Thailand is a country of 145,000 Mercedes-Benz sedans and about 75,000 villages, many of them hamlets afflicted by poverty.

During nearly three weeks of mass anti-government demonstrations here, luxury cars have had to share the streets of Bangkok with the blaring megaphones of rural discontent.

Standing in the back of a pickup truck and shaded by a wide-brimmed hat was Thanida Paveen, a 43-year-old mother of two who explained the epiphany that brought her to the demonstration.

“I used to think we were born poor and that was that,” said Thanida, who grew up in the provinces but now lives in Bangkok and rents out rooms to factory workers in the city's industrial outskirts. “I have opened my mind to a new way of thinking: We need to change from the rule of the aristocracy to a real democracy.”

The Thailand of today is not quite the France of 1789 — there is no history of major tensions between rich and poor here, and most of the country is peaceful despite the noisy protests. But more than ever Thailand's underprivileged are less inclined to quietly accept their station in life as past generations did and are voicing anger about wide disparities in wealth, about shakedowns by the police and what they see as the long-standing condescension in Bangkok toward people who speak provincial dialects, especially from the northeast.

The deference, gentility and graciousness that have helped anchor the social hierarchy here for centuries are fraying, analysts say, as poorer Thais become more assertive, discarding long-held taboos that discouraged confrontation.

Most inequitable

The haves in Thailand have a lot — the country has one of the most inequitable income distributions in Asia, a wider gap between rich and poor than in China, Malaysia, the Philippines or Vietnam, according to a World Bank report.

Four years of political turmoil have heightened divisions between wealthy families and their domestic staff, between the patrons of expensive restaurants and the waiters who serve them, between golfing businessmen and the legions of caddies who carry their bags.

“This is a newfound consciousness of a previously neglected part of Thai society,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, one of the country's leading political scientists and a visiting scholar at Stanford University's FSI-Humanities Centre. “In the past they were upset, but they weren't cohesive as a force and coherent in their agenda. New technologies have enabled them to unify their disparate voices of dissatisfaction.”

Role of technology

The role of technology in bringing together the protesters has been crucial. The leaders of the protest movement have used community radio stations, cell phone messaging and the Internet to forge an identity for lower-income Thais and connect a vast constellation of people in villages and towns.

At times the protests in Bangkok could be described as flash mobs of the disaffected. Protesters, who wear their trademark red shirts, have converged on government buildings, banks and military bases guided by text messages.

“This would not have been possible 10 years ago,” said Thanida, who was returning from military barracks in Bangkok where protesters had demanded that soldiers leave. The army acquiesced

The leaders of the red-shirted protesters have advertised the current round of protests as class warfare and describe themselves as defenders of the “prai,” a feudal word meaning commoner or lower-class citizen. “The blood of the prai is worth nothing,” is a phrase now affixed on bumper stickers and T-shirts.

That may be overblown. There are many stories of upward mobility, and, despite the presence of tens of thousands of protesters, the anger has not translated into personal attacks on the wealthy.

The main target of the protesters' ire seems to be the system: the perception that bureaucrats and the military serve the elite at the expense of the poor. The protesters bewail the 2006 coup that removed Thaksin Shinawatra, the tycoon turned prime minister who focused his policies on rural areas. And they question the fairness of a judicial system that removed two subsequent prime ministers who were allied with Thaksin.

To many outsiders, Thaksin's role is puzzling. The notion that a billionaire is leading Thailand's disaffected to rebellion verges on the absurd. It also infuriates the Bangkok elite, who see Thaksin's role as largely self-serving. Thaksin, most analysts agree, was hardly a paragon of democratic values during his five years in power. He intimidated the media, stripped institutions like the anti-corruption commission of their independence and mixed his business interests with those of the government.

However, many protesters, as well as associates of Thaksin, say the protest movement has taken on much larger dimensions than just a battle between Thaksin and his political rivals. —©2010 New York Times News Service

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