A power struggle between old and new middle classes

A power struggle between old and new middle classes
Thai anti government protesters run from tear gas during a rally at a stadium to register party-list candidates in Bangkok on December 26, 2013. Thai police fired tear gas as violent clashes broke out with opposition protesters who stormed a sports stadium in the capital to try to prevent political parties registering for elections.

LISTEN close enough to the talk in Bangkok and it would seem like Thailand is in the throes of yet another class war.

Lined up on one side are royalists, old money, the urban middle class, supporters of the pro-establishment Democrat Party as well as academics who provide the intellectual ballast to a campaign that is intent on forestalling Thailand's snap election on Feb 2.

Their ground troops are blockading the election registration venue, because if polls go ahead, the rural masses will most certainly return to power the Puea Thai party and the attendant clan of self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister Yingluck Shinawatra is now the caretaker prime minister.

Thaksin, they argue, is guilty of bribing the poor with easy money and inflated prices for their rice, and these ill-thought-out policies are destroying Thailand in the long run.

Some prominent scholars have lent weight to the protesters' demand to suspend elections pending comprehensive political reforms by a "people's council".

National Institute of Development Administration professor Sombat Thamrongthanyawong has said perhaps Thailand is not yet suited for the one-man, one-vote system typical of democracies around the world.

Ramkhamhaeng University's veteran political scientist Chaichana Inkawat told The Straits Times: "These people will accept quick money... because they don't think about the future of the country. But the middle class will think because they have more education. They think much more than the poor."

But the poor in popular imagination do not seem to square with reality. In 2011, just 13.2 per cent of the population lived below the national poverty line.

Erstwhile farmers have taken on farm-manager-type roles, say scholars. They keep up to date with contemporary ideas via technology or children who work in Bangkok or big cities around the world.

Those in the informal sector, like taxi drivers and street vendors, sometimes make more than an average white-collar worker in Bangkok. The difference though is they are shut out from formal welfare benefits, and therefore remain loyal to Thaksin for policies like the 30 baht (S$1.20) universal health-care scheme he introduced when he was premier more than 10 years ago.

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