Thailand: Red-shirts (populists) vs. Yellow-shirts (business interests)
Those I have known who have lived and worked in Thailand say it is a beautiful, amazing nation. It certainly has an ancient history and is potentially a prosperous economy if it can ever escape from the colonialism hangover that affects much of the Third World.
Right now, those with either travel plans or investments in Thailand are well aware that it is in the process of descending into chaos, with two factions opposing eachother ever-more violently. In reality, this is noting new. As long as I can remember there has been a left-right divide that has threatened to erupt into chaos. Military intervention has tended to keep the right wing dominant, but even with military intervention threatened, the worst kind of abuses that led to violent civil wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Indonesia, etc. have been kept in check by the traditional values of most Thais. Buddhist monks and the Thai king have tended to keep the left-right split from becoming too out of hand because both sides have tended to have at least some respect for these traditional aspects of society.
But even that seems to be breaking down.
Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a popularly elected populist supported mainly by the rural poor, is the champion of the leftist "red-shirts." Interestingly, he strikes me as an unlikely champion for the rural poor. A former police officer who became a wealthy telecom mogul, he was popular among the business community because his policies drove an economic boom. However, his offer of debt relief and healthcare reform was popular among the poor. He seemed an excellent politician to bring together the nation.
Sadly, accusations of corruption (possibly true) ruined his popularity among the urban classes, though his support among the rural poor remained. Let me remind people that this kind of split between the urban elite and rural poor had particularly tragic consequences for BOTH in Cambodia.
Anti-corruption protests (the yellow-shirts) in 2006 (backed by big business and the military) put pressure on Thaksin to resign. Instead he called elections. The right wing opposition refused to participate (perhaps they suspected they would lose and so Thaksin would be vindicated). Instead they increased their protests until the military staged a coup and took over the government. The military government's courts convicted Thaksin of corruption and forced him into exile.
The yellow-shirts are the pro-big business right wing movement led by a media mogul and a former general. They tend to be closer to the king and the military, and opposed by pro-democracy and left-wing groups. Their key support is among the urban elite. They bill themselves as anti-corruption, but it is unclear to me that they are any less corrupt than Thaksin.
In 2007, the pro-Thaksin faction regained power in a free election. The yellow-shirts once again protested, shutting down the country. In essence they wanted the left-leaning, democratically elected government ousted. In 2008 they succeeded in ousting the populist government and re-installed a right-leaning government.
In March 2009, the left-leaning red shirts, fiercely loyal to Thaksin, started taking to the streets to get the democratically elected government re-instated. The red-shirts include rural poor, students and pro-democracy activists. The anger of the rural poor has spilled over into violence that has been countered by military violence backed by the yellow-shirts.
The current situation seems to be a cycle of violent protest pitting the leftist red-shirts against the seemingly anti-democracy yellow-shirts and the military.
Looking at the situation from a distance it seems to me that the red-shirts have very valid concerns and are the ones supporting a one-person, one-vote democracy while the yellow-shirts seem like teabaggers (yellow shirts = Thai iced teabaggers?) backed by military violence. They have consistently shown themselves to be anti-democratic. Sadly Thaksin may well be corrupt, complicating the divisions. It has created the impression that democracy is corrupt and military, pro-business near dictatorship is anti-corruption (an impression that history has disproved over and over...democracy CAN be corrupt, but right wing, pro-business, military backed systems are far MORE corrupt).
One thing that complicates the situation, in some ways stabilizing it but potentially explosive, is the fact that the military itself might be divided. Again, even within the Thai military, there has tended to be a Buddhist-inspired moderation that has so-far prevented the kind of brutal violence that swamped most of Thailand's neighbors. And that seems to influence part of the military even now. I also suspect (though I am not sure) that parts of the military may draw on the same rural poor that supports the red-shirts. So there may be genuine sympathy going both ways within the military.
Then there is the Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. He often keeps in the background, probably since he has little real power and is mostly influential because of the respect people have for him. I suspect if he tried to exert real power, he would find himself ineffective and the facade of the monarchy might falter. However, perhaps because his assertion of power is rare, he has tended to be able to calm tense situation with his influence. Again, I think this plays a role in the fact that Thailand has often stepped to the edge of the abyss that Cambodia, Burma and Vietnam faced, but pulled back rather than plunging in. Thailand has avoided complete military dictatorship (right wing or left wing) partly because of the king's ability to moderate tensions. I suspect he tends to favor the yellow-shirts. But both red- and yellow-shirts respect the king, so it probably is not in his best interests for one side to win a total victory. I have no idea if he calculates the situation in that way, but regardless, even as tensions and violence again mount, the king has yet to exert his often moderating influence in the current situation.
I do not predict that things will devolve into total chaos. Divisions within the military and the moderating influences of Buddhism and the king (perhaps combined with a realization by the king that his main power lies in balancing the right and the left against eachother) may well keep things under control. But that doesn't mean that an honest, democratic government will result. Corruption (probably on both sides) is likely to continue as long as "anti-corruption" is a term used to thinly disguise an anti-democratic movement. And democracy will be hard to restore as long as one side, the yellow-shirted Thai iced teabaggers, backed by the bulk of the military, prefers military coups to election results they don't like.
Let's hope for the best. Civil war or civil unrest will do Thailand no good. Neither democracy nor its economy will benefit by civil conflict. Of course the military might benefit, leaving one major faction possibly considering it a genuine option. But let's hope the traditional, moderate values of Thailand will continue to keep things in check.