If you’ve been to Thailand, even for a short visit like mine, you’ll notice it’s a country of huge contrasts. The Bangkok area has 20% of the population and is a huge urban mix of cramped streets and shopping malls that outdo anything in the West. It’s the centre of the country, and home to the King, the military and the elites. It is also where the opposition Democrat Party (also known as the yellowshirts) gets its support from (as well as parts of the South). It’s the party of the elites; conservative and pro-market.
The rest of the country is a lot different. The next biggest city after Bangkok has only 262 000 people, showing how rural the country is. Many of the population here are farmers, relying on rice crops for their income. The rural areas of the country are loyal to the ‘redshirt’ party. This party was first led by Thaksin Shinawatra, then by his sister Yingluck after the military removed Thaksin in 2006. The redshirts came to power in 2001, and gained huge support through guaranteeing rice prices and promoting development in the rural North and East.
This basic divide is what’s causing the protests in Bangkok. The yellowshirt Democrat Party knows that it can never win an election about the redshirts, they are too popular in the rural areas. In their opinion the redshirts are undemocratic because they buy votes with popular policies. So they decided to change the rules.
First the army removed the redshirts from government in 2006, then crushed redshirt protests in 2010, killing 90 people. However the newest version of a redshirt party still won the election in 2011. So now they are protesting the redshirt government, saying they are undemocratic and corrupt. However the protestors don’t want elections, because they know they will lose. Instead they’re calling for a “People’s Council” appointed by them, who will govern for a few years before holding elections. They are also actively trying to disrupt plans for new elections on February 2nd.
So these protesters aren’t really the ‘pro-democracy’ fighters they appear to be. In actuality it’s a battle between Bangkok elites and the rural masses for control of the country, where the elites are the ones taking to the streets and the masses are in power. The stage could even be set for a rerun of the 2006 coup, where the military eventually took the side of the yellow shirts, and forced Thaksin Shinawatra from office. January will certainly be a tense month for Prime Minister Yingluck.