Friday, April 9, 2010

The Red Shirt Conundrum

If you have been watching the international news, the Red Shirts of Thailand have been staging mass demonstrations in several areas of Bangkok.  They've chosen to congregate around the large and popular monuments in the Thai capital drawing maximum attention to their cause. Every day appears to be a cat and mouse game between the current government, with neither side backing off their official positions.  The Red Shirts are constantly trying to change their tactics in order to reach their goals of dissolving Parliament, holding new elections and better equity for their constituents.  Unfortunately, it appears that neither side is yielding and that potential violence may be looming in the capital. From my perspective, I must give credit to both sides for showing laudable restraint.   

I know that my blog is really about food and culture, but for those who know me well, I am an advocate of economic equity in society, including my own. Being American and knowing how American society has evolved through years of blood, sweat and tears to create "a more perfect union", I can say that most countries in the world inevitably follow the same course in their road to modernity. Just take a look at the past 20 years of world history; almost every country on earth has gone through some sort of political or economic transformation. The only question in my view is the ultimate direction of that transformation: whether that transformation is a force for the greater good for its citizens or if the transformation for the benefit of the few.

As you can see, I am looking at this from the angle of domestic policy and what any government can do to improve the lot of its people. I would submit that in most countries, those who are in positions of leadership have a poor record of guiding a country through a transformation, and if it does succeed, only a few benefit from its fruits. Distribution of wealth is problematic in many countries and just look at the GINI index of income disparity for proof of this. Even the US has a lot of work to do to improve in that measure. As an American, I do not want my country to become a Brazil, China, nor Haiti. There are clear parallels in each of these countries and that is income disparity and concentrated wealth.

If I made the statements I made above thirty years ago when the Cold War was alive and well, I would have been branded a Marxist, Communist, or a variety of other labels that would not have been helpful for discussion of the substantive economic issues at hand. (Also, red is symbolic of Communism-for the younger readers)  I am surprised and glad that no one is calling the Red Shirts, Communists, just other names, which I won't repeat here.

In the world press, the story in Thailand has been the clash between royalists/military, business elite and the rural poor. I can't help but equate this struggle with our own rural poor and their political leanings. The conservatives in my country have been able to use cultural issues such as abortion, gay marriage and gun rights to shift focus away from economic issues for a long period of time in the United States. They also say that anything that is good for workers or the poor is bad for the economy. They also give false hope to the poor that "one day, if you become one of us - the rich-, you would not want these egregious government policies to be foisted upon you." Also, another line given to the poor and middle class is "why should I be financing my neighbor's healthcare, etc.", encouraging a culture of separation and lack of focus one's  economic realities. This is why despite the poverty that can be found in the American South, Midwest or Appalachia, these areas continue to be solidly Republican/conservative and the gap between the rich and poor grows.  Additionally, the Republicans in the US generally represent the interests of business and in turn are not for social equity, which is another story.

In Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, a powerful businessman who had risen to the Prime Minister's office had garnered political power through his patronage of the rural and urban poor.  He was ultimately ousted through a military coup a few years into his second term. Notwithstanding his honesty in his business dealings, it is an undeniable fact that his administration had brought more basic services to those living at the bottom rung of society. Having tasted the fruits of these improvements, the poor have become more aware of their plight which has made this group more politically active. In contrasts, in the United States, where the poor is more manipulated by the conservative media, the poor in Thailand seems willing to be more active in demanding basic services to improve their lives.  I know that some in Thailand will say that the demonstrators are being paid to demonstrate, but how many people in the US would demonstrate with the distinct possibility of being shot at by the authorities? I would think that even if they were paid, no amount of money is worth being shot at. To the poor, there is much at stake, so they're willing to risk their lives for their beliefs and the status quo, which is institutionalized poverty is not acceptable.  Look at all the movements in American history and you'll see the same parallels.

As events unfold in Thailand, I can't help but imagine that if these demonstrators were in China or Burma, they would be mowed down within the first hours of assembling. There's no democratic tradition in these countries to respect human rights, thus these countries would have no qualms to fire upon its citizens. It's a tribute to Thailand that although Thailand has a spotty history with democracy, they do know that ultimately, that is the way to move forward.  Only in democratic countries is where governments tolerate demonstrations without violence.  If violence happens, it is not on a monumental scale as in dictatorial regimes.

I remember on my way back to my hotel during my first night in Bangkok, I used a tourist map to guide myself back to my hotel through the roadblocks.  Not far from my hotel is the "Democracy Monument". I have never seen this monument before, but the fact that Thailand has one bodes well for it's future. 

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