Thailand: Cracks in the mirror

Thailand: Cracks in the mirror

Some time in early 2006, over breakfast one morning, as rumours of a military coup swept across a city sweltering in the summer heat, my informant leaned forward and wagged his finger at me.

"All you need," he said, "is 10 tanks and a thousand men controlling 10 sq km of central Bangkok - and you control the entire country."

That has been the irony of Thailand for generations.

Elites have frequently battled for power in Bangkok, often over the bodies of innocents - in 1973, 1976 and 1992 for instance - while the world has watched, appalled at and possibly puzzled by the violence wrought by a seemingly relaxed and tolerant culture.

While the capital seethed, it was business as usual in the rest of the country. As bullets flew on the streets of Bangkok, tourists on faraway islands enjoyed slow sunsets, beach massages and sighing seas.

The unrest rarely made more than a superficial dent on the Thai economy. In 2010, throughout the fierce battles in Bangkok that left 92 dead, factories in the country's industrial parks and on the eastern seaboard, the heart of its export sector, never missed a beat.

In the current tumult, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban's calls for a general strike have fallen flat.

Yet, the political battles of recent years have challenged the fundamentals of Thai society, peeling back the layers of carefully cultivated homogeneity and congeniality, exposing the fault lines of an essentially feudal nation making a halting transition to egalitarian democracy.

Thailand's ruling class is colliding with the new political awareness and assertiveness of a usually acquiescent population, and contending with the twilight of an institution from which it derives its legitimacy and social status - the monarchy.

Thai politicians, anticipating a vacuum as the monarch ages, are jostling for positions of advantage. When I asked a senior Thai politician what would happen after 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is no longer here, he sighed and said: "Nobody in Thailand will listen to anyone any more."

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