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After Days of Conflict in Thailand, Political Road Ahead Remains Unclear

April 15, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Analysts discuss Thailand's political road ahead after the government revoked the passport of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all this, we turn to two veteran Thailand watchers. They are Kevin Hewison — he’s director of the Carolina Asia Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — and Richard Doner, associate professor of political science at Emory University.

Thank you both for joining us.

Richard Doner, to you first. Who are these protesters? Who are the people in the red shirts? And then who are those in the yellow shirts who last November, December disrupted the last government?

RICHARD DONER, Emory University: The yellow shirts, who have been protesting the last few weeks, basically, as your report said, at one level are supporters of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but more deeply, they are largely…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean the red shirts.

RICHARD DONER: … people from the rural areas…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Excuse me. You said yellow. You mean red shirts.

RICHARD DONER: The red shirts, I’m sorry, the red shirts. Thank you. The red shirts are largely from the countryside and reflect a couple of levels of frustration.

One is they reflect the fact that Thailand, even though it has developed at fairly high rates of growth, has suffered increasing levels of inequality, especially between Bangkok and the countryside.

Second, Thaksin was able to tap into those frustrations and win significant elections. He was deposed, as your report said, by a military coup, so another source of frustration for the red shirt demonstrators is the fact that, in their view, democracy has been violated by the military coup and subsequent opposition to Thaksin or pro-Thaksin politicians, leaders who have been elected, elected through democratic means.

Country is deeply divided

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Kevin Hewison, I read one comment today that said basically this is a feud between the rural poor and the urban rich. Is it as simple as that?

KEVIN HEWISON, University of North Carolina: Well, no, of course it's not as simple as that, but that's an interesting way to characterize it. And the ballast of the red shirts are probably people from the poorer sections and previously disenfranchised parts of the community, whereas the yellow shirts represent the conservative elements and authoritarian elements of Thailand in the past, both people close to the palace and also within the military, and the largely urban middle class that has been supportive of those groups, at least in recent years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kevin Hewison, Thailand's a population of, what -- I saw today -- 63 million people. How much of the population do these sides, these groups that are protesting, represent?

KEVIN HEWISON: Well, it's very difficult to tell. What we do know is that the country is deeply divided. We could probably also say that many ordinary Thais are probably sick to death of the protests, which have been going on for months and even years now.

But if we look at the last election, in December 2007, we see that the people supporting pro-Thaksin parties and what we today call the red shirts are congregated mainly in the poorer northeast and north of the country and also the working class enclaves, factory areas that encircle Bangkok. And that's probably the people who are supporting the red shirts at the moment.

The urban middle class generally supports the yellow shirts, and there's a strong support for the Democrat Party, which leads the government at the moment, in the south of the country.

Prospects for consensus low

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Doner, what is this fight over? I mean, obviously, over power, but to what extent is democracy at stake here?

RICHARD DONER: Democracy is pretty key to this whole thing, especially as it taps into the fact that a leader who was democratically elected was overthrown through non-democratic means.

So the people from -- as Kevin said, the people from the north and the northeast who supported Thaksin feel that their rights have effectively been violated by the overthrow of democratically elected governments.

There is a demand to return, to some degree, to a 1997 constitution by the red shirts. On the other hand, the yellows have argued that, in fact, the people of the countryside, the farmers, small-business folks in the countryside, especially the north and northeast, can't be trusted, that they are naive, they have been taken in by Thaksin, by Thaksin's policies, and they can't be trusted.

And, therefore, they have -- some of the yellow shirts have effectively proposed a revision of the constitution so that the legislature, the parliament, would be more -- would be composed significantly of people who were not democratically directly elected but who would be appointed.


RICHARD DONER: So there's a real difference in terms -- go ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was going to -- let me just quickly interrupt you and ask you, what are the prospects for consensus, do you think?

RICHARD DONER: The prospects of consensus depend -- I think that they're relatively low at this point, and I think they depend to some degree on the degree of autonomy, independence, flexibility of the current prime minister, Abhisit.

There is a hope that these demonstrations will push him to reach out, to resist any kind of anti-democratic shift, revision of constitution, et cetera. But his autonomy is suspect. It's unclear, in part because he came to power, in large part, or a significant part, through the support of the military. And so part of the question is, what will the military do?

Future may bring instability

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Kevin Hewison, how do you see the prospects for consensus? And what's at stake for the country and for the rest of Asia, for that matter?

KEVIN HEWISON: Well, I agree with what Rick has said. The prospects -- and I'm probably more pessimistic than he is -- the prospects for any kind of consensus are very slim.

The current prime minister talks a lot about consensus and bringing the country together, reconciliation, but he does very little in practice to make that come about. So I think that -- and he also owes his allegiance and his position to the military, so I think the chances for reconciliation are pretty slim.

Thailand used to be a beacon of democratic government in Southeast Asia; it doesn't look like that any more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Doner, is that pretty much what's at stake here, the stability of this country going forward, as one of the only real democracies in that part of the world?

RICHARD DONER: Yes, there's a great fear now. The Economist several months ago wrote an editorial in which they expressed a fear that Thailand would go the direction of kind of a tragicomic country like the Philippines, at least, used to be.

Now, there are some added problems here that may exacerbate this political instability, and that is the economic situation. Thailand has thrived for many years -- and, in fact, it emerged fairly strong out of the '97 financial crisis -- through dynamic exports. That is no longer a feasible option.

Exports used to be 30 percent of Thailand's GDP. They are now 60 percent. If they can't export, there are going to be larger numbers of people unemployed, and that creates a more volatile situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, gentlemen, we are going to have to leave it there. Richard Doner, thank you very much.

Kevin Hewison, thank you both.

RICHARD DONER: You're welcome.