Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Bangkok, 1936

Am I the only one who thinks that Thailand circa 2008 is beginning to look like Spain circa 1936? That was the year that the bloody Spanish Civil War began, which lasted until 1939 and killed hundreds of thousands. Could such a bloody event engulf the Land of Smiles?

There are some eerie parallels. In 1931 the Spaniards adopted a new liberal constitution and enshrined strict separation of the monarchy and government. Similarly, Thailand adopted a liberal constitution in 1997 (since abrogated by the 2006 coup) with numerous checks and balances.

The Spanish crisis was preceded by several elections which, though considered fair, failed to satisfy one side or the other. Thailand has held two recent elections, one in 2006 that was annulled by the courts, and another election last December that was won by the current government party headed by Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

In the months leading up to the civil war the conservatives (which in the case of Thailand could mean the Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy or PAD) turned increasingly to vigilantism. So too has the PAD with its to the illegal seizure of the capital’s two main airport..

Thailand is dividing on several lines, between the “yellow shirts” worn by the anti-government protestors, and the “red shirts” worn by the supporters of the present government. There are geographical divisions as well, between the people of the Thai heartland around Bangkok and the south and those living in the north and northeast.

Just as Spain was fractured, and still is to an extent, by distinct regions such as the Basque region and Catalonia, so too Thailand is not the fully united country that many outsider think it is. The northern Kingdom of Lanna, with its capital at Chiang Mai, was not incorporated into the Siamese state until fewer than 100 years ago.

The government has some attributes of the Republican or Loyalist side of the Spanish Civil War. They claim the mantle of legitimacy, endorsed by the most recent election and elections before that. Meanwhile, it is common now, for Westerners anyway, to describe with some justification the PAD protestors as “fascists.”

Yellow shirts and red shirts, fascists and democrats, monarchists and anti-monarchists, class against class – it all seems to retro, like an old movie from the 20th-century. The scourge of the 21st century is supposed to be Islamic anomie, turned to terrorism as demonstrated by the senseless attack on Mumbai, not class warfare.

It strikes me as ominous that the prime minister has moved his government to the northern city of Chiang Mai. Ostensibly, his hand was forced since the PAD protestors closed the capital’s two international airports while he was out of the country attending a summit in Peru.

Chiang Mai provides the government with a pretty secure capital in the heart of its most loyal political base from which to rally support if need be. Keeping the government in Bangkok, where the PAD has occupied Government House since August, was tantamount to having the capital in enemy territory.

The next few days will be critical. Will the fired-up red shirts peacefully accept the verdict of the Constitutional court disbanding the governing party, or will they see it as the action of just one more tool of the Bangkok establishment?

The other major factor will be what King Bhumibol has to say at the end of the week.. Until now the King has said nothing, done nothing that anyone knows about to defuse the crisis as he has intervened in crises past to restore a balance of power and maintain the peace.

The King’s birthday is Friday (Dec. 5), and it is customary for him to address his people on the eve of his birthday. What will he say? Will he say anything? It is feared that the 81 year-old King may be too feeble to intervene once again. The world will find out if his speech is read his son and presumed heir Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

One long-time resident of Thailand recently told me “I never thought I’d see the day when the [Royal] Family lost its popularity and prestige, but it is seen as siding with the yellow shirts against the red shirts, who don’t hold up his portrait.”

And it may be that the forces that are tearing the country apart are not any longer amenable to the King personal kind of palliative. Perhaps in the past he gained his reputation for even-handedness by adjudicating disputes only among the Thai elite. This may be one crisis the Thai people have to settle for themselves

One major difference between Thailand 2008 and Spain 1936 is the supreme lack of interest by anyone outside of Thailand. The Spanish Civil War was a landmark event in 20th century history because it became a kind of proxy war between democracy and the rising forces of communism in the Soviet Union and fascism in Germany and Italy.

Nobody outside of Thailand has a dog in this fight. Even has the country unravels, he world’s attention turns overwhelmingly on the terrorist attack in India. Maybe only those of us who have lived or visited there can feel the horror as the events unfold.

Perhaps I am an alarmist. Maybe the two sides will back away from the ultimate clash. It is said that the PAD is losing support because of its recent antics. Maybe the King will, for the last time in his long reign, spread his special balm. Maybe the red shirts will accept the verdict of the courts. But I wouldn’t count on it.


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