An Orange Revolution?
It has been too long since the people of Thailand last faced any good option. Today as they have for much of the past eight decades, if perhaps in terms that have never been more stark, the Thai people confront a choice that offers no real alternative. Before them stand two factions, divided more by competing private agendas than they are by alternative visions for the future of the country. On one side, in yellow, safely ensconced behind their tanks, their guns, and a frenzied, yah bah- powered army of street thugs, are the poo yai drawn from the country’s bureaucracy, the army, and parts of Bangkok’s rapacious business community. These are the people who have ruled Thailand for much of the past 75 years, under the pretense of protecting the country’s most sacred symbols. But they have never met, much less served, a cause greater than their own aggrandizement. To them, the people are mere beasts of burden, the producers of wealth they can plunder with impunity, the breeders of daughters they can sell into prostitution. For decades, the poo yai have told the people that they are too stupid, ignorant, and lazy to be entrusted with the destiny of the country — that they have no business demanding the right to drive the entire country into the ground. For decades, they have branded anyone who dared challenge their right to use the state as personal property a traitor, a communist, a republican, or an agent of shadowy international conspiracies. And, for decades, they have smothered the people’s aspirations in the blood of their bravest young men and women. Now they stand before the people, pressing a knife to their throat. It’s their way or chaos, economic catastrophe, and civil war. Prostrate and crawl, you subhuman fuck. Obey. Or else.
On the other side, in red, stand the poo yai of a different kind — provincial gangsters, corrupt upcountry politicians, and (former) Bangkok-based businessmen who have fallen from the grace of the military and bureaucratic elites. They too want the whole pie for themselves. They too have used public office to line their pockets, reward their cronies, and silence their critics. They too have have labeled their opponents foreign agents and threats to society. They too have ruled with the crassest disregard for human rights and democratic freedoms. They too have exploited the people’s fear of “the other” — supposed deviants, presumed insurgents, and purported foreign invaders — to bolster their credentials as the strenuous defenders of Thailand’s social cohesion, independence, and tradition. They too have raped, tortured, and killed. The difference? Instead of viewing them as a threat, those in the red shirts see the people as an opportunity. Instead of telling them, to their face, that they have no right to a government that works for them, they seek to ride the people’s long-frustrated aspirations all the way back into executive office. What they offer in return is a chewed-up, leftover bone — mere scraps of the spoils of power they once again seek to hoard for themselves and their henchmen.
It is often the case that of the deepest, darkest crises are borne the most spectacular of possibilities. Thailand is in a rut, but its current predicament is no different. It is at this painful juncture, after the tragic setbacks that followed the triumph of the 1997 People’s Constitution, that the Thai people have an unprecedented opportunity to take charge of their own destiny, to reach for what they have long been denied. As Thaksin’s influence continues to wane, those committed to real social and political change have the opportunity to channel the unity of purpose that the provincial masses achieved — for the first time in their history — under the leadership of Thai Rak Thai into a genuinely democratic movement. One that seeks the people’s empowerment but rejects the corruption, the cronyism, the violence, and the contempt for the rule of law of the old TRT regime.
At the same time, the corruption scandals that have hit Abhisit’s government, the atrocities it has desperately sought to cover up, and the wave of paranoid repression it has unleashed have exposed the yellow shirts for all their hypocrisy. It is now painfully obvious that the military-backed elites who have paralyzed the country and pissed all over Thailand’s international image have gone to such extremes only just so they could substitute the will of the people for their own, superior wisdom. Only just so they could replace corrupt politicians inimical to their agenda for equally crooked but more malleable ones. Only just so they could establish their own dictatorship masqueraded in the most meaningless trappings of democracy. Should Bangkok’s students, professionals, and middle-income, white-collar workers rise up — just as they did when they caught on to a similar fraud in 1992 — they would not only deprive the new regime of a constituency whose tacit support it needs to survive, much like Suchinda’s regime did 17 years ago. This time, urban middle-income voters have a chance to parlay a potentially invincible alliance with the once-dormant rural populace into sweeping, long-awaited social change.
What will it take to marry the aspirations of the provincial masses with those of the urban middle classes? It will take meeting half way, to join hands in a movement that is neither red nor yellow, but rather embodies the noblest sentiments of each. It will take for the provincial masses to recognize that the gangsters they have often called their representatives are as much an obstacle to their empowerment as the poo yai in Bangkok. It will take for them to throw Thaksin under the bus, embracing the urban electorate’s desire for a cleaner, more transparent, more honest, more responsive government. It will take for the urban middle classes to acknowledge that the Bangkok-based poo yai are as much an impediment to the country’s progress as the provincial politicians they viscerally despise. And it will take for those among them who share with the PAD rank-and-file a sincere reverence for Thailand’s most sacred institutions to openly reject their PAD’s elitism, its contempt for democracy, and its fascist fantasies.
This is the people’s chance. A chance to substitute Thai-style dictatorship with a real, Thai-style democracy. A chance to honor king, nation, religion, and each of the distinctive traditions that make Thailand a unique, special place without subjecting dissenting views to censorship, legal harassment, or violence. A chance to reject the simplistic, vulgar reduction of “Thai culture” to the mere requirement that the most desperate must always grovel before the most fortunate. A chance to recognize, as Prince Damrong did, that tolerance, freedom, and non-violence are as much an integral part of Thai culture as sakdina-based social hierarchy. A chance to elevate, as King Mongkut demanded, the pluralistic traditions of Sukhothai on par with the more conservative legacy of Ayutthaya. A chance to restore Buddhism to more than just the legitimation of social inequalities. A chance to bring the military under civilian control. A chance to come clean about recent history. A chance to acknowledge that the story of the last 75 years is not the “development” of democratic institutions, but rather the elites’ increasingly frantic attempt to deny the people real democracy. A chance to pay homage to the sacrifice of those who died for democracy by telling the truth about their executioners. A chance to stop exchanging human rights abusers for statesmen, heros for troublemakers, and novelists for criminals. A chance to put the elites back in their place. A chance to make government work. A chance to empower the people through equitable development, education, rights, and participation. A chance to lead Thailand into the developed world not through the back door of repression and exploitation, but as the nation of laws, freedom, justice, and opportunity it has always aspired to be.