Monday, March 22, 2010

Thaksin’s Red Shirts -Do they know what they are fighting for?

Reds' messages of inequality are legitimate, but what real reforms can they offer to show their sincerity?

Class war and the inequities of political power have effectively become the trademark sound bytes from the leaders of the red-shirt movement. Like most political sloganeering, their words and speeches are catchy and may bear some truth. But these don't sum up the entire conflict or its nature.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said his government was willing to talk with the red-shirt protestors, about 100,000 of whom have gathered in Bangkok over this past week. The red-shirt leaders say they will talk only to Abhisit, not his representatives.

But we shouldn't get our hopes up. From the look of it, this talk of a truce appears to be a lot of hot air aimed at buying time as the government and the reds prepare their next moves. It is not an exercise to seek common ground, because neither side is interested in a solution. Neither side can compromise on its position. The government cannot bend the law to allow fugitive Thaksin to get off scot-free, especially now that he has been indicted; and the reds will seemingly settle for nothing less than seeing Thaksin a free man, with the seized money returned to him.

For negotiations to have any real impact or to be meaningful, they must include all stakeholders. Like it or not, this includes the yellow-shirt People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). If the reds were somehow able to get the prime minister to dissolve Parliament and call a new election, would that end the crisis? Mostly likely not, because the PAD would then return to the streets to oust the pro-red government.

What started off as a personal political dispute between Thaksin Shinawatra and the so-called yellow shirts led by his friend-turned-foe and media tycoon, Sondhi Limthongkul, has evolved into a stalemate political crisis.

But drawing a dividing line that cuts through these movements is virtually impossible. To say that the conflict is between the Bangkok rich and the rural poor is misleading. There are rich and poor in both camps, and Thaksin's background and track record represents his business interests, not the rural poor. The yellow shirts include unionists in their rank and file, and both camps include former communists and right-wing royalists.

Thaksin made good because of his connections to the so-called ammart (traditional elite), the very people his red camp is now condemning. Besides representing the business class, his populist policies during his terms in office did virtually nothing in terms of capacity building or bridging the gap between the rich and poor.
Besides the merchant and business classes, his policies also benefited his cronies. Friends and relatives were placed in key and strategic positions. They all made good economically. But the man was just too greedy, and he didn't know how to quit when he was ahead.

Thailand remained a most unequal society under his terms. But instead of doing something about it, Thaksin effectively exploited the situation and billed himself as a champion of the poor, the people who felt cheated.

Indeed, their problems should not be brushed aside. Many are convinced that Thaksin is a scam artist, but we cannot deny the grievances of ordinary red shirts. Many are born poor and will most likely die poor under the current system that we have in place.

And so the red-shirt leaders have been playing on the issue of inequality and class war. Their favourite word has become ammart, in reference to the traditional elite in Thai society.

But the reds' rhetoric comes across as hypocritical, yet they persist even after it is repeatedly pointed out that Thaksin, an immensely wealthy man, and the red-shirt leaders, are not exactly paupers.

Thus the talk of a truce is to buy time.

If the red-shirt movement is to gain any credibility, its leaders will have to spell out in real terms what must be done if we are going to move on as a nation. They may go as far as looking at various models in northern European countries, where the state looks after citizens from birth to death. But will the current leaders of the red shirts be willing to accept 50-per cent taxes on their income? Thaksin has been convicted for fraud and tax evasion, so what kind of reform can we expect from his half-baked pro-democracy leaders who have been clogging up Bangkok's streets over the past week. Editorial, The Nation, Bangkok

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