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No winners in Thailand's crisis

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

A protester carries a Thai flag as a bus burns in Bangkok on 13 April 2009
The protests have left two people dead and more than 120 injured

Nobody won. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the chaotic events in Thailand over the past few days.

Certainly not the red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), whose attempted uprising degenerated into a series of chaotic clashes with the army that left a wake of destruction on the streets of Bangkok.

Not Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva either. Although he clawed back a lot of his authority through the successful military operation to disperse the UDD protesters, the promise he made on taking office four months ago to promote reconciliation in his country now looks hollow.

Not the army, which carried out the unpleasant task of clearing the streets with growing confidence, and surprisingly light casualties.

Its decision to suppress these protesters, when it did nothing about the equally damaging actions of the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) last year, makes a mockery of its claim to be a neutral force.

That and the 2006 coup that deposed Thaksin Shinawatra have irrevocably tarnished its image with a sizable part of the Thai population.

There appear to be no towering, Obama-like figures in Thailand, who can win the respect of both camps

Not the police, who are now such a diminished and demoralised force that almost no-one in Thailand expected them to play any role in the recent disorder.

When confronted by a few thousand unarmed protesters at the Asian summit in Pattaya, they offered only token resistance. In Bangkok they were essentially invisible. Without a functioning police force, the rule of law that Mr Abhisit has talked of so often becomes very precarious.

And finally, not Thaksin Shinawatra, whose melodramatic call for a people's uprising fell flat, and who is still stuck in exile, without a secure place of refuge.

Polarising figure

Three years of intractable political conflict are taking a debilitating toll on Thailand. Emotions are now very raw.

Some of the ugliest scenes in recent days did not involve the army; they occurred when local residents came out to confront the rampaging red-shirts. Shots were fired, two people died, and some were savagely beaten.

It is difficult to explain why Thailand, a country once seen as a paragon of stability and social harmony, has become so polarised.

The division between Red and Yellow cuts across many lines; it is not simply just rural-versus-urban, or poor-versus-rich. Spend long enough with either group and you meet people from very varied backgrounds.

A protester holds a picture of Thaksin Shinawatra on 14 April 2009
Multi-millionaire Thaksin is both loved and hated in Thailand

But there is one issue that clearly divides the two camps.

That issue is Thaksin Shinawatra, the man who shattered the traditional mould of Thai politics through his brilliant campaigns, winning him two record election victories in 2001 and 2005.

Not all the Reds love this brash and controversial figure.

But they pretty much all think he was unjustly removed from office by the 2006 coup, and that the various legal cases brought against him - he was sentenced to two years in jail in absentia last year for an abuse of power - are without merit.

They also believe in the power of his populist agenda, the key to his party's mass following.

Not just because it improved the lot of the rural poor - economists have questioned the efficiency and long-term benefit of many of his policies - but because for the first time it gave poorer Thais a sense that their vote mattered, that voting for a particular policy platform could bring you tangible benefits.

rRed-short protesters, April 14, 2009 in Bangkok
The Reds felt Thaksin gave them a voice in Thai society

This approach politicised a previously neglected class of people in Thailand, and made them a powerful, new force.

These people are the reason Mr Thaksin did so well in elections, and the reason his allies were returned to office in 2007, in the first election held after the coup, even though Mr Thaksin and 110 of his top party officials were banned from running.

They are now the mass base of the red-shirt movement. And they believe, passionately, that their side has been treated unfairly.

Festering grievances

The many, well-founded criticisms made of Mr Thaksin's style of government do not affect that view: that he was autocratic, fatally weakening Thailand's fragile democratic institutions; that he presided over a sharp escalation of human rights violations; that corruption continued to flourish under his administrations; that he shamelessly promoted on the basis of loyalty, not competence.

Yellow-shirted protesters, August 2008
The Yellows say Thaksin was both corrupt and autocratic

These are points made tirelessly by the PAD during their anti-Thaksin protests last year, and they are hard to refute.

But because so many poorer Thais saw this flawed politician as their champion, they resented it bitterly when forces aligned with the wealthy elite decided to bend the rules to kick him out of office.

It was ultra-royalist generals who led the coup. But they were cheered on by conservative judges and bureaucrats, wealthy business tycoons and many urban, middle-class Thais. Mr Thaksin's followers felt robbed.

That sense of being robbed continued last year when they saw the governments they had voted for harried by the PAD, and then disqualified by bizarre court decisions.

And they felt patronised when PAD activists said - as they did repeatedly - that the only reason the poor voted for Mr Thaksin was because he had bribed them to.

These grievances continue to fester, and deepen the divide in Thai society.

Go to a red-shirt rally and you will hear the same mantra; "We are grass-roots people, fighting for democracy, against the ruling class".

Go to a yellow-shirt rally and you will almost inevitably hear a different mantra; "We are educated people, fighting against corrupt politicians who abuse democracy".

Abhisit Vejjajiva (12 December 2008)
PM Abhisit Vejjajiva has failed to draw support from rural voters

There appear to be no towering, Obama-like figures in Thailand, who can win the respect of both camps. Certainly not Mr Abhisit, who often looks uncomfortably out of place in the rural, red heartlands of the north and north-east.

How he deals with the leaders of the "red uprising" now - and how that compares with the treatment given to last year's "yellow uprising" - will be an important test of his promise to uphold the rule of law impartially.

So the conflict which erupted so spectacularly in Bangkok and Pattaya over the past week will probably rumble on, steadily eroding the confidence of investors, tourists and the Thai people, in a stable future for their country.



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