The fuel behind Thailand red-shirt protesters' fire
Thailand's red-shirt protesters accepted a government reconciliation roadmap on Tuesday. But they refused to end their demonstrations, which have left 27 people dead.
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How strong is Thai democracy?Skip to next paragraph
In 1997, Bangkok adopted a liberal Constitution that guaranteed civil rights. But after Thaksin was elected in 2001, he began to undo independent checks on his government.
The military later tore up the Constitution and drafted a more conservative one.
Some analysts say democracy has been impeded by royalist elites, who backed the coup against Thaksin. "Bangkok elites can't understand what has changed in Thailand in the last few decades. They can't adjust," says Nidhi Eeoseewong, a retired historian in Chiang Mai.
Many intellectuals and middle-class urbanites cheered the coup, partly for fear of redistributive economic politics, says Federico Ferrera, of the National University of Singapore. That stops them from supporting the poorer red shirts, despite shared goals such as social justice and democracy. "Bangkok's middle classes have been told repeatedly … that the equal participation of 'the great unwashed' in ... government will largely take place at their expense," he says.
Is this an ideological struggle, and how does it affect Southeast Asia?
It's not really ideological. The red shirts are a democratic mass movement, as are the yellow shirts, to a lesser extent. Politicians and money shape both groups, but they are essentially battling to define the parameters of Thai democracy. Neither aims to reverse the free-market economy.
What is at stake is the monarchy. The PAD accuses Thaksin of wanting to replace it with a presidency, a charge he denies. The military has used defense of the monarchy to justify political interventions. Many expect royal influence to wane after Bhumibol's passing; libel laws and taboos make such debate difficult.
Prolonged instability is alarming trade partners like Japan and the United States. A reversion to military rule would tilt the balance within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is struggling to find common ground in tackling the oppressive junta in Burma (Myanmar). But it may be preferred by some allies to continued paralysis.
Who are Thailand's power brokers?
The palace and military and business elites are key. But the polarization of recent years has affected how much influence these groups wield – creating more democratic space, but also leaving a vacuum. The Army is divided over how to handle popular dissent. It also stumbled badly after seizing power in 2006. But it remains an essential player. "It's going to take a long time to get them back in the barracks again," says James Klein, country director for the Asia Foundation.