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Political Upheaval in Thailand Reflects Tension Between Rich, Poor

With thousands demonstrating in front of Bangkok’s Government House and the prime minister tossed from office for paid appearances on television cooking shows, Thailand’s fragile democracy has been going through rocky times. But, then, that is nothing new. The country of 65 million has experienced 16 military coups in the last 70 years, and elected governments rarely fill their mandated times in office.

The current political uproar has provoked critical commentary in Western news outlets, most prominently The Washington Post and The Economist, but among Thai officials, journalists and academics appearing at a recent Washington conference there was more optimism about the political future of the kingdom that has maintained 175 years of friendly diplomatic relations with the United States, the longest among Asian countries.

What has concerned the Western editorialists is that a democratically elected government, with considerable support from the newly-empowered rural poor, has been under attack in the streets and in parliament by an alliance of urban elites with ties to the military and royal palace. (At 80, King Bhumipol remains a revered figure whose quiet suggestions can help politicians build coalitions or turn governments out of office.)

The alliance is officially known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, formed two years ago in opposition to the populist and sometimes autocratic government of billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra, who recently fled to London to avoid a trial on corruption charges. The major concern of the editorialists and some Thai political commentators alike has been that the Alliance for Democracy appears not very democratic, criticizing the elected parliament and seeming to want to restore more authority to the military and the palace.

But among the commentators at the Center for Strategic and International Studies conference there was developing sentiment that the Alliance for Democracy (PAD) was taking on more democratic stripes.

A big change, according to Kavi Chongittavorn, the executive editor of The Nation, is that the Alliance is now backing an all-elected parliament. The author of critical commentary about the alliance in recent weeks, he said it is expanding beyond its elite base, into the middle class and poor.

Speaking of the demonstrations in central Bangkok, Chongittavorn said, “People are taking their children to be part of history. I was shocked.”

The Alliance’s efforts to broaden its base were also noted by two Thai political scientists often quoted in the Western press, Panitan Wattanayagorn and Thitinan Pongsudhirak, both from Chulalongkorn University. Part of the Alliance’s base, they noted, comes from unions. But the unions have a particular motive: opposition to privatization of nationalized industries.

Earlier in September, unions joined the Alliance’s civil disobedience with strikes, including those against airlines. That disruption to the tourist industry, which accounts for more than six percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product, may have had a more negative effect on tourism than the government’s briefly-declared state of emergency and the travel warnings of some Western governments.

Despite the turmoil, though, Chongittavorn’s argues the current political crisis may be reaching its end. Both major parties, he said, are playing their last cards. He predicted new parliamentary elections within three to four months with possible gains going to the country’s most democratic parties.

Whatever the balloting result, Thai politics will not become quiet or boring anytime soon. The top Thai career diplomat at the conference, Charivat Santaputra, spoke of his country’s “vibrant democracy” and observed that occasional turmoil “is the price we have to pay in our quest for democracy.

“It’s a bumpy road, but we will not be swayed from our democratic path,” he promised.

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