How did Thailand’s progressive middle class end up calling for an end to democracy? asks Asia Sentinel

It would be hard to imagine another country anywhere that would see thousands of well-educated and seemingly middle-class people march to the streets demanding not more but less democracy. But the current protests in Thailand have that curious upside-down feel to them, as if the natural constituents of democracy in most countries  — the educated middle class – have given up on the ballot box. Instead they long for a paternalistic hand to rid them of the man who has become their enemy, Thaksin Shinawatra.

In other countries throughout the region, it has long been the opposite. Various democratic uprisings in the Philippines over the last 30 years or so have invariably been led by the wealthy elite and their middle class backers. Indonesia’s reformasi uprising against Suharto in 1998 was driven by university students and intellectuals. Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional is slowly losing out to rising urban sentiment as the middle class cities largely vote against the country’s traditional rulers.

Thaksin Shinawatra

Fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Pic: AP.

Suthep Thaugsuban, the former Democrat Party leader who is now leading the protesters, is no small “d” democrat. He is under indictment for ordering the May 2010 crackdown against Red Shirt protesters that resulted in the deaths of 92 people when the army attacked their encampment in central Bangkok to drive them from the city. He is now proposing an unelected “people’s council” to run the country because, he says, all politicians are crooks.

Thaksin was elected prime minister is 2001 and then driven from power in 2006 in a royalist coup; he went into self-imposed exile in 2008 in advance of a two-year jail term for abuse of power and corruption.

Throughout the ensuing years, he has continued to dominate the country’s politics. Three successive surrogate governments were driven from power through suspect court rulings. His sister Yingluck Shinwatra took the premiership with a new party, Pheu Thai, in 2011, still riding on the votes of Thaksin fans drawn to the social welfare policies that began during his first term.

Thaksin redrew the electoral arithmetic of Thailand with his appeal to the rural masses. He exposed the deep divide separating wealthier urban Thais, with their lighter skin and long tradition of accepting nominal democracy backed by the royal house, from their upcountry fellow citizens.

The result was a level of resentment that was little understood even within the country. That resentment as much as absolute poverty probably helps to explain Thaksin’s enduring popularity with his rural base. Relatively prosperous compared with small farmers in Indonesia, the Philippines or Cambodia, the northeasterners of Thailand had simply been ignored and taken for granted for generations.

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