It’s hard to believe that Central World Plaza, the biggest shopping mall in Asia, is now partially collapsed and a ruin. It must have taken some skill to torch it as it is made up of a series of vast open spaces. Shops like Asia Books that I have visited so many times would have plenty of combustible material, but to destroy the whole place is truly remarkable and shocking.
Ironically it used to be called the World Trade Centre but, presumably to remove the dreadful association with a complex that collapsed in flames, the name was changed. It was then given an elaborate face lift and was upgraded to become one of the glitziest malls in Bangkok and indeed the world.
So where do the rights and wrongs of all these violent protests lie?
We have been rightly warned against regarding the Red Shirt movement as a romantic crusade of the poor and oppressed for democracy. A complex situation requires deeper analysis and peeling off each layer of the onion skin of Thai politics always induces tears and leads to misunderstandings and confusion.
Yet there was justification in the Red Shirt demands for an election to be called immediately and not at some later date. It is not unique that a charismatic but young and inexperienced old-Etonian prime minister came to power as leader of a party without a full electorate mandate and is struggling to hold together a coalition of disparate interests. This could describe either Britain or Thailand, but the difference is that in Britain the majority of the electorate has not been repeatedly deprived of its mandate by military and judicial coups, as in Thailand.
Yet one cannot simply characterize the confrontation here in terms of goodies and baddies. Prime minister Abhisit is as liberal and decent a leader as Thailand is ever likely to get, even if swimming in a tank of sharks. He does not have presidential powers to make decisions as he would wish and has little scope for real action. On the other hand, Thaksin, the man who has hijacked the cause of the poor, is the biggest self-serving kleptocrat of them all. Once again the rural poor are being exploited in a way that is totally cynical by him setting himself up as their champion.
A few months back I went to a press conference at the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand) given by the leaders of the Red Shirts who explained the peaceful aims of their proposed protests. They were, frankly, unimpressive, though to be fair they are not a formal political party with a manifesto and party membership but a mere collecting point for a range of interests and views. It was clear that theirs was not a united or cohesive movement and it was inevitable that they would have little if any control over the way the protest developed, even though their desire for non-violence seemed sincere. After so many years of frustration, ‘protest and be damned’ would be understandable as a philosophy. Nothing else would achieve the changes they seek as reason and dialogue with those monopolizing power had reached the end of the road.
So what are those changes? Essentially what is sought is a complete shift in how political power is shared in Thailand and perhaps Central World Plaza epitomizes the divide in Thai society.
Who were the men who laboured in terrible temperatures to build the place and the rest of Bangkok’s consumer palaces, living in appalling conditions for low wages? Who are the cleaners and other skivvies that then run it from day to day? Who drive the taxis, clean the streets and do all the menial tasks that keep Bangkok running?
It is the children of the rural poor who have to leave their villages to find work as agriculture no longer provides a living.
And who enjoys the benefit of Thailand’s prosperity, achieved by the low wage slaves of factory and field? It is the urban elites, government employees and middle classes of the cities… the ones who could afford to shop at Central World Plaza and enjoy the dream and comfort of a consumer society.
Like seeing the two sides as good guys and bad guys, this thesis may seem simplistic but it is essentially true. Too much of Thailand’s wealth and political control has been held in too few hands for too long. My neighbours in the rural North East are truly poor. In a hierarchical society of deference where the poor do not complain, there comes a time when their patience and tolerance comes to an end. That is when they run amok.
Had the government called an immediate election a few months ago, all of this might have been avoided. It is hard now to see how further chaos can be avoided. How sad that Abhisit took the poisoned chalice of prime minster when he did, rather than wait for a more secure mandate. How sad that Thaksin so badly betrayed the trust of the Thai people in the two clear electoral mandates that they entrusted to him.
That was the best ever opportunity for Thailand to make political and economic progress. His self-serving greed created the mayhem on the streets that we have seen in the last few days. I hope he does not emerge the winner from all this and that the poor find a new champion.
Do you have any shirts outside of the colour red?!