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27 November 2008

Who’s behind the Thai protests?

The paradox for western observers is that, as the protests in Thailand show, these elites can have g

By Sholto Byrnes

A crowd of thousands surrounded the Thai parliament on 24 November, shutting down a joint session of both chambers. The next day they marched on the offices of the prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, to demand his resignation, going not to Government House in central Bangkok – occupied by protesters since August – but to rather less salubrious quarters at an old airport north of the city, from which ministers have been forced to operate.

A welcome demonstration of the popular will, it may be thought. Do not the protesters gather under the banner of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD)? Yet as so often in Thai and south-east Asian politics, all is not what it seems. The PAD actually wants less democracy, or at least less of the one-man-one-vote variety.

Its leaders say that the rural poor who voted for Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in the army-led coup of 2006, and his successors (or proxies), are too ill-educated, their ballots too easily purchased by the highest bidder.

The PAD – ultra-monarchist, hence the profusion of royal yellow in the crowds – prefers a mostly nominated parliament and a polity dominated by the urban business classes and the army. This more authoritarian model, they say, is needed to bring stability and recovery from the excesses of Thaksin, recently sentenced in absentia to two years on corruption charges.

Thailand is not alone in having difficulties reconciling the results of the electoral process with established interests. At the imminent Association of South-East Asian Nations summit, there will, among others, be Cambodia, whose leader, a former Khmer Rouge member, stands accused of rigging last summer’s elections; Malaysia, whose next prime minister has been linked to the murder of a Mongolian model who was his top adviser’s lover; and Burma, where the military junta recently jailed a comedian for 45 years for criticising the generals’ slow response to Cyclone Nargis.

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Throughout the region, elites maintain their grip. The paradox for western observers is that, as the protests in Thailand show, these elites can have genuine mass support. If, for instance, it eventually falls to the revered king to settle this ongoing confrontation – at the time of writing, PAD demonstrators had just stormed the new international airport – no one will dispute his arbitration. For Thais, he has a mandate greater than any election could possibly confer.

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