Beneath Thailand's tumult, a rural-urban fault line

Lawmakers are to pick a new prime minister Monday – the third in four months, reflecting the country's polarized politics.

By , Correspondent

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    Balance: Salon boss Thanakit Somwong, of Bangkok, says he tries not to talk politics with clients because it's too divisive.
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As lawmakers here prepare to pick Thailand's third prime minister in four months, the polarized country appears to have stepped back from the brink of all-out political violence.

Tempers have cooled since a court ordered the dissolution of three political parties in the ruling coalition on Dec. 2. As a result, antigovernment protesters ended a week-long occupation of Bangkok's two airports that wrecked the country's tourism industry.

Members of the disbanded ruling People's Power Party – who have regrouped into a new party, Puea Thai Party – are still attempting to cobble together the next government. But if the opposition Democrat Party secures the 220-vote majority needed to form its own ruling coalition, as it claims it can in Monday's parliamentary vote, that could offer further respite.

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Still, even as street protests have simmered down, the continuing political battle underscores the deep fault line that exists here between town and country.

The People's Alliance for Democracy, the royalist group behind the airport seizure late last month, draws its supporters from Bangkok and southern Thailand. It aims to dismantle the electoral machine built by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra during his tenure from 2001 to 2006 in the rural heartland of the north and curb the power of popularly elected officials. Wealthy PAD activists dismiss rural voters as simpletons who can't be trusted to choose a government.

The divisions also cut deeply in Bangkok, a city of more than 10 million people. Ties within neighborhoods, workplaces, and families are feeling the strain from relentless partisanship, as rival media outlets serve up narratives that blame the crisis solely on the opposite side.

The political conflict is color-coded: yellow shirts for the PAD, red shirts for Thaksin supporters. To the yellows, Thaksin and his allies have corrupted and corroded the body politic. To the reds, an elected government has been sabotaged by an elitist minority.

Puttachai Rattanalangkan, a US-educated engineer and PAD activist, has stopped talking about politics with his father, a red shirt, after heated rows at home. His mother, however, recently swung to his side after watching months of ASTV, a pro-PAD television station. He says he hasn't given up on converting his father to the cause.

"I think the reason we're so divided is that there are two kinds of people. One group of people doesn't know the truth. It's a matter of media," he says.

Among those media is a 24-hour FM station run by and for Bangkok taxi drivers. Into the wee hours, it hosts phone-ins by disgruntled drivers who fume over the PAD's campaign against a government that many of them voted into office. In particular, the closure of the airports has decimated the city's tourist industry, and that hits taxi drivers hard, says Sanong Karaket, the station's vice director.

On Nov. 25, PAD militiamen shot and wounded several taxi drivers who had hurled rocks at their convoy, one of several armed clashes in recent months. Some taxi drivers now refuse to pick up yellow-shirt passengers.

Sanong says if push comes to shove, his side has the advantage: "If we talk about the people who live and work in Bangkok, I can tell you that red shirts outnumber PAD supporters."

More than 40,000 Thaksin supporters packed into a stadium Saturday to hear a defiant taped message by their exiled hero, adding to tensions on the eve of Monday's vote.

Many of the roughly 20,000 taxis in Bangkok are rented by the day. Some of their drivers return to their villages during harvest time, straddling the urban-rural divide. Just as in 1997, when Thailand's economy contracted amid a regional crisis, the current slowdown may push more back to the countryside.

The aspirations of taxi drivers to join the urban middle class made them fodder for the brash populism of Mr. Thaksin, a tycoon-turned-politician who led his party to election victories in 2001 and 2005 before being ousted by a military coup in 2006.

By delivering subsidized healthcare and other giveaways to Thailand's emerging middle class, Thaksin hit on a winning formula. By contrast, the white-collar workforce – a wellspring of PAD activism – is only 15 percent of the population, according to a 2004 government survey. Agrarian workers make up 41 percent.

This rural and urban voting bloc became a threat to the middle class in Bangkok and other cities who felt bypassed by Thaksin's policies, says Nidhi Eoseewong, a retired historian in Chiang Mai. This drove them into the arms of royalist and military elites who feared a strongman leader would weaken their influence.

"Middle-class Thais don't care too much about Thaksin's violation of democratic rights.... What they care about is [diluting] the equal participation of rural people," he says.

Mr. Puttachai, the PAD activist, argues that taxpayers are entitled to more say in how public funds are spent: "I don't think [Thaksin] can run the country without our middle-class taxes."

Thanakit Somwong, a beauty salon boss in a working-class district of Bangkok, offers guarded praise for Thaksin. During his five years in office, life in Mr. Thanakit's hometown in the hardscrabble northeast improved: new roads, crop-price subsidies.

"Nobody is perfect, but [Thaksin] worked hard, he worked for his country," he says.

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