BANGKOK -- At a recent rally here denouncing the caretaker government of Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party, Nga Nguyen, a Vietnamese tourist, looked down from the overpass of the Asok train station at thousands of protesters and shook her head. "Vietnam has no democracy, and Thailand is throwing it away," she said. "It makes you wonder if it's a real democracy at all."
It's a fair question to ask, given the ongoing political crisis Thailand finds itself in. Ever since the military coup of 2006 that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand had been sailing in uncharted waters. Though a divisive figure in Thai politics, Thaksin was democratically elected in 2001. He won re-election by a landslide with the highest voter turnout in Thai history, in 2005. A populist and a multi-billionaire, he'd done more for the rural population than all his predecessors combined, introducing effective policies to alleviate rural poverty by half in only four years, and, equally enticing, implementing universal health care.
A pro-Thaksin prime minister was popularly elected to office in the general election in 2007. But that victory was short lived as election results were met by massive protests in Bangkok, amid claims of election fraud. Members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) - referred to as "yellow shirts," they chose that color to honor Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej - blocked the airport for days and stranded nearly 250,000 tourists. The constitutional court, under pressure to get the country moving again, agreed with the yellow shirts (who represented the urban, educated and white-collar class) and disqualified the pro-Thaksin prime minister.
Worse, by appropriating the symbol of the monarchy, the yellow shirts effectively eradicated the neutral ground from which the monarchy usually played its best role, as a mediator between at-odds factions. In turn, their protest was met by "red shirts," who in 2010 emerged from the rural areas and spread out around the Thai capital, blocking roadways and entrances to upscale shopping malls during a month-long protest that brought the Thai government to the brink of collapse. The government responded to the redshirt uprising with military crackdowns, but that didn't stop Thaksin's party to win another election: this time, it was Thaksin's sister, Yingluck, who took the helm with a landslide election victory in 2011.
Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has experienced many coups and counter-coups. Yet the monarchy traditionally held enormous power, providing much needed constancy and balance. King Bhumibol Adulyadej played a central role in the most pivotal moments during Thailand's transition to a democratic system. In 1992, with the country at a standstill amid unprecedented pro-democracy protests, he summoned the leaders of the two opposing parties. Both men appeared together, on their knees in front of the king, in a televised event that helped ease the way to a free election.
The days of a neutral monarchy now seem a thing of the past. An ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 87 years old and hasn't recently been seen in public. His heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is perceived by many as the wrong choice and lacks the gravitas and respect his father enjoyed. Whether the monarchy is relevant or even helpful in restoring balance to the current crisis is debatable. With its power eroded among the peasantry, thanks largely to the Pheu Thai party, the monarchy increasingly throws its support behind the yellow shirts or the Democrat Party, and in the process, further isolates itself from the country's rural poor.
For too long the city of Bangkok has floated in a kind of First World wealth - replete with sky trains, high rises, luxury condos and marbled mega malls - while its rural populace stayed stilted in the mud of Third World poverty. Perhaps the greatest fiction The Land of a Thousand Smiles has managed to tell itself and the rest of the world is that it is a bona fide democracy. But behind that infamous smile is an ancient feudal system that was built on the roan backs of peasants for a millennium.
That system relied on the lower class's continual servitude and, in some way, their acceptance of a deeply embedded caste system in which reverence for the king, who is accorded god-like status, carried over to reverence for anyone occupying a higher social strata. The caste and status consciousness, as construed by a simplified if misunderstood religious idea in which past karmic debts sent one to a permanent level of society, is so deeply ingrained that it is reflected in the Thai language itself.
However, that old superior-inferior fiction is eroding and eroding fast. In the last decade or so, what was once remote and rural has been integrated with the rest of the world, thanks in large part to the distribution of electricity to even the most remote areas - provided from sparsely populated Laos next door with its mega hydroelectric dams - which brought TV, radio, Internet and the cheap and ubiquitous cell phones, information being the true form of democracy. Those who once lived in isolated thatched huts are thus now highly aware of the wide urban-rural gap, and possess a deep and growing sense of injustice.
What Thaksin and his political party, Pheu Thai, gave the long suffering rural population was a sense of upward mobility, and a vision of shared governance. Critics point out that this has been done at the expense of tax paying middle class Thais. The party's rice-subsidizing scheme, they say, is not sustainable, and in fact, has turned some farmers against the government, which hasn't been able to come up with all the money to pay them as promised.
But it is also certain that with a majority of the rural poor politically awakened, the Democrat Party needs to deal with their long grievances rather than merely plotting protests and coups. "As long as it insists that losers in democratic elections are under no obligation to accept the results," warns an editorial in the Economist, "Thailand will slide downhill."
On the other hand, the old tension between rural-urban factions doesn't have to be one. Given so much at stake, an opportunity for constitutional reform with real shared power is possible. The alternative, after all, is far worse: economic ruin, political impasse, and a potential for civil strife that will leave the Land of a Thousand Smiles grimacing for years to come.
Phou, a 45 year old taxi driver who declines to share his last name, came to Bangkok from northeast of Chiangmai. He's part of the Isan population, affiliated with Laos, an ethnicity frowned upon by many in the capital. Nevertheless the Isan dominate Thailand's northeastern region and are increasingly active voters. He thinks the protesters who want to bring down the Shinawatra government are "crazy." In broken English, he tried to explain how Thailand's political seesaw won't ever end unless poor, rural people like him are given a voice. "Bangkok is so rich. Everywhere outside, so poor." He said. "Poor people support Shinawatra."
And what if the protestors manage to bring down the government? "Red Shirt come back," he said, face stern and eyes narrow, "[We'll have] big protest, more than yellow shirt."
Thus, for now at least, continues the political tug of war.
Andrew Lam is editor at New America Media and the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," and "Birds of Paradise Lost," a collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees on America's West Coast, which won the Pen/Josephine Miles Literary award.
Photo credit: Andrew Lam