Monday, June 24, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Through the looking class

Update : 06 Dec 2013, 06:47 AM
From serene Asian mega hub to jolting protests that rock television news: Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, is suddenly awash with angry protests throwing rocks around and confronting police. Compare this with our own proverbial hartals and it all sounds very familiar.    However, the contrasts must be noted because they are stark, indeed. In Thailand the ruling Pheu Thai party, ruled by Yingluck Shinawatra wanted to pass an amnesty bill in parliament that would pardon, among others, her brother, the one time prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Again, so far so Bangladeshi. However, in Thailand, the protesters call themselves the “Yellow Shirts,” from here on referred to as the Yellows. The colour yellow signifies the monarchy, and by extension traditional, conservative Thai “values.”    The Amnesty bill passed through Thailand’s lower house but failed in the non-democratically elected upper house: the senate. But still the Yellows stayed. They wanted Yingluck out of office.   They targeted key government ministries, occupying them and preventing the business of government from continuing. The crucial difference between here and there: the Yellows are classically from the urban elite.    The Yellows’ opponents are the Reds. The Reds have voted the now exiled Mr Thaksin in again and again. This leads the Yellows to admit that their current bid to oust Ms Thaksin from power is undemocratic – but according to one well to do Bangkokian on Facebook, “they don’t know what they’re voting for.”   The implication here is that poor people are too uneducated to vote. Why and for what purpose do the Reds keep voting a Thaksin into power?  The answer is simple. Mr Thaksin, the current PM’s brother, promised much and bizarrely actually delivered it. So rural, poor Red Thais have voted for a 7% reduction in the numbers living in poverty in the largest – and poorest – province, Isaan, in five years (according to the WHO). They have voted for universal healthcare, which in one stroke meant that all Thais could receive a heart bypass surgery from the state for the nominal sum of $1 (30Baht) or roughly Tk80, for instance.   So, the Yellow-Red conflict is about class. If you think about the perennial protests in Bangladesh, do ministries ever get occupied? Do ministers go around with added security? The last time I checked it was rickshaw wallahs, commuters, bystanders and regular VOTERS who were bearing the brunt of our, in theory, plebiscite based protests.   Why? Surely, if you really wanted to express righteous rage, you would, like the Yellows or their Red counterparts (who took to the streets in 2010) go for the jugular, and occupy a ministry? You would go for the top instead of throwing cocktails around a market or on the road, right?   Thailand also used to be like this. Prior to Thaksin, all parties promised much and never delivered. All parties represented something centred very much on a small, Gulshan-esque Bangkok elite. Then something strange happened. Thaksin, despite very many evident flaws, actually did something that he was voted in to do. This understandably proved very attractive, though it also proved so threatening to elites who resented and feared an empowered rural class, and resented the state helping the poor. So much so that Thaksin, like many Thai PMs in the past, was removed in a military coup on September 19, 2006. The official reasons were, as so often is the case in Thailand, dressed up in vague charges of insulting Thailand’s royal family.   In Bangladesh by contrast, the military and the elite don’t support any one party, because all parties support their class aims and aspirations. Both parties offer you four years of relatively corrupt governance and slash and burn attempts in order to fight the other. Political violence doesn’t target elites or ministries, because, unlike in Thailand or many other countries, it’s not driven by people. There’s no meaning to politics, that’s why academics and BNP politicians alike will tell you (off record, of course) that they need Jamaat. The BNP need Jamaat because so few of their people would risk their lives and put their bodies on the line for an idea (caretaker government) that Khaleda herself did not favour in 1996. The Awami League, meanwhile, needs Jamaat because they need a fantasy bad guy to protect people from. They need conflict and martyrs to keep you and your opponents discussing any and all the invented narratives they choose to bicker about to save power from being vested on to the voters.   The question then is what would it take for someone to break the cycle? What would it take for someone to have both the will and the power (Thaksin needed a lot of muscle) to actually do something? Nobody in Thailand expected that in 2001, when Thailand elected a policeman turned businessman, that anything would change. It did and the road has been tough, the changer in question is and was no saint, but something changed: people realised that voting can actually get you something, sometimes.
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