BANGKOK – The last time Thai activist Kanthoop saw her father he brushed past her like she was “invisible,” a tiny gesture that poignantly echoes the bitter political divisions that have wracked Thailand and repeatedly spilled into unrest.
“I almost wondered if I was a ghost,” recalled Kanthoop, who was ostracized and forced to change her name because she disagreed with her family’s royalist “Yellow Shirt” political inclinations.
Thailand has been rocked by several bouts of sometimes bloody unrest in recent years as the country’s political rivals take their grievances to the streets of Bangkok. Demonstrators have once again massed in the capital in rallies aimed at toppling the government and ridding the nation of the influence of ousted former leader Thaksin Shinawatra.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, has called an election on Feb. 2 to try and calm tensions. But protesters — a motley assortment of the elite, Bangkok’s middle class, southerners and Yellow Shirt protest veterans — want to suspend the country’s democracy and install a hand-picked “people’s council.”
Observers say seismic social changes have upended traditional power structures and widened rifts within the nation, roughly dividing north from south, wealthy from underprivileged, and even parents from children.
Kanthoop spent her youth at Yellow Shirt protests with her father, an ardent activist who took part in the 2008 occupation of Bangkok’s airports that helped topple a Thaksin-allied government. But the 21-year-old student began to question her allegiances in 2010, when a previous government ordered a bloody military crackdown on rival pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” protests.
Her political activities — and later an accusation that she had insulted the country’s revered king — filtered back to her father, who faced criticism from his colleagues at a provincial electricity board.
“Society has played a big part in my family troubles because it says that if you don’t want to be on this side, you always have to be on the other side,” Kanthoop said, asking to be referred to by her online alias.
Despite their frosty encounter at the beginning of the year, Kanthoop still hopes to reconcile with her father. But rapprochement is the last thing on the minds of Thailand’s rally rivals.
On Monday, pugnacious anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban told supporters there was “no middle ground between good and evil.” The opposition says Thaksin, who was deposed by royalist generals in 2006, is corrupt, accusing him of buying the popularity that has seen him and his allies win every election since 2001.
Even the color-coded protest uniforms provide a visual contrast.
The Yellow Shirts and their allies have diversified from the hue most associated with the king and now display a panoply of political accessories in the red, white and blue stripes of the Thai flag — from tiaras to wristbands. But just wearing a red T-shirt in public can be seen as a political statement.
“The political divisions have penetrated every single unit in Thai society,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat and associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.
Some analysts say much of Thailand’s conflict stems from fears within the elite that their power is slipping away. A string of establishment-backed military and judicial actions have cut short all but one Thaksin-allied administration, outraging his supporters and sparking the Red Shirt rallies three years ago.
Many of the anti-government protesters on Bangkok’s streets freely express their view that Thaksin’s supporters are “water buffaloes” — simple people easily duped by the wily and charismatic telecoms magnate.
“Bangkok always believes that somehow they should have more political representation because this is where the national wealth and political power are centred,” Pavin said.