The chedis, or the mounds where Buddhists keep their scriptures in Bangkok’s wats (or temples), are golden yellow, and the city has hundreds of them, rising steeply, like crowns. In one such wat, Thai troops opened fire last week, its floor and pillars turned red with the blood of the people inside the temple.
And so it was that the two colours that have dominated the Thai political narrative this decade—yellow and red—collided. There is little to choose between the two: In 2007, the ruling party (which the yellow-shirts back) won 39.63% of the vote; the opposition (which the red-shirts support) got 39.60%.
It is easy to see a simplistic narrative. The red version is a tale of class struggle, where the rural poor wearing red-shirts laid siege in the city, to overthrow a government of elite: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is educated at Eton and Oxford. The financial support for the red-shirts, it is alleged, comes from Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who lives abroad because if he were to return to Bangkok, he’d have to go to jail—there’s a judgement against him, for conflict of interest.
The charges against Thaksin are not entirely trumped up. Thaksin’s rise is an astonishing story of business mixing with politics. He was a provincial police officer who became a businessman and, during the Asian boom, he had a spectacular rise in the business world, building a telecom empire. Then he entered politics, distributing largesse in rural areas, earning popularity that strengthened him against the Bangkok-based elite. It took a coup to remove him—and Thailand has had dozens of coups in the past century. Later, when his supporters formed a government, thousands of people, wearing yellow shirts, took over Bangkok and its airports, refusing to vacate unless the Thaksin-backed government resigned.
Ironically, among the leaders of the yellow-shirts was the former media mogul, Sondhi Limthongkul, who published the magazine Asia, Inc., where I was its Singapore-based regional correspondent for a few years in the mid-1990s. Sondhi and Thaksin were once friends—in fact, one of the earliest profiles of Thaksin appeared in Asia, Inc., suggesting that he represented new entrepreneurship in Thailand, distinct from the khaki commerce (of military-linked businesses) common in Thailand and Indonesia. Sondhi’s media businesses collapsed during the 1997 Asian crisis; he went to a Buddhist monastery and some banks forgave him his debts. He re-emerged, absolved by his spiritual stint. Some Thais say Thaksin should do a similar grand gesture and even go to jail for a while, and then maybe the compassionate Thais will forgive him—as Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, who have written several books on modern Thailand, wrote recently.
The Thai saga is endlessly dramatic, like Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayan, which draws from the Indian epic but undergoes many transformations, with some parts scarcely resembling the original. Just as Thailand outwardly resembles a democracy, but doesn’t necessarily function like one.
Thai politics is stunted: Another election won’t solve anything. It has the hardware to hold elections, but lacks the software that keeps its rulers accountable. Elected leaders have been corrupt; appointed leaders have lacked legitimacy. The people trust their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
I remember when the troops had opened fire on demonstrators 18 years ago, in May 1992, so that General Suchinda Kraprayoon could retain power (he ended up leaving office within days). I was a reporter in Singapore at that time. I went to Beach Road, where Thai construction workers used to meet. I asked them what they thought. Not one would say anything in public. The king would end the crisis, they said.
Bhumibol did so in 1992, and has intervened since, but not this time. He is old and ailing. But there may be another reason: he may fear he will be ignored. And in a country where lese majeste is a serious offence (as some of my former colleagues at Far Eastern Economic Review will testify) you don’t say that the emperor has no clothes. Many Thais wait for Bhumibol to deliver. As Galileo told Andrea in Brecht’s eponymous play: unhappy is the nation in need of a hero.
In the end, the leader of the demonstrators who told them to go home, ending the siege, wore a shirt with an image of Mohandas Gandhi, as if the rebel in that predominantly Buddhist nation had suddenly discovered non-violence. However cynical that gesture may have seemed, it showed the power of metaphor.
That may be the lesson for India: Indian Maoists have been called Gandhians with guns. They claim to fight inequality and tribal poverty, and the means they use involve placing land mines, blowing up buses and arming teenagers. No Indian city has been turned into Bangkok, yet. India needs to weaken them before it gets there. To do that, the focus should be the poor, and not those who speak in their name.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org