Thailand's Uncertain New Political Equation

The bloodbath on the streets of Bangkok last Saturday is a strong indication that the Red Shirt protesters will fight until Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva steps down and returns power to the Thais.

Abhisit's chances of surviving this brutal game are slim. The days that he could count on his supporters in high places are coming to an end. Suddenly, the young prime minister who firmly believed in his growing, invincible power a few months ago, is vulnerable. Thailand is on its way of entering into a new era despite what appears suspiciously like a stalling tactic in which the Election Commission conveniently ordered the dissolution of Abhisit's Democrat Party because of an undeclared donation from a cement company, TPI Polene. But it could take several months for the decision to be confirmed in court – if it is. The Red Shirts have denounced the election commission's decision as a stalling tactic to allow the situation to cool off.

But what will Thailand's new era look like? Throughout the past few decades, of course with the exception of the period of ousted billionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand had been ruled solidly by the Bangkok elite. This group, consisting of the military, royalists, senior bureaucrats and big businesses, operated from an ivory tower and controlled every move of successive civilian rule. They argued that under their direction, Thailand had gained a certain level of political stability and its economic growth was an evident result of their effective policy.

But the seemingly successful Thailand led by the benevolent Thai elite took a heavy toll on the poor in remote regions. These villagers had to sacrifice their political rights while waiting for the economic prosperity, heavily centered upon Bangkok, to reach them one day. Yet, the process had taken too long and their hope was lost along the way.

Meanwhile, they were told to remain faithful in the Thai traditional thinking. Their destiny, according to that thinking, was inevitably remaining in the underclass. They were told to believe in the philosophy of the sufficiency economy. This is the Land of Smiles. They must smile, they were told, even when they were sinking in poverty.

Through the years, the Thais have become accustomed to the political tactics of the Bangkok elite. They are indeed the devil whom the Thai people have come to know so well. Now that the political landscape is shifting and it is highly likely that the Red Shirts will form the next government, one question emerges: Do the Thais really know the reds?

The Red Shirt agendas have been impressive. They have campaigned for democracy, the elimination of the domination of power by the hands of the elite, an expansion of underclass power and an amendment of the constitution so that civilian rule would become empowered once again. Despite initially working on behalf of the fugitive Thaksin, who was driven from power in a coup in 2006, the reds are now distancing themselves from him. They have claimed to battle against social injustice and the double standards that have long prevailed in Thai society, and thus not really to protect Thaksin's interest.

But what else the Thais really know about the reds? Their organization? Their funding? Their long-term political goal once they are elected? What is their worldview? Who will be the leader? These countless questions seem to suggest that the Thais soon will have to deal with the devil they don't really know.

The obscurity swirling around the red-shirted movement serves to legitimize the concerns of the Bangkok elite. This has also allowed the elite to paint the image of the reds as simply "thugs who reign in power", or joan krong muang. Accordingly, Abhisit immediately accused the leaders as a group of terrorists who took the advantage of the political crisis to incite violence during the latest clashes between the reds and the government authorities.

Some of the red-shirted leaders also once talked about the formation of an underground movement whose scheme was to overthrow the Abhisit regime. This revelation, coupled with the violent riots that shook Bangkok in April last year, has increasingly added fear and anxiety to the Bangkok residents. The confrontation last weekend, while showing the Red-Shirts' determination, helped reinforce the negative image cast by the Bangkok elite.

Perhaps, it is now time for the red-shirted leaders to put across their political ideology and get rid of certain perceptions in the eyes of the Bangkok residents. True, they will represent the majority voice of the Thais, and not the elite. But when they come to power, they will undoubtedly have to deal with Bangkok, which after all, is the center of political power. And the elitist class will never disappear. Classes are the main characteristic of Thai culture.

Leadership within the Red Shirt movement is a key issue. It is almost impossible for Thaksin to return to Thailand and resume the premiership. He is damaged goods. He was found guilty of abusing his power while serving in office. He might still be adored by millions of his supporters, but he has many millions of enemies too.

Currently, it is fair to say that the absence of leadership among the reds could become their weak point prior to the election and even after they win the poll. The core Red leaders, including Veera Musikhapong, Weng Tojirakarn, Arisman Phongruengrong, and Nattawut Saikua, somewhat lack leadership and charisma. Nattawut, in particular, comes across as the hardliner of the bunch. He reportedly said that he would "tear up all laws" as he was marching on the street to drive Abhisit out of power.

The other equally important issue pertains to the Red Shirts' policy to uplift the living standard of the majority Thais. Some of their followers from the rural regions, while endorsing the movement's course to bring down aristocratic rule in Bangkok, have a rather vague idea of how their lives would be improved after the election. Exactly how the Red Shirts will serve their interest is an imminent question in their mind.

This, once again, emphasizes the need for the Red Shirts to transform themselves into an organized political party with a clearer political manifesto and long-term policy, and eventually into some kind of a devil whom the Thais must come to know.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.