The Thai army moved on 18 May 2010 to clear the “red shirts” from the encampments of resistance they had built and held for a month in the glitzy centre of Bangkok. Around five people died in the operation, which managed (at least for the moment) to disperse the crowds. In a final move full of symbolism, a few of the red-bedecked protesters ignited fires in some of the ultra-modern buildings that had overlooked their occupation of the area. Bangkok’s stock-exchange, leading banks, and shopping-malls (including one of southeast Asia's largest plazas, Central World) were engulfed in flames.
The political fallout in terms of Thailand’s enduring crisis of democracy since the rule of Thaksin Shinawatra and his overthrow by a military coup d’état in September 2006 remains to be seen. The extreme social divisions that underlie the persistent unrest of these years is an important dimension of this crisis, though informed analysts emphasise the importance of a nuanced view that takes account of Thailand’s decades-long and complex political ethnography (see Tyrell Haberkorn, “Thailand’s political transformation”, 14 April 2010).
Thailand’s political insurgency - like many other great movements of its kind - involves a burgeoning of protest far beyond its original social roots, gathering along the way the participation of privileged students, armed militants, and even billionaire politicians. At the same time there remains at its core the sense of a marginalised, predominantly rural majority seeking to articulate its powerlessness and hunger for justice.
This is a Thai crisis that reflects Thai realities. Yet Thailand's problems, great as they are in terms of the political and social profile of this major regional country, to a degree attract attention outside Asia only because of the intensity of the violence there. The problem with such a perspective is that what is happening in Thailand cannot truly be understood when taken in isolation - seen as separate from events and dynamics elsewhere (see “A tale of two paradigms”, 25 June 2009).
By contrast, the frame of reference that views the Thai (and comparable) events as part of an interconnected and globally significant trend is still largely neglected; all the more reason to insist on its relevance to making sense of the current turmoil (see “A world on the edge”, 29 January 2009).
An arc of discontent
The climax of the events in Bangkok (and, it should be recalled, other parts of Thailand) follows the less concentrated but equally turbulent protests in Athens and elsewhere in Greece. In April 2010, the austerity package being discussed and implemented by the Athens government at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union sparked a series of demonstrations in which tens of thousands of Greeks participated (see Ulrike Guérot, “Germany, Greece, and Europe’s future”, 13 April 2010). In Athens as in Bangkok, the protests are complex and syncretic; some elements drawn to them are intent on violence, come what may. But there is also a strong current of resentment among hard-pressed public-sector and other workers of the beneficiaries of a wealth-laden system who seem little affected by a deepening recession.
The association of Bangkok and Athens may appear unlikely, but perhaps less so when it is supplemented by reference to current events in China and India. At the end of 2010 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published an analysis of China's burgeoning social problems, not least the innumerable (and rarely reported) examples of urban social protest (see Shirong Chen, “Social unrest 'on the rise’ in China” , BBC News, 21 December 2009)
The report cited six large-scale protests that involved tens of thousands of people, and pointed to the growing urban-rural wealth-gap. China may have achieved remarkable levels of economic growth since 1990 but there is abundant evidence that the majority of the benefit has gone to a minority of the population, mostly in the cities (see Wei Jingsheng, “China’s political tunnel”, 22 January 2009). Even in those cities, millions of migrant workers who have moved from their rural homes must endure lives of hardship, poverty and insecurity (see “China and India: heartlands of global protest", 7 August 2008).
In India, the Naxalite rebellion continues to grow. A devastating incident was reported just two days before the Thai troops were deployed in Bangkok against the red-shirts. In Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh state, Naxalite militants used a landmine to destroy a bus reported to be carrying armed-security personnel; the attack killed thirty people, many of them civilians (see “India reviews anti-Maoist policy”, BBC News, 18 May 2010). This incident follows an even larger attack in the same district on 6 April 2010 in which Naxalites killed seventy-three state paramilitaries and their driver (see “Chronology of Major Naxal attacks”, Hindustan Times, 17 May 2010).
The Indian government has responded to the insurgency with “Operation Green Hunt”, which deploys over 50,000 paramilitary forces across five of India’s states. But the latest Naxalite attacks have prompted some states to urge the New Delhi government to go further, by mobilising the Indian army and even using the air force to assault the rebels from the air.
This greater escalation is highly unlikely, as the Indian armed forces are deeply reluctant to become involved in what they consider a matter of domestic insecurity. Some of the army’s most senior officers - and their political masters - are only too aware that the Naxalite revolt is rooted in the profound marginalisation of many millions of people in India's poorer communities; but the current levels of violence make it all too easy to dismiss the Naxalites with the terrorist label (see “India’s 21st-century war”, 5 November 2009).
A shared predicament
The problems of these four countries - Thailand, China, India, Greece - all have their own individual characteristics; yet they also indicate the emergence of a more general pattern, whose binding element is a deep and widely-shared perception of marginalisation (see “A world in revolt”, 12 February 2009).
The extent of the global division at issue is startling. Across the world, there are now 800 “dollar billionaires” and 7m “dollar millionaires", while nearly half the world's population - 3 billion people - survive on less than $2 a day (see Kul Chandra Gautam, “Weapons or Well-being?”, IPS TerraViva, 13 May 2010).
The past forty years of an increasingly globalised free-market economy may have delivered economic growth, but there is abundant evidence that the dominant model has comprehensively failed to deliver the socio-economic justice and emancipation its rhetoric promised (see “Beyond ‘liddism’: towards real global security”, 1 April 2010).
At the same time, there has also been widespread and very welcome progress in education, literacy and communications. This hugely impressive transformation across much of the “majority world” of the global south - largely the result of intensive self-improving efforts by millions of people - in turn has helped generate an increasing awareness of the predicament they share: namely, that they exist on the cliff-edges of permanent insecurity and even destitution (see Göran Therborn, “The killing-fields of inequality”, 6 April 2009).
This ingredient connects otherwise disparate experiences as far afield as India, Thailand, China and Greece; it informs the protests of those who support (for example) the protests of the Maoists in Nepal and the Zapatistas in Mexico. By no means all of these convulsions result in a turn to violence, although part of the reaction to marginalisation is evident in the form of high urban-crime rates in cities such as Rio de Janeiro (see Rodrigo de Almeida, “Brazil: the shadow of urban war”, 18 July 2007).
Such phenomena lead parts of the elite to a fearful embrace of intense security measures in pursuit of the illusion of control; and to a retreat into gated communities, of which the 200-hectare private town of Heritage Park near Cape Town - with its 33,000-volt electrified fence and its own police-force - is emblematic (see “A tale of two towns”, 21 June 2007).
A red tide
The “revolt from the margins” that links these diverse phenomena is even more significant when a further vital factor is included: the impact of climate change, which will severely affect billions of people across the global south. In this respect, the red-shirts in Bangkok raise the alarm about an emerging dystopia that could be made even worse by environmental constraints.
But if the events of April-May 2010 in Bangkok are a marker for that possible outcome, they also represent a warning that ways must be found to avoid it. The policy of closing the castle-gates with the world's elites inside cannot work. The alternative, a move towards justice-based sustainable security, can. In this respect, the crisis in Thailand is a test-case of the global future.