Buddhist Activism Tilting Thailand's Political Drama

New America Media, Commentary, Yoichi Shimatsu Posted: Apr 24, 2010

BANGKOK - News footage from Thailand's capital, as dramatic as it appears, fails to capture the sheer dimensions of the Red Shirt rebellion. The insurgents' encampment stretches more than a mile along the Rajdamri corridor, a continuous neat line of white canopies that provide shelter from the blazing sun and protect the food stalls serving satay skewers, broiled squid and spicy curries. The base camp for protesters from "up-country" runs past the now-closed elite Hyatt Erawan, Four Seasons hotel and the Central World mega-mall - a stark contrast between the power of the poor versus the luxury-addicted elite.

Across the capital and throughout Thailand, red is the color of populist revolution on the banners over tire barricades, flags fluttering from motorcycles and bandanas worn by the tens of thousands. Symbolically, the hue is gradually turning from crimson to saffron, however, as increasing numbers of monks take to the streets in protest of the military-backed government's refusal to call snap elections.

The focus on parliamentary elections and the role of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra tend to overshadow the fragmentation of this diverse country, not just along class lines. The majority of protesters are from Isan, the historically arid and poor Northeast, where the dominant language is Lao. The thumping music has a distinct burlesque humor and inhabitants tend toward darker complexion. The vast swath of pastures, cassava fields and khao niew, glutinous rice that does not require wet paddies, was once an integral part of the Khmer Empire.

Isan, which comprises about 60 percent of the electorate, has been Red Shirt territory ever since the megaprojects introduced by Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party pulled the region out of poverty following the Asian financial crisis. The northeast quickly became the center of the biofuel boom, as local industrialists converted cassava root into ethanol and bio-gas. Thailand is one of few countries where all filling stations provide 20-percent gasohol.

Being mostly farm folk, the protesters from Isan have little exposure to air conditioning and can therefore handle the 100-degree temperatures and high humidity of Bangkok. The lower ranks of the Thai Army, as well, are predominantly from Isan and have strong sympathy for Thailand's rural poor and ethnically marginalized communities.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjavija's Democrat Party is increasingly reliant on the Islamic populations of the three southern provinces and the "river Muslims" of Bangkok. Recently, a leading imam voiced his opposition to the Red Shirts. During last year's street fighting, deadly political clashes erupted outside a major mosque. Those shootings were payback for Thaksin's war on drugs, which had focused on Muslim-run drug-trafficking networks. Throughout Southeast Asia, coastal and river navigation is dominated by Muslims with their seafaring tradition. Informal commerce - smuggling - is a natural part of that profession

Thus, the most alarming prospect for Thai street politics is the widening religious divide. Most analysts have overstated the role of Shinawatra as tycoon, ignoring the fact of his being a devout Buddhist aligned with the powerful Dhammakaya movement. During the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, this monastic community famously collected gold jewelry to enable Thailand to pay off its debts to the IMF. Quietly, Dhammakaya was a major force in the formation of the populist Thai Rak Thai, which has since evolved under different names after repeated banning by the electoral commission.

The present impasse with its resort to violence could trigger an open showdown between Thailand's two major religious communities. In the event of an ongoing, religion-fueled civil war, its certain which side will win. Unless a truly representative Parliament can be elected and restored soon, the politics of the street will inexorably lead to Buddhist domination, much like what has happened in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In Sri Lanka, a similar alliance between the post-colonial elite and a minority religion led to the downfall of both. Anyone still naive enough to believe in Buddhist pacifism need only look at how the Tamil uprising was finally put down.

The royal house of Thailand has depended on its alliance with Buddhist monastic power since the assassination of King Taksin the Great, who liberated Thailand from Burmese occupation in the mid-18th Century. That union of temple and throne is now in tatters, with royalist supporters becoming disturbingly involved with Hindu-based worship practices, such as the use of magic talismans and incantations, while on the ground the elite rely on Muslim militias recruited from the underworld to fight the separatist Islamic insurgency in the South and to counterattack the Red Shirts in the capital.

Unlike the island nation of Sri Lanka, Thailand was assembled by seizing territory from its neighbors - the Malays, Laotians, Cambodians and Burmese., not to mention dozens of tribal groups. A disunited Thailand is a temptation for regional conflict. Unless the elite yields its untenable privileges and accepts a secular democracy, populist Buddhist militancy will radically alter the political and demographic landscape. The Land of Smiles could soon become a vale of tears.

Yoichi Shimatsu is former editor of The Japan Times Weekly in Tokyo

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User Comments


Mitchell Bonner on Apr 27, 2010 at 23:15:53 said:

The people of Isaan speak Lao or a dialect of Lao. Most people of Laos and the vast majority of overseas Lao consider the language spoken in Isaan is Lao. I have Lao friends who are quite willing to argue about the dominant spoken language of Isaan.
The people of Isaan will speak Thai to Thai governmental officials, but will speak their own dialect among themselves. They are unhappy about the way Bangkok officials treat them, so Bangkok should not be surprised that Isaan is going 'Red Shirt'.


Akita on Apr 24, 2010 at 18:18:38 said:

As a Buddhist Thai living and working in Thailand, I find this article a piece of journalistic crap fabricated from bits and pieces of information. First off, such a so-called battle between the "haves" and "have-nots" totally undermines the Buddhist concept of karma, i.e. you reap what sow. The elite are rich because they did good deeds in the past while the poor didn't do enough. Therefore, inequality will always exist. A true Buddhist would realize that with all the damage to the economy the red shirt mayhem has caused,the participants are ensured many more lifetimes of poverty. Nevermind the use of weapons and inflicted injuries and deaths, which should probably get you a one-way ticket to hell. Secondly, some of the "monks" seen on the frontline have been proven to be fake monks. Monks beating the crap out soldiers, hurling petrol bombs or holding sharpened sticks ready to gore someone are definitely in violation of the 200+ vows that are required for monkhood. Third, the abbott instigating the gold drive to help pay off the IMF debt was severely anti-Thaksin and was calling for his resignation long before all this began. Fourth, there's a major difference between being devoutly religious and superstitious, the latter a more accurate description of Thaksin. He has long been into "black magic" and all the wacky rituals, includng the blood splashing campaign which was performed by a brahmin priest, are definitely not Buddhist. Fifth, concerning the shooting deaths last year, the red shirts were the shooters and the victims were ordinary people. Plus a mosque was damaged by the red shirts, but the Muslim community did not retaliate by killing anyone. Also, the people of Isaan (the northeast) speak their own dialect, not Lao. Lastly, the current PM is Buddhist,and although he has the support of the Muslim south, the majority of his supporters are still Buddhist. So the generalization that this is a religious conflict is ridiculous.

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