Bangkok – An unprecedented show of force by men and women from Thailand’s rural hinterland was on display over the weekend as they poured into Bangkok in the tens of thousands to stake a claim on having a voice in shaping this South-east Asian kingdom’s national agenda.
By Saturday evening, an estimated 80,000 anti-government protesters from the northern and north-eastern belts of Thailand had been ferried in to the capital in a scene never witnessed since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, say analysts, who described it as “phenomenal” and “a historic moment.”
The protests, which are planned to peak on Monday, had the initial look of an army of soccer fans coming to watch a pivotal game.
There was a festive air, with loud music playing, as a convoy of thousands of pick-up trucks, larger six-wheel vehicles, vans and buses clogged a main highway leading into Bangkok. They were cheered on by hundreds of people who lined the streets during the final 65-kilometre stretch from Wang Noi district, close to the historic city of Ayutthaya.
But it was the colour that they sported – the signature red shirts, with anti- government slogans on some – that affirmed this was an assertion of political identity and mobilisation by a constituency often marginalised and dismissed by Bangkok’s conservative political machine in the firm grip of the entrenched elite, royalists and the powerful military.
Each vehicle also flew the flag of the red shirts, who belong to the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), a protest movement whose political patron is the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Some of these “rural hordes,” as the pro-establishment English-language daily the ‘Bangkok Post’ contemptuously referred to this UDD assertion of strength, included the likes of Narong Unsri, a retired radio operator who had worked in a natural gas drilling company. The 62-year-old had journeyed for 12 hours with seven others in a van until Wang Noi. Others, like Ruakchai Sitilwan, employed in a marketing network, had spent 18 hours on the road with four others in a pick-up truck.
Nearly 80 percent of those from the 19 north-eastern provinces who had come in the convoy were farmers, says Narong, sipping on iced coffee. “We are going to Bangkok to tell the government that we need an election because this government is a hijacked government.”
Narong was referring to the question of legitimacy around the 15-month- old coalition government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Rather than winning through a popular mandate through an election, he came to power after the powerful military shaped a backroom deal to ensure that he got an endorsement in a parliamentary vote.
On Saturday night, speakers at the rally site railed against other favourite objects of their ire, ranging from the “double standards” in the country’s political system to criticism of the political aristocracy that they say wields power without having been elected or being held accountable.
The UDD’s rally in Bangkok, underway in areas that have been the sites of major anti-government protests in the past, has been billed as a “million- man” protest to force the Abhisit administration to dissolve parliament and go for an election.
While the UDD’s target of one million protesters is far from being reached, the political significance of Thailand’s rural following camping out in the capital to influence political change has already been achieved.
“This is the biggest rally by rural people who have come to Bangkok making demands on national political issues,” says Thanet Aphornsuvan, a historian at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “This is phenomenal. It should come as a shock to Bangkok’s political system.”
“It shows the capacity of rural political mobilisation of a new kind,” he added in an interview with IPS. “A long-held view that rural people vote governments in and Bangkok people get them out (through protests) is not absolute anymore. We are seeing the opposite of that today.”
The last time farmers of significant numbers flooded the streets of the Thai capital was in the early 1990s. An estimated 20,000 of them were brought in by the Assembly of the Poor, a network of non-governmental organisations, to protest against a range of specific issues from development and dam construction to land problems. They stayed for over a week outside Government House, the prime minister’s office.
Since then, farmers’ associations from the provinces have brought in smaller numbers to raise a cry outside Government House against unfair prices for their agriculture products. At most, these groups have mustered some 5,000 demonstrators.
“In the past, Bangkok has witnessed people from rural areas come to the capital for issue-based protests,” says Naruemon Thabchumpon, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University here. “This time, they want to take on national issues and want to come direct to the city to make their demands.”
“It is one step forward for democracy,” she explained to IPS. “We are seeing a new form of identity politics. They are proud to show that they are red shirts and happy to be identified with what the UDD is standing for.”
The Abhisit administration, however, sees the UDD rally in a different light. “I think it is being led by a personality cult,” Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said on Friday to a group of foreign correspondents, referring to Thaksin, whose face adorns many of the protesters’ shirts.
“The demonstrators are only backing one political personality,” he added. “We have answered their grievances through two (economic) stimulus packages.”
But UDD leaders say they are bent on stepping up their protests, although the Prime Minister has repeatedly rejected calls for his resignation or new polls and said he will carry out his term. “I have the right to complete my term,” Abhisit said during his weekly television broadcast on Sunday, adding that his government had been accepted widely.
The triumph of this military-backed administration in December 2008 had enraged supporters of Thaksin, many of whom back the UDD. The current Abhisit-led coalition replaced a pro-Thaksin party that had been elected a year before, in December 2007, but was dissolved following a controversial court verdict.
The Abhisit government came to power over two years after Thaksin’s second term was cut short in September 2006 by a military coup, the country’s 18th putsch, that sought to get rid of an administration that had won thumping majorities in two elections due to deep support in the rural heartland.
These electoral triumphs were shaped by a range of pro-poor policies that Thaksin implemented while he was in power, including universal health care and pumping in millions of dollars to build the grassroots economy.
The former prime minister, currently living in exile to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption, has seen his fortunes wane since his ouster. The billionaire telecommunications tycoon was stripped over 1.5 billion U.S. dollars of his assets by the Supreme Court in a late February verdict that found Thaksin guilty of corruption.
Rather than bury the influence Thaksin has on millions of rural voters, the court’s verdict added to the list of faults they attribute to the political aristocracy in Bangkok. “We see this as double standards by the justice system and we are here for the rally to say this must end,” a 42-year-old woman who works in rice and sugarcane fields in the north-east province of Udon Thani, told IPS.
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