BANGKOK — The defeat of the “red-shirt” protesters under the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) has restored calm and order in the streets of Bangkok after a day of rioting that resulted in two deaths and scores of injuries. The red shirts have evidently lost the battle, but their war against what they see as gross injustices in Thai society between the haves and haves-not will continue as long as they are unrecognized and unaddressed.

As a demonstration of widespread sentiments against the status quo, the UDD was able to mobilize tens of thousands of mostly poor and underprivileged protesters, reinforced by columns of red shirts in major provinces in the north and northeast regions. Since their street campaign began on March 26, their ranks swelled into the several tens of thousands who encircled Government House, the focus of their protests. Emboldened by pent-up rage at what they see as systemic injustices over the past few years, they ultimately went out of control.

When the red shirts began their day of anarchy in Bangkok on April 13 in an effort to provoke the government and the army to overreact, they became uncontrollable and self-defeating. Their moral high ground and the righteousness of their crusade for justice evaporated, replaced by public anger and a growing rightwing backlash.

As Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has overcome this popular uprising — the litmus test of his four-months-old premiership — he and his backers still appear reluctant to respect and recognize the claims and grievances of the red shirts. The pro-Establishment bias in Thai society runs deep. Most movers and shakers have an incentive to see the Abhisit government succeed and to see Thailand move forward in a direction consistent with Establishment preferences and prerogatives.

They heard the reds’ noises but they discounted them on various grounds from gullibility and stupidity to financial opportunism, unwilling to listen to the reds’ messages. The pro-Establishment forces have resorted to the comfort and convenience of seeing the fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra as the sole force behind the reds. Now that Thaksin has been further disgraced and discredited during the red shirts’ downfall, they will be tempted to conclude that all’s normal, that the brief sound and fury seen in Thailand was just a passing nuisance.

But the reds represented more than Thaksin. Their quest for the will of the majority to shine in a genuine democracy was real and relentless. The stage leaders of the red shirts went after privy counselors who were deemed to have violated the constitution by masterminding the Sept. 19, 2006, military coup and blatantly taking sides in post-coup Thai politics. Despite repeated denials, the evidence and revelations on offer were overwhelming. Meetings and public comments at key junctures by Thailand’s so-called elders happened to fit the sequence of events that transpired from May 2006 through to the rise of the Abhisit government.

The establishment forces quickly shifted the fault lines to a battle between pro- and anti-monarchy movements, even though the reds had exhaustively drawn a distinction between the privy counselors and the king, always elevating his majesty while making allegedly compromised privy counselors fair game in the name of politics. The attacks on the privy counselors will now pause because the reds have thrown in the towel, but the issue has been etched into the minds of many who are either afraid or unwilling to speak out at this time.

For his part, Abhisit has consistently antagonized the red shirts by not acknowledging the merits of their case. He has a knack for saying the right things that tend not to happen. His call for “justice for all” fails to address the legal infractions of the yellow-shirt protesters from last year. The conclusion to many in Thailand’s structurally polarized society is that Abhisit is a through-and-through offspring of the Establishment. Having presided over their demise, he simply lacks the wherewithal to appreciate the rise and rage of the reds. That his coalition government constitutionally coalesced in Parliament through power brokerage of his Democrat Party’s backers does not mean it holds democratic legitimacy among the reds and beyond.

In hindsight, the reds’ rise was inevitable due to the disparity of Thailand’s sociopolitical hierarchy. Their efforts came to naught, but the anti-Establishment sentiments behind them are likely to simmer and fester until they find an outlet somewhere else sometime down the road. The undercurrents against Establishment forces are deep and wide in Thailand. The lack of recognition and accommodation will sustain these undercurrents, ensuring they remain potentially dangerous.

Thailand’s ongoing transformation should not lead it to replicate the experience of Nepal, as the institution of the monarchy is integral to Thai history and identity. Nor does it want to follow in the footsteps of the Philippines, whose periodic people’s power movements brought neither political stability nor economic vibrancy. And it certainly should not turn the clock all the way back to end up in comparison to Burma’s military dictatorship. Somewhere out there among other country experiences nearby, especially Indonesia’s impressive democratic transition, Thailand’s organic and optimal longer-term destination lies.

The onus for the way ahead now rest on Abhisit and his supporters. The reds’ miscalculated gamble has made their months-long movement futile. What is needed next is the willingness of the Establishment forces to make self-enlightened reforms, adjustments and concessions in coming to terms with the grievances and expectations of the early 21st century. Otherwise the demands for greater social justice and share of the pie are likely to reappear in different shapes, forms and colors.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. © 2009 OpinionAsia

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