pro-government supporters are fighting back with their own rallies
With the backing of powerful military and palace figures, they have helped unseat one prime minister and two members of his cabinet.

The embattled government, led by allies of controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has in vain protested that it was popularly elected less than a year ago.

Now it has started fighting back with a series of mass rallies by its own red-shirted followers.

This is a dangerous contest between two power-hungry political factions who see it as a zero-sum game, in which they either win everything, or lose everything.

But it has become much more than that.

The rift has split Thai society, along regional and especially along class lines.

'Dress in red'

It is Monday morning, in a quiet backstreet in Udon Thani, provincial capital of a north-eastern province bordering Laos and a known Thaksin stronghold.

Radio DJ Kwanchai Sarakam is taking calls. He is a firebrand Thaksin loyalist who already faces criminal charges over his involvement in a clash with PAD supporters in July. But his callers are just as fired up.

Ankham Ratanasingha and her husband
If the PAD cannot convince me their version of democracy will help grass-roots people like me, then I will fight them to my last breath
Farmer Ankham Ratanasingha (left)

The first is an old lady, with a warning for the military. "Listen to me, soldiers," she shouts down a crackly phone line, "if you dare try another coup, forget about getting roses, because I will dress myself entirely in red - red hair, red panties, red bra, red fingernails - and jump in front of your tanks. You will have to run over me, a grass-roots woman, and crush me to death."

Other calls follow in a similar, if less melodramatic, vein.

The show finishes with a rousing song, scorning "educated people" for their ignorance and lack of manners.

Kwanchai threatens to bring a red-shirted army to Bangkok to declare war on the PAD. He says there will have to be bloodshed before Thailand can get through this crisis. He almost seems to relish the prospect. But the sense of being engaged in a class war is commonplace on both sides of this struggle.

Rich-poor divide

"You see these people here - they are all educated people," one man told me at a PAD gathering in Bangkok. "But the ones who support the government party, they are all uneducated, especially from the north and north-east."

This is a typical comment from the PAD, implying that the millions of rural people who consistently vote for pro-Thaksin politicians are either bribed or do not understand what they are doing.

Anti-government rally in Bangkok on 30/10/08
Anti-government rallies have been held in Bangkok for weeks

It is the justification the PAD gives for demanding a parliament which is part-appointed.

Such an attitude infuriates Ankham Ratanasingha, who runs a small farm with her husband just outside Udon Thani.

She had to leave school at 10 years old, but takes pride in having educated her two children to university level.

"If the PAD cannot convince me that their version of democracy will help grass-roots people like me, then I will fight them to my last breath," she said. "They should treat us with respect, not as people they can just squash under their feet."

"The problem of Thai political crisis is a class struggle", says Attajak Satayanutak, an academic from Thaksin's home town Chiang Mai.

"We have a wide gap between rich and poor. The poor did not receive anything from the state for a long time. Then, for the first time, Thaksin gave this opportunity for them."

The affection for Thaksin Shinawatra has held up remarkably well in the north-east, a poor and arid region known as Isaan.

Local people say his populist policies, like universal healthcare and the village loan scheme, brought big improvements to the quality of their lives.

But time and again they cite something else - dignity. They told me he offered them the hope of improving themselves, without making them feel small, or humble.

If the military mounts another coup, this time the country will split, and there will be civil war
Thaksin supporter

His darker sides - abuses of power, human rights violations, arrogance - were brushed aside as less important.

Isaan has long been the butt of jokes in Thailand. It has a culture and language closer to that of neighbouring Laos than the central plains around Bangkok. It supplies much of the cheap, migrant labour to the capital.

But it has one valuable asset Thaksin Shinawatra identified as he began planning his bid for power in the late 1990s - voters, around one third of the total.

He was the first politician to court them directly, with appealing policies, rather than relying on the local godfathers to deliver their support.

In doing so, he has awoken a new political self-awareness in a previously passive region. And Isaan people are furious about the comments they are hearing from the PAD in Bangkok.

"Those who think Isaan people blindly follow Thaksin Shinawatra have an outdated image of our region," I was told by Puttakarn Panthong, a local politician who is not affiliated with Mr Thaksin's party. "They have better education now, and they understand who and what they are voting for."

Stuck in exile

So at the first of the big rallies in Bangkok, the former prime minister's phone-call, from somewhere overseas, was the most eagerly awaited moment of the night.

Politician Chaturon Chaiseng on stage at a pro-Thaksin rally
Politician Chaturon Chaiseng's song made the link with past class struggles

A huge roar went up from the 60,000 red-shirted faithful as his voice came over the speakers, asking: "Have you missed me?" There were more than a few tearful faces in the crowd.

But this was also a carefully-choreographed event, intended to send out a signal to the PAD and its royalist backers, that they face formidable opposition. The crowd was far larger than any the PAD has managed to attract this year.

Aside from Mr Thaksin, the highlight of the night was a song sung by Chaturon Chaiseng, one of the most respected politicians in the Thaksin camp.

He was also once a left-wing activist who took up arms against the military during the communist insurgency of the last 1970s.

And the song he chose was written by one of his comrades-in-arms, which tells of the sadness of a young rebel unable to return home.

The reference, or course, was to Mr Thaksin, stuck in exile, facing a two-year prison sentence if he comes back.

But it also connected his poor, rural followers today, with the class conflicts of Thailand's past.

Behind Mr Chaturon they held up the words "NO MORE COUP" in bold red letters. It seemed more of a warning than a plea.

One man turned to me and said: "If the military mounts another coup, this time the country will split, and there will be civil war."

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