Thailand needs social contract — Globe and Mail

Check out this Globe and Mail article “The protesters’ true colours” at…

Christopher Johnson

From Friday’s Globe and Mail

Given Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws and the power of its gunmen, it’s difficult for anyone to publicly reveal the true story of why two dozen people died and 900 were injured in Saturday’s street clashes in Bangkok.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 82, whose moral authority helped ease tensions in 1992, has been in and out of hospital since September, and his wife and heir-apparent son, who pledged to cover medical costs of all victims, have been mourning the loss of senior royal guards killed in grenade and gun-fire attacks. Resisting calls to resign, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, 45, has accused mysterious “third-party terrorists” of instigating the clashes and of targeting military commanders with high-powered rifles. Despite government pledges for a public inquiry, the Black Saturday incident will likely just become more clouded in speculation, like previous violent upheavals in1973, 1976 and 1992.

What is clear from this rebellion, however, is Thailand’s need for a “social contract” between the country’s elites and the servant class. Many in the traditional underclass of dark-skinned northerners, working as maids and construction workers for four dollars a day, are no longer satisfied with a system based on pii-nong (elder and junior) relationships. That sentiment could spread like it did across Indochina in the 1970s, affecting operations at the Thai factories that export cameras and cars and affecting the thousands of Westerners who live and travel in Thailand.

As Canadian expatriate author Christopher Moore has noted, this is more than a simple class conflict between poor rural “red shirts” and royalist “yellow shirts.” Mr. Moore says that the political colours are “class blended to an extent,” and that the division runs through all levels of society.

While Saturday’s clashes pitted many poor northern farm boys, drafted into the military, against poor northerners in the red-shirt camp, the protesters have also included urban students, radical professors, lawyers, seniors, children and monks. Given the up-country carnival atmosphere of these protests, Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto, who died from a gunshot wound in the chest, evidently thought it was safe enough to go up to the line dividing troops and protesters, and his final footage suggests he was with the soldiers for protection, rather than running away from them.

From the perspective of cynical Bangkokians, both the soldiers and protesters have been manipulated and brainwashed by greedy figures who “hen ga tua” (see only their own bodies). Since the democratic uprising of 1973, Thai progressives have been hoping that the rule of law would prevent men with money and guns from bullying or bribing citizens into voting for them and legitimizing their grip on power. Mr. Abhisit’s camp, as well as many Bangkok journalists, see fugitive billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as exploiting the poor in order to topple a government that is confiscating his assets. The red shirts, meanwhile, accuse the generals and others of extreme greed, which is the root of all suffering, according to the Buddha.

Raised on Buddhist teachings about tolerance, Thais typically value compromise, harmony and good governance, even if they don’t conform to Western interpretations of democracy. In 2006, a Suan Dusit university poll showed that about 84 per cent of Thais supported the military coup that ousted Mr. Thaksin’s elected government, and many Bangkokians thanked the soldiers for not disrupting their more direct concerns: business and national image. But the red shirts are different, with less to lose. Many don’t fear anarchy because they already lack rights and protections in a Darwinian society where might often means right, and the media, military and election commission seem aligned against them.

When asked why they protest, the red shirts say they want better schools and hospitals, and the type of compassionate welfare traditionally offered by Buddhist temples, whose influence is waning in a world of cellphones and stimulants. While many feel fortunate not to live under the kind of repressive regimes that rule neighbouring Myanmar and Laos, they are concerned about Thailand’s growing wealth gap. They want their own locally elected leaders to have a voice, as they felt they had under Mr. Thaksin, whose vote-buying and corruption doesn’t offend them as much as military coups and crackdowns. They simply want a government that serves them, instead of looking down at them from Bangkok.

Yet they are hurting their own cause by calling for Mr. Abhisit to step down immediately, which could tempt hard-line generals to fill the vacuum. Educated at Oxford, the Prime Minister should have a good understanding of the social-contract theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, and how they can be applied to heal Thailand’s bitter divide.

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