Divided Thailand unites around cave rescue, but solidarity won′t last | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 10.07.2018
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Divided Thailand unites around cave rescue, but solidarity won't last

With Thailand gripped by a dramatic effort to rescue a young soccer team from a cave, the deep divisions within society were brushed aside. But experts say that kind of national solidarity is unlikely to be permanent.

For more than two weeks, the world's media were fixated on the efforts to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a cave in Thailand's northern Chiang Rai province. The drama came to an end on Tuesday, with the last of those trapped safely recovered.

The rescue effort dominated the media and public debate in Thailand, too, Stine Klapper of the Thai branch of Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) told DW. Once news spread that the boys had gone missing, that was all anyone talked about, she said.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, in power since a military coup in 2014, visited the cave complex shortly after Thai and British cave divers had found the missing team late on July 2. In a speech that also addressed the boys' families, he urged optimism. "There has to be faith. Faith makes everything a success," Prayuth said, adding people should have faith in the actions of officials and their "children who are strong and vigorous."

Read more: Thailand plans extra security measures at "world famous" cave

"Everything will go back to normal," he promised.

Government action

Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a journalist, lecturer at Edingburgh's Napier University and outspoken critic of Thailand's military junta, accused Prayuth on Facebook of having given a speech about nothing but his own brilliance.

The FES' Klapper is less critical of Prayuth's appearance at the rescue site, arguing that it is ordinary for a Thai head of government to turn up at the scene when a crisis occurs. Posturing is inevitable, she explained.

Thailand cave rescue effort (Getty Images/Linh Pham)

Thailand's military led the rescue effort

"You can't accuse the government of trying to exploit the incident in the media," Klapper said, cautioning that it is still too soon for a final assessment as the rescue operation only ended Tuesday.

Read more: Astronaut Maurer: Caves are 'a completely different world'

She believes the fact that the military played a key role in the rescue has nothing to do with wanting to put itself into the limelight, adding that in Thailand, there simply is no civilian organization akin to an emergency management agency that can conduct such rescue operations.

Rift in society

While Thai society is deeply divided, the cave rescue effort helped to narrow those divisions, at least for a moment, explained Klapper. "It drew everyone closer together in their hopes as well as their fears," she said.

Currently in Thailand, the traditional ruling elite, including the Thai royal dynasty, the military and public officials are at odds with sections of the up-and-coming middle classes, backed by farmers from north of the country who want more political participation.

Years of back and forth

Resorting to partly populist policies, the Shinawatra family, a powerful force in Thai politics, is using these new factions to break up the established elite's power monopoly.

Read more: Psychological impacts of being trapped in a cave

As a consequence, the country's political system is restless. Mass protests, impeachment proceedings and coups follow in the wake of elections while polarization in society continues to strengthen. The most recent crisis in 2014 saw the military topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and take over control of the country.

Thailand Premierminister Prayuth Chan-Ocha 25.08.2014 (Reuters/Thailand Government House)

Prayuth Chan-ocha took power in a military coup in 2014

The military has ruled Thailand for four years now under the guise of the National Council for Peace and Order. The right to assembly and freedom of the press have been massively curtailed. With the help of a new constitution approved by Thai voters in 2016, the military is trying to create a system that allows the traditional elites to control political developments in the country. The next election remains postponed until the transition is completed. Just last month, the military government delayed the date. Prayuth declared elections could not take place until after the official crowning ceremony of the new king, who ascended to the throne in 2016. It is unclear when the king will be crowned, making elections this year highly unlikely.

Before the cave rescue drama, many people in Thailand were eager to vote, Klapper said. "The people really wanted to head for the ballot boxes."

However, she doubts that the spirit of solidarity and unity of the past two weeks will find its way into elections and domestic politics more generally.

"That will not lead to sustainable understanding in this severely divided country," Klapper said, adding that the deep-seated conflicts that shape Thai society remain unresolved.

Watch video 05:22

All 12 boys and their coach rescued – DW's Florian Nusch and Daniel Koop report from Thailand

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