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Thailand Political Turmoil in 2008: When the Country Divided

By Ratawit Ouaprachanon

Introduction

Thailand’s politics has become in the most critical point when Samak Sundaravej, Thailand’s Prime Minister, declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on September 2, 2008 after a big clash between pro-government and anti-government protestors[1]. This recent political turmoil began in late May 2008 when the anti-government demonstration called People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) started to protest against the proposal to constitutional amendment by the government which would be in favour to Thaksin Shinawatra[2] , the former PM, to return to politics. Subsequently, the conflict has become escalating and the agendas of the protest have transformed into addressing the government’s failure in solving the rising food and oil price, criticising the government’s support to Cambodia for the listing  of Preah Vihear [3] as a World Heritage and then demanding resignation of the government and  PM. On late August 2008, the PAD demonstrated and occupied in the Government House and invaded state-owned TV station. Eventually, the clash erupted between anti- and pro-government camps. 

The recent violence is not an immediate accident, but rather is a consequence culminated from polarisation between two camps which inexorably hinders peaceful and reconcile situation in Thai society. This polarisation among Thai people has accumulated since 2005 when the PAD was firstly established. Therefore, this paper tries to investigate how the social polarisation among Thai people has formulated by exploring Thailand’s political situation during the past 3 years. In the following sections, I introduce the concept of polarisation and conflict; then present factors and evidences which generate the polarisation in Thai society; and finally provide recommendation for the conflict situation.

Polarisation and Conflict

The term group polarisation is firstly coined from the writing of Serge Moscovici and his colleagues (Moscovici & Zavalloni, 1969). The general concept is the tendency which the average group member on each side becomes increasingly and extremely hostile towards the other side (Pruitt & Kim, 2004). According to Esteban & Ray (1994), polarisation results from the interaction of within-group identity and across-group alienation. While the group members show identification with each other in a polarised society, they feel socially and ideologically separated from the members of other groups.

Myers & Lamm (1976) suggest two main mechanisms for group polarisation: social influence or interpersonal comparison; and informational influence or persuasive argument theory. The social influence approach is based on social psychological views of self-perception and the drive of individuals to appear socially desirable. Meanwhile the informational influence approach attributes the observed response to cognitive learning resulting from exposure to arguments during discussion. The discussion generates arguments predominantly favouring the initial preferred alternative, and thus the cognitive learning occurs in dominant direction and responses are modified accordingly. In order to understand the formulation of group polarisation in Thai political conflict, these two mechanisms will be applied and identified.

 

Clash between the ‘Urban’ and the ‘Rural’ as the Social Influence

Political struggle in Thailand is usually characterised as the term “Tale of Two Democracies” by Anek Laothamatas (1996) arguing that there is a deep conflict between the rural and the urban in politics and election. As noted by Kasian (2006), rural Thais’ numerical superiority, coupled with their unofficial ‘right’ to sell their votes, was experienced by middle-class voters, especially in Bangkok, as ‘the tyranny of the rural majority’, which allowed the unscrupulous electrocrats [4] from the country to misrule the city and mismanage the economy. Meanwhile the city – e.g. urban middle class and elitists – with greater purchasing power and undemocratic economic freedom to trade, consume, exploit and pollute were in turned regarded by the rural as constituting an ‘urban uncivil society’, which dispatched hordes of avaricious government officials to plunder the countryside. In order to comprehend how this notion can influence the movements for both sides, it is necessary to go back to their origins and nature and development of the movement.

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD)[5]  as the demonstration against the recent government was originally a coalition of protesters against Thaksin Shinawatra during Thailand’s political crisis 2005 – 2006 according to his corruption. It consists of a wide range of section of Thai society including urban elite or royalist factions; urban middle class; academics; social activists, politicians, business figures, aristocrats, media, monks, and military leaders (Pye & Shaffar, 2008).  In particular, Pye & Shaffar (2008) pointed out that there were various social movements within the demonstration against the Thaksin’s administration due to their suffering from the government’s populist and neo-liberal policy [6] , Ji Ungpakorn (2007) argues that the PAD movement was dominated by urban elites and urban middle class since the movement was supported by Sondhi Limthongkul in terms of funds and publicity, via his media; and the leaders from the social movement networks and NGOs were too weak to mobilise against Thaksin independently. [7] More importantly, the elite fractions [8]  combined dissatisfied business groups that had lost the political patronage necessary for economic success (Ukrist, 2008) and the old network of civil servants around the king, who were losing out the Thai Rak Thai’s take over of the state apparatus (Hewison, 2008). 

The issues the PAD charged against Thaksin administration at that time were primarily on his corruption, conflict of interest and disloyalty to the King which were directly relevant to ethical issue and interest of middle and upper class (Ji , 2007). For instance, the a first big anti-Thaksin demonstration took place at Royal Plaza on February 4, 2006 due to public indignation at the tax-free sale for $ 1.9 billion of the Thaksin family’s shares in Shin Corporation to Singaporean Temasek Holdings (Kasian, 2007). Moreover, the royalist attitude among the protesters became more influential right after the PAD announced the demand for royal intervention to appoint the new government under the reference to Article 7 of the 1997 Constitution in April 2006. [9]

Later, the PAD voluntarily dissolved two days after the coup d'état [10]  on September 19, 2006. However, in the late May 2008, it was re-established in order to protest against Samak’s government and People’s Power Party (PPP) as a proxy and defender of Thaksin regime. In the resent protest, the movement also include the Srivichai Warriors [11]  the PAD's paramilitary guards - who barricaded themselves in with small weapons. [12] On the other hand, the pro-government movement developed themselves more loosely in the beginning stage than the PAD. During the PAD’s demonstration in 2005 – 06, United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) [13]  was not established. Nonetheless, the pro-Thaksin’s government counter-mobilisations formed in early February 2006 via local bureaucratic channels, in direct response to the anti-Thaksin movement. Throughout March 2006, after the dissolution of Parliament, a string of mass rallies was held in Bangkok and other major provinces, especially the North and Northeast where Thai Rak Thai (TRT), the ruling party, had a strong base, in order to demonstrate supports for Thaksin. Meanwhile there was counter-demonstration, by tens of thousands of poor beneficiaries of Thaksin’s populist programmes both from the rural and urban areas [14] , proclaimed three objectives :to give moral support to the Prime Minister, to buttress democratic rule via election, and to call for further government help in alleviating the manifold problems of the poor (Kasian, 2007).

After the coup d'état, the pro-Thaksin movement transformed into the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), led by some politicians in former TRT party and activists, as the anti-coup movement. The UDD mobilised their demonstration daily nearby Royal Palace during 2007 demanding the coup to resign, reinstate the deposed 1997 Constitution and hold an election. However, in Mid-July, the situation became worse after the arrest of the protest leaders as a result of the clash between the protesters and the police in front of the house of King’s advisor. [15]  During the military appointed government, the tension was also created among people in the countryside – particularly in the North and North-east – as the bastions of Thaksin’s TRT through implementation a range of draconian measures to thwart resistance to the coup. Despite intensive control by the military, the rural people in the areas reacted by rejecting the military drafted constitution. [16] This reaction represented the deep divide between pro- and anti-Thaksin camps and it became clearer in the general election in December 2007 when Samak and his People’s Power Party (PPP) won the majority.  [17] Obviously, the demonstrations and movements from both sides reflect process of their social comparison. Their social and political status can influence on their decision to join in each camps with polarised from each other during the period, in particular the impact of government policy on their lives. For the middle class and urban elite, dissatisfactions were generated during the Thaksin era due to the pro-poor populist policy (Pasuk & Baker, 2008)  [18] . Unsurprisingly, they join the anti-government protest in order to bring back their preferable status in previous time. On the other hand, the rural poor who benefited from the policy participate in pro-Thaksin camp in order to maintain their desirable status.



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