Is Thailand Going the Way of 1936 Spain?

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Bangkok circa 2010 is looking more and more like Madrid circa 1936 every day. That was the year that the bloody Spanish Civil War began, which lasted until 1939 and killed hundreds of thousands. Could such a bloody event engulf the Land of Smiles?

The government headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, which took office after the judges disenfranchised enough members of parliament for the old government to lose its majority, at first seemed to calm things down. But anti-government demonstrators have, in effect, taken over the capital and challenged the government to drive them out.

Consider these parallels: In 1931 the Spaniards adopted a new liberal constitution and enshrined strict separation of the monarchy and government. Similarly, Thailand adopted a liberal constitution in 1997 (since abrogated by the 2006 coup) with numerous checks and balances. The King was already a constitutional monarch.

The Spanish crisis was preceded by several elections which, though considered fair, failed to satisfy one side or the other. Thailand recently held two elections; one in 2006 that was annulled by the courts, the other, held in December 2007, was won by the party headed by ex-Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat - generally considered a proxy for ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

In the months leading up to the Spanish Civil War, both sides turned increasingly to vigilantism. In Thailand red-shirted protesters stormed the East Asian summit venue with sticks and slingshots last year, and briefly occupied parliament last month. But then they learned their tactics from the opposition (now the government) in its illegal seizure of the capital's two main airports a year and a half ago.

Thailand is dividing along several lines: Between the "red shirts" worn by the anti-government protesters and the "yellow shirts" worn by the supporters of the present government (who were formerly anti-government protesters themselves); between rich and poor. There are geographical divisions as well, between the people of the Thai heartland, those around Bangkok and between the south and those living in the north and northeast.

The Royal Thai Army also shows signs of splitting. The army was humiliated following its recent bloody but ineffective effort to disperse the red shirts. Many conscripts hail from the same rural classes that dominate the red shirt movement, and it is clear that their officers are uncertain they would obey any future commands to suppress the movement.

The former government, loyal to Thaksin, had some attributes of the Republican or Loyalist side of the Spanish Civil War. They claimed the mantle of legitimacy, endorsed by the most recent election and the elections before that. Meanwhile, it was common (for Westerners anyway) to describe, with some justification, the yellow-shirted protesters as anti-democratic "fascists."

Yellow shirts and red shirts, fascists and democrats, monarchists and anti-monarchists, class against class - it all seems so retro, like an old movie from the 20th-century. The scourge of the 21st century is supposed to be Islamic anomie, turned to terrorism - not class warfare.

King Bhumibol has said little and done almost nothing that anyone knows about to defuse the crisis as he has intervened in crises past to restore a balance of power and maintain the peace. It is feared that the 83 year-old King may be too feeble, or too sick, to make his weight and tremendous prestige felt once again.

The red-shirted protesters claim that they too loyally support the King, but their enthusiasm for the monarchy is markedly thinner than those now in power and usually called "yellow shirts," since that color denotes loyalty to the King. Meanwhile, the "red shirt" movement is beginning to take on the color of republicanism.

One long-time resident of Thailand recently told me: "I never thought I'd see the day when the [Royal] family lost its popularity and prestige, but it is seen as siding with the yellow shirts against the red shirts, who don't hold up his portraits [at their protests]."

And it may be that the forces that are tearing the country apart are no longer amenable to the King's personal kind of palliative. Perhaps in the past he gained his reputation for even-handedness by adjudicating disputes only among the Thai elite. This may be one crisis, because it involves a much wider swatch of society, that the Thai people have to settle for themselves.

One major difference between Thailand 2010 and Spain 1936 is the supreme lack of interest by anyone outside of Thailand. The Spanish Civil War was a landmark event in 20th century history because it became a kind of proxy war between democracy and the rising forces of communism in the Soviet Union and fascism in Germany and Italy.

Nobody outside of Thailand has a dog in this fight, even as the country unravels. Maybe only those of us who have lived or visited there can feel the horror as the events unfold and feel the shame expressed even by the local media: "Yesterday was a truly shameful day for our country, which had its international reputation destroyed," said the Bangkok Post, speaking of the red shirt assault on a foreign ministerial meeting in which some dignitaries had to be rescued by helicopter.

Perhaps I'm an alarmist. Maybe the two sides will back away from the ultimate clash. Maybe the King will, for the last time in his long reign, spread his special balm and calm the situation. Maybe the red shirts will temper their protests or maybe the army will step in once again and restore stability. But I wouldn't count on it.

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