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Thailand's Two Conflicts

Thai "Red Shirt" anti-government protesters react as their leaders announce their surrender inside the protesters' camp in downtown Bangkok on May 19, 2010. Protest leaders told thousands of "Red Shirt" supporters to end their weeks-long rally after an army assault on their fortified encampment left at least five people dead. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Thai "Red Shirt" anti-government protesters react as their leaders announce their surrender inside the protesters' camp in downtown Bangkok on May 19, 2010. Protest leaders told thousands of "Red Shirt" supporters to end their weeks-long rally after an army assault on their fortified encampment left at least five people dead. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Most of the familiar mantras repeated in the international media coverage of the UDD protests are woefully simplistic. The red-shirts are not all poor farmers, and not all yellow-shirts are members of the Western-educated elite. Their demonstrations are not spontaneous outpourings of resentment against the Thai aristocracy, despite the fact that some protestors wore T-shirts proclaiming themselves to be slaves (prai).

The UDD is a set of loose, relatively autonomous networks, mainly but not entirely rurally based, organized around community radio stations and the PTV satellite station. This network exploits the rhetoric of social justice to mobilize voters in support of "pro-Thaksin" political parties, building on the former premier's populist programs. Many local UDD leaders are vote-canvassers, the grassroots political organizers who form the lynchpin of Thailand’s electoral politics; they in turn are activated by pro-Thaksin MPs. Other key support bases for the UDD include elected local politicians, self-employed and semi-skilled workers, low-ranking security officials, and contract farmers: lower-middle-class people, not those living at the margins of Thai society.

The response of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government to the red-shirt protests has several crucial parallels with the approach of successive governments to the Southern conflict. Firstly, trying to discredit the political salience of the issue will not work. Despite the movement's lack of ideological consistency, and the fact that many of the protestors were simply mobilized by pro-Thaksin politicians, the UDD protests reflected a seismic shift in Thailand's political order, the rise of new power networks at the local and national levels, and the emergence of bold and vigorous interest groups that will not just go away. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is now 82 years old, and the vexing question of the royal succession looms over all other issues, creating growing levels of national anxiety. Thailand has entered an era of end-of-reign politics characterized by deep social unease.

Secondly, the two conflicts illustrate the limits of military force. In the South, heavy-handed security tactics have failed; in Bangkok the military has cleared the streets of Bangkok, but at the cost of scores of lives, and using tactics that clearly violated international law—the root causes remain unaddressed. Thirdly, both conflicts illustrate the shortcomings of a discourse about justice and reconciliation. Newly-established reform and reconciliation committees do not bring together both sides of Thailand’s political divide, and so stand a very limited chance of success.

Thailand's two recent violent conflicts both testify to a seismic shift in the country's political landscape. Long suppressed by the Bangkok elite, forces of resistance, based primarily in the provinces, are challenging Thailand’s hierarchies and traditional power structures. Major changes in those structures, such as genuine decentralization to the regions, are long overdue. Instead of empty talk of reconciliation, perhaps the time has come for a real national conversation about the country's emerging political realities—and for an elite pact between the warring factions.

Duncan McCargo is author of Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand, winner of Asia Society's Bernard Schwartz Book Award.