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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 / December 15, 2008

Balance: Salon boss Thanakit Somwong, of Bangkok, says he tries not to talk politics with clients because it's too divisive.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor



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.

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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.

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.