Thursday, March 18, 2010

Thailand: Red protests and government's failure to get message out

Thailand’s Red protest disgusts most people, but the government is not getting its message across that it supports rural people.

What a waste of blood that was splashed on fences and pavements. Obviously, it was good for photo opportunities for the global media, but it was in bad taste and grotesque. The blood, even though it was drawn under distress, could have saved hundreds of lives if it was donated to hospitals. Whoever came up with this idea is really a bloodsucker because he or she did not think deeply about what the reaction and consequences would be. The red protestors could have scored high points if their leaders just took a few drops for their much-publicised voodoo rituals instead of emptying bottles of blood on the streets.

Amazingly, some of the leaders of the red shirts have given themselves credit for this new gimmick. They needed a dramatic shift from their failed ultimatum to the government a day earlier, thus the focus on bloody shenanigans. But it was a bad strategy. It turned most people off. A non-violent rally turned into a bloody, superstitious ritual? Only fools will understand and appreciate that.

Of course, Thaksin will have the biggest laugh. Just keep doling out the baht bills and the red shirts will swarm to key traffic intersections in Bangkok. After all, punishing Bangkokians is a good way to remind the rural masses of their grievances. With only 55 per cent of his Bt76 billion in assets permanently seized, he still has tons of money to finance the movement in the future, even though he is gradually losing his Midas touch.

How long can he keep "twittering" his messages and urging thousands of people to fight for him in the Bangkok heat while he and his family bask the Balkans sunshine. It is almost certain he can continue to do so without any success until he dies.
The worst is not over, as the political contest will continue, but in a more subtle way, as long as the issues of disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and the rural-urban divide are not systematically and fully addressed.

The demonstrators have achieved one thing: their routine highlighting of these issues has now sunk into the public conscience. So, they have to ponder the next level of engagement with the government - but not through jamming the streets and ranting through loudspeakers.

The call for a House dissolution and a new election is a non-starter. Nobody can dispute the fact that an election is an important element in democratic governance. A credible, free and fair election must be held in an environment that is secure and fair to every political entity. But with the situation as it is now, the conditions are not conducive. Some political parties cannot access certain provinces.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the government to broaden dialogue with the protesters and address their real grievances. To be fair, since the government came to power a year ago, PM Abhisit has made some progress, despite the failure of the media to take notice, on various programmes to improve the livelihood of rural people in sustainable ways.

Certainly, those who have come into Bangkok to protest were the early recipients of Thaksin's populist give-aways. As a result, they were impressed by Thaksin. So it is not easy to trump that strong impression among the Isaan people. Indeed, it should serve as a barometer for Abhisit to try harder to win the hearts and minds of these people.

Truth be told, the current government has instituted broader populist programmes with similar objectives. The government has instituted a transparent mechanism to ensure that funding goes to rural people. But disposal of state budgets is still slow - something the government needs to improve. Rural people cannot wait for the government to come to them, as they have other things to do. Therefore, the government must reach out in all possible ways to them. Abhisit is moving in the right direction but he must move faster. The rural poor are losing patience.
Editorial, The Nation, Bangkok

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