When Bangkok has a peace deal with the redshirts, the taboo of monarchy must be tested.
Every Sunday afternoon hundreds of Thais flock to Lumpini park in central Bangkok for an hour or more of synchronised gymnastics to the rhythm of thumping speakers. At a minute before 6 p.m., the sweating bodies come to a halt. Elsewhere in the park courting couples rise from the grass and soccer-playing families call their kids to order. In a moment the national anthem will ring out, casting immobility and an enforced silence on everyone.
I have witnessed the scene more than once, and it never ceases to be amazing, a small-scale symbol of a society which, for all its commercial glitz and appearance of modernity, desperately needs reform. The anthem brought no crowds to their feet last Sunday or the one before that, since Lumpini park was nearly deserted. It is close to the eye of the street confrontation between the Thai government and army and the anti-establishment redshirts that has left scores of people dead.
Thailand's current crisis is many things. In part it is a class war involving impoverished farmers of the north and east who fear the loss of their land to corporate logging and other forms of agribusiness. In part it is a struggle between two types of politics: on one hand the old inward-looking army-based and royalist elite and its padded bureaucracy which faced no challenges for decades; on the other the globalising capitalism of a tycoon like Thaksin Shinawatra who used control of the television stations he owned to take advantage of universal suffrage to mobilise a mass following.
Thailand is not a country of ostentatious inequalities with urban slums on the scale of Indonesia or India. The wealth gap is largely hidden because it is geographically determined. In spite of some emigration, more than two-thirds of Thais still live in the countryside, and close to half are classified as poor. In the cities the new middle class has not proved to be the great driver of democracy that many pundits predicted. Most of its members tend to support the government's efforts to quell reform, including the latest street protests.
The first requirement now is for the government to accept the red shirts' call for talks. It is true that its tentative agreement to hold early elections in November broke down because hotheads in the protest movement refused to withdraw their barricades. But Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva should not then have rescinded his concession and sent in the army. Once again, his behaviour suggests the army is still the dominant ruling power. He has already failed to fulfil earlier promises to rein in security force abuses in the largely Muslim south, where a separate insurgency shows no sign of abating.
Behind the army is the royal palace. While his courtiers have cultivated an image of him as a man above the political battle, the King has endorsed every military coup throughout his 60-year-reign. Yet few Thais dare say this because of the ferocious laws on lese majeste that have seen blog sites closed and other naysayers arrested. The time has surely come when Thailand needs to become a parliamentary democracy.
The King has been in hospital since September. His absence creates a vacuum which should be filled by a caretaker government to prepare for an election and launch a commission on reducing the powers of the monarchy. Kasit Piromya, the Foreign Minister, has been busy over the last week telling foreign diplomats not to interfere in the crisis but, paradoxically, it was he who recently articulated what many Thais have been saying privately for months.
In a speech at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in April, he said: “The positive sign of Thai political development is the ordinary people ... participating in the political process as opposed to Thailand 15 years or 20 years ago, where political actors were confined to the bureaucrats, to some of the business people, to some of the professional politicians, to some of the military officers.” He went on: “Hopefully, with the traumatic violent experiences that we will come through, we can have a democracy that combines representative democracy with a direct democratic participation.” Then came the bombshell: “I think we should be brave enough to go through all of this and to talk about even the taboo subject of the institution of the monarchy ... Let's have a discussion: what type of democratic society would we like to be?” Well said, Kasit Piromya. First, avert any more bloodshed on Bangkok's streets. Then let Thailand's national immobility come to an end. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010