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Thailand's social divide

Interview: Emma Wallis, André Leslie
January 17, 2014

Dozens of Thai protesters have been hurt in an explosion at an anti-government rally, feeding fears the political conflict could spiral into civil war. Historian Matthew Phillips talks about Thailand's social divide.

Two anti-government protestors in Thailand carry an injured fellow protestor following an explosive attack at the protest on January 17.
Image: Reuters

Protesters opposed to the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took to the streets of Bangkok earlier this week in an attempt to shut down the city. Calling for Yingluck to resign, they want an unelected committee to take over. Friday's (17.01.2014) explosion is the latest in a series of violent incidents connected to the protests over the past two months.

DW: How tense is the situation in Thailand at the moment?

Matthew Phillips: Certainly the situation in terms of both the language being used and the objectives being articulated by the current protest movement are becoming increasingly extreme and are creating a situation in which society is clearly becoming more and more divided down the middle.

How is the political situation affecting personal relationships?

The difficult thing is that these protest movements on either side; they are quite personal and sociable affairs. They are not only about achieving political objectives, a lot of the time the people who are going on these protest movements are friends, they are meeting up with a larger body of people who are coming together in solidarity around a set of views and opinions, but they are also feeling a sense of commonality in large groups which of course is a very attractive thing. They have restaurants set up giving away free food; it's a real sort of camaraderie.

But the problem is that on social networks, the views that are being articulated at these protests are circulating widely and of course revealing that there are two distinct groups in the country who both have a very different view of the way in which they want to see the country develop. What we have seen with this language is a set of pretty distasteful opinions, one about the rural population - they are described as uneducated, and unable to make a political choice of their own.

A crowd of demonstrators protesting in Bangkok on January 17.
Those attending the mass protests enjoy a sense of solidarityImage: Reuters

Then, there is increasingly the language used to describe the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra which has become in many cases extremely vulgar and sexist. The problem is that those opinions get widely disseminated on social networks and they create a huge amount of anger amongst people who don't see the protest in the same way.

Would it be fair to say that with the involvement of social media in these protests there is a bit of a surveillance of things that are going on? Is it difficult for the people involved on both sides to say what they think?

In public Thais, just as the rest of us, try and avoid talking politics. It is always a risky business talking politics and we often know that friends and family who we love dearly and respect as human beings hold different opinions to ourselves. So we avoid delving too deep. But, these protests are challenging many to confront the political separation like never before.

So people suddenly have to confront the fact that their partner or their best friend from school doesn't have the same opinion about something that they feel so strongly about. This commonality, this camaraderie, this solidarity that they feel with this other group of people is no longer replicated within their own social setup and they genuinely find that very challenging. It has certainly led to friends falling out, relationships breaking down, to people feeling very isolated and feeling genuinely disturbed and upset about where Thailand is heading.

De-friending on Facebook is not uncommon, which only serves to further radicalize the opposing sides as they insulate each other further from listening to alternative views. As this battle develops, which is about the fundamental way in which Thailand is governed, there is clear evidence of a divide forming that will take generations to bridge.

Portrait of Dr Matthew Phillips
Matthew Phillips says the use of social media is increasing the divide within Thai societyImage: Privat

These conflicts have been simmering in various ways for at least a decade, especially since former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the brother of Yingluck, was ousted by the army in 2006. Why has there been such widespread and ongoing protest now?

Thailand is changing very quickly. If you go back 50 years Thailand was a very young economy with a very large percentage of rural people who were unaware, uninterested particularly in the outside world, who were tied to their land in many ways. That has changed gradually through rapid economic development, through integration with the world economy. The situation that Thailand is dealing with is a society that has fundamentally changed, where the constituency who decides who is going to be in power has to open up, has to be bigger as more people are involved directly in the economy, directly in the systems of government that affect their lives.

The second thing is Thaksin Shinawatra himself, who pitched himself as a charismatic leader in a way that no Thai prime minister had ever done before and who drew together a set of ideas about the Thai nation that the elite had been unable to do in the past. The Thai nation under Thaksin was a nation that was much more equipped to deal with the majority of the population rather than an elite-based national identity that was generally concerned with maintaining the coherence and the constituency of the middle classes and the elite classes in Bangkok.

And the third thing is the issue of succession; the current Thai king is 86 -years-old. As the light fades on this particular monarch, concerns about where the future will lead is certainly driving a set of anxieties and a set of concerns about the future of the country.

Thailand Yingluck Shinawatra bei der Armeeführung 15.01.2014
Sexist statements towards Yingluck Shinawatra are shared online by anti-government protestorsImage: Reuters

This week protesters have tried to shut down Bangkok and the Prime Minister has promised that she will go ahead with the elections scheduled for February 2. Are you hopeful that date will see things move forward?

There are many reasons to not be hopeful. The first question is whether elections will take place at all. The opposition party, the Democrats, have boycotted them, which in normal circumstances would question the viability of the party at all. But, the truth is the Democrats are highly embedded in the conservative networks that seek to destroy Thaksin's power and so are likely to survive, despite widespread unpopularity amongst the electorate. There are also questions about the partiality of the judiciary and the commitment of the military to protect the elected government of the country. All of this makes Yingluck and her political party extremely vulnerable. However, whatever happens on February 2, the following months and years will not see a resolution to Thailand's problems.

Matthew Phillips is a lecturer in Modern Asian History at Aberystwyth University in Wales. In the past he has worked as a journalist in Thailand and continues to write about contemporary Thailand. He has spent long periods of time in the country and has been following developments there closely.

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