The western word by and large loves to cheer for political underdogs. The plucky protestor braving rain, hail, and often the policeman’s baton to march for liberty, freedom and the rights of his fellow man is something of a cultural icon. We are instinctively conditioned to support supposed ‘democratic’ protests against a nation’s authorities, often without reviewing the facts of the case. Thailand’s ongoing political and social turmoil is no exception.
Since November 2013 clashes between the pro government ‘red-shirts’ and the anti-government ‘yellow shirts’ have rocked Bangkok and the country at large. A general election held on February 2nd failed to ease tensions as it was boycotted by the opposition, an opposition which has both disrupted the voting and which now calls for further protest. The risk of further civil strife is very real but there are no signs of a peaceful resolution to the political crisis any time soon.
On the face of it, the demands of the Yellow Shirts might seem very reasonable. They reject the overwhelming influence that the Shinawatra family (and in particular, former Prime Minister and billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra) has over the Thai political system. After being deposed in 2006 by a military coup, Mr. Shinawatra currently lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai, and would face extensive criminal charges for corruption if he returned to Thailand. But his influence continues to be felt: the current government after all is headed by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra and many believe he continues to pull the government’s strings. A proposed government bill in 2013 which would have granted amnesty to Thaksin was largely responsible for setting off the current wave of protests. While the bill is dead and buried, the anger it stirred up remains very much alive.
What is perhaps less well known is that the yellow shirt protestors are predominantly the wealthy middle class of Bangkok, that they want the appointment of an unelected ‘people’s council’ to resolve the political crisis they have created, and that this is not the first electoral defeat they have refused to conceded in recent years. Perhaps if they were as keen on a democratic solution as they claim they would be more willing to both participate in the country’s elections, and accept the fact that in democracies, you can’t win every time. The yellow shirt protestors are not the poor or unrepresented in Thailand, that dubious honor belongs to the red shirts who are predominantly poorer Thais from the country’s north and east.
Neither side has the moral high ground, and so far neither side is willing to compromise. Ideally the ruling Pheu Thai party would dump Ms. Shinawatra as quickly as possible; it is their association with the Shinawatra family remains the primary gripe of the anti-government protestors. Of course it is the Shinawatra name that draws in support for the party from its base, and the family’s influence continues to run strong. The protestors must also accept that sometimes, your favored candidate loses an election; disliking the government is no cause to effectively suspend democracy. Regardless of the outcome the ongoing crisis in Thailand is indicative of why the world can’t always cheer for the underdog, if they can even work out who that is.