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Bangkok street protests upend the myth of a unified Thailand, expose deep rifts in society

Thai 'Red Shirt' Protester

May 12: A 'Red Shirt' guard smokes at an entry point to the anti-government protesters' encampment in Bangkok. (AP)

BANGKOK (AP) — At precisely 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., every day of the year, millions of Thais, from poor rice farmers in remote villages to executives in downtown Bangkok, are instructed that they're all closely bound together by "flesh and blood."

The implication of the national anthem, sounded by countless loudspeakers across the country, is that this unity rests on a centuries-old bedrock of shared ethnicity, Buddhist religion and a revered monarchy. Everyone in the "Land of Smiles" belongs — and knows his place. Harmony reigns.

Partly truth, partly myth fashioned by masterly image-makers, these and other articles of faith have taken a bad beating on the streets of Bangkok, where thousands of protesters are calling into question the almost sacrosanct notion of "all Thais are one."

The so-called Red Shirts, who largely hail from the less developed areas of the country, are challenging the notion of a Thailand of milk and honey to which all have access.

The demonstrators have punctured the often placid and polite surface of Thai society, revealing an intense anger born of these inequalities: The protests have been marked by violence and unusually divisive and vulgar language as the Red Shirts proudly portray themselves as rough peasants ready to take on the ruling elite.

The crisis has also brought into sharp relief the complex relationships among Thais: During efforts to contain the two-month-long demonstrations, mostly bungled by security forces, police openly fraternized with protesters, the army revealed divided loyalties and even some Buddhist monks, forbidden from engaging in politics, festooned their yellow robes with red accessories.

Though rarely discussed, these ties, some seemingly based on class rather than institutional loyalties, have been germinating for some time.

"Millions of Thais have incrementally abandoned or ignored the bonds, or shackles, that had traditionally defined relations between classes and within the country's key institutions," says G.M. Greenwood of the Hong Kong-based risk consultancy Allan and Associates.

While some analysts paint the protests as just another power struggle — Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government versus the ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his rural supporters — the Red Shirts occupying areas of downtown Bangkok are sending messages that go beyond loyalty to a populist, albeit corrupt, leader cheering them on from exile.

"We're not buffaloes," angry Red Shirts shout, dismissing a common epithet that reflects deeply rooted prejudices among Bangkok's middle and upper classes against upcountry folk, especially those in the least developed northeastern region.

In contrast to many developing countries, Thailand's rural masses are not beset by grinding poverty, and through their access to the media and education are increasingly aware and thus resentful of their relative poverty and lowly position in social and political hierarchies.

Bangkok accounts for some 40 percent of the country's gross domestic product, family incomes in the capital average four times higher than in most of the northeast and key decisions affecting the lives of the rural people are made by bureaucrats in the mega-city.

While expectations surge, the country's economy is still largely controlled by a score of Sino-Thai families with links to powerful politicians, denying the middle and lower classes a greater share of the economic pie.

"There are still limited avenues for ordinary people to have any influence over policymaking," says a U.N. Development Program report released this week. "Both politicians and bureaucrats have been reluctant to open up the process to public participation. The accumulated frustration over the operation of political systems at all levels is creating a rising level of violence."

While it is still unclear what will emerge from the current crisis, analysts are saying the genie is out of the bottle: Any future government will be forced to cope with these pivotal issues. And should it engage in another Thai specialty — sweeping problems under the carpet — critics say the country risks an upheaval of far greater magnitude than the current "battle for Bangkok."

"The message of the rural resident is clear: a new Thailand with a new identity which is no longer submissive but one in which the Thais know their rights," says Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

"It also reveals the unattractive truth behind certain Thai images. That is, that this society is not homogeneous and that the people profess different political ideologies," he added.

It is perhaps no coincidence that some of these divisions are emerging so starkly as Thailand's 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a vital glue to Thai society, remains hospitalized and seemingly no longer able to step in to mediate crises as he has done several times during his 60-year reign.

Once a taboo subject, the monarchy itself has become a topic for debate, although Bhumibol has made no public statements himself.

Some radical Red Shirt supporters want a total abolition of the ancient institution and censors are working overtime to shut down a mushrooming of anti-monarchy websites.

The key Red Shirt leaders profess loyalty to Bhumibol, who is still widely revered, but envision future monarchs as more akin to the figurehead royals of Europe. Abhisit, too, has told foreign reporters that the issue "should be discussed but it must be done in such a way that is constructive."

"The elite face something none have ever experienced before, royal succession," says Paul Handley, author of a biography of the king. "By all signs the crown will pass to his only son Prince Vajiralongkorn, who has no record serving as a leader or uniter of the country. While his father has a reputation for fair and good judgment, he does not yet have that reputation."

While Abhisit has said he recognizes that the poor and disadvantaged expect more from their country, the question remains if the elite can deliver.

Says Handley: "It is not clear yet that the elite has got the message that something fundamental needs to change to enable the country to develop a more stable, effective political system for the long term."