Thai clashes reveal brutally divided society

10:16, May 18, 2010      

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There is no easy way to unlock Thailand's most bloody and protracted political clashes in decades.

A deal to end the violence by calling an early election became stranded after last-minute demands from the red shirts, the supporters of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a week ago. Cease-fire prospects now seem to be heavily clouded, with both sides demanding the other stop using violence first.

Even tougher will be the task of addressing the root causes of the clashes. Though Thailand has experienced 24 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, these deadly conflicts have exposed a society more deeply divided than ever. Reconciling and reuniting Thai society poses a litmus test for the government.

Thailand literally means "land of the free," and the Buddhist monarchy has long boasted of its ability to contain political conflict and boost economic growth. Unlike other Southeast Asian countries, it was never a colony.

But the deep gulf that has ripped it apart is all too visible in many parts of the country. Despite being the first Asian country to implement Westernized democracy, the once vibrant nation is increasingly polarized, with the cities aligned against the countryside, the rich arrayed against the poor, Muslims lined up against Buddhists, and the south turning against the north.

According to a recent report from the Bank of Thailand, the urban elite, who make up roughly 20 percent of the country's total population, control 69 percent of na-tional wealth, leaving both the rural and urban poor far behind.

The latest deadly clashes in Bangkok are merely a flare-up of the deep-seated unrest caused by the widening gap.

The red shirts, backed by Thaksin, accused the current government, headed by prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, of being a political monopoly controlled by the old elite. The government, in turn, has alleged that the red shirts are "terrorists" triggering clashes and that their protest is a calculated conspiracy to overthrow the government.

To cope with the urgent crisis, both parties must seek reconciliation as soon as possible. Prolonged violence is no solution, as it will end with nothing but a lose-lose situation that the country simply cannot afford.

For other countries undergoing dramatic transitions, the violence in Thailand can serve as a grim lesson.

Old social divides are being altered, for good or bad, by the new realities brought by globalization and the technological revolution.

Various social groups have their interests interwoven with or are competing against each other.

Governments can play a better role in balancing these interests by acting as mediators, instead of intervening directly. Political savvy is thus needed. Only then can the maximum social jus-tice be delivered to the most people.

The Thai clashes reveal the growing threat of these widening chasms.

For the rest of the world, this is a wake-up call to the dangers lurking in their own societies.

Source: Global Times
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