The Battle for Bangkok

New Delhi, India - When I left Bangkok for India two weeks ago, this was the scene outside of my hotel. Amid the horns honking and people chanting, the mood was mostly cheerful. Since then, things have gone markedly downhill, with street battles between protesters and security forces rocking the same area of Bangkok I had been staying in a week prior. The Thai government and its supporters, among them most of Bangkok's elite, are desperate to "resolve" the crisis - Thailand's economy, largely dependent on tourism, has taken a serious hit as a result of the recent upheaval. The economic pressure has contributed to an increasingly strong-handed military response to the UDD's calls for immediate elections, which has elicited defensive measures from the otherwise peaceful protesters. 

Things are not entirely black-and-white (or even red and yellow) in Thai politics - Ex-PM Thaksin, whom most of the red shirts support, was (and remains) popular among the rural poor for his populist rhetoric, but he is no progressive hero himself, being a multi-billionaire media mogul who, among other things, implemented Thailand's utterly draconian drug policies. Still, although some might claim that the red shirts lack a clearly articulated political philosophy, they have a good grasp of the general problem: the collusion of the country's military and business elite to exploit the poor and exclude them from the political process. In the words of one UDD supporter, "They are always rich. We are always poor. That is not democracy."

Thailand is known for having a stronger economy than its neighbors (like Cambodia, which I hope to discuss in a forthcoming post), but the country's wealth is largely concentrated in small pockets - it is one of the most unequal countries in Asia. This stratification is one of the main underlying causes of the present political turmoil. Based on my (admittedly very limited) experince in the country and my discussions with Thais, I believe that what is playing out now in Thailand is, primarly, a class conflict. As a larger military crackdown looms, the future of the UDD's popular movement remains uncertain - but if such an all-out confrontation occurs, it is not clear where the sympathies of the soldiers, many of whom come from poor rural districts themselves, will lie.