By Thitinan Pongsudhirak
THE hospitalisation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has brought Thailand's most daunting question to the fore. The country's wrenching political struggle over the past several years has, at bottom, concerned what will happen after the ailing 81-year-old King's reign comes to an end.
The endgame has been shaped by several factors: the military coup of September 2006, the current military-supported Constitution and election of 2007, street protests and seizures of Government House and Bangkok's airports last year, the army-brokered coalition government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva that has ruled since January and the Bangkok riots of April. At stake is the soul of an emerging Thailand.
Thailand's colour-coded crisis pits largely urban, conservative and royalist 'yellow shirts' against the predominantly rural 'red' columns of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. During much of Thailand's economic boom over the past two decades, wealth resided mostly in the Bangkok area, a fact deeply resented by the rural majority.
Their economic opportunities were limited by a shoddy education system and docile state-run media that fed them soap operas and official messages. For a nobody to become a somebody, all roads led to Bangkok and its prestigious prep schools and universities. Thailand's farms became increasingly alienated from the urban elite. Thaksin recognised this rural-urban divide and shrewdly exploited it.
The rural-urban divide wedded the grassroots rural population to patronage networks and vote buying, while elected politicians reaped their rewards through corruption and graft. In turn, the military stepped in from time to time - once every four years on average since 1932 - ostensibly to suppress corruption, but retarding democratic rule in the process.
All this changed when Thailand promulgated a Constitution in 1997 that promoted political transparency and accountability and government effectiveness. Its logical but flawed outcome was the triumph of Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party, which became the first to complete a full term and to be re-elected - by a landslide in 2005.
Thai Rak Thai's populism featured income redistribution, cheap health care, micro-credit schemes and a dazzling array of policy innovation. Thaksin and his party's direct connection to the electorate bypassed - and thus threatened - the established trinity of institutions that had long called the shots in Thailand: the military, the monarchy and the bureaucracy.
Thaksin and his cronies handed the establishment an opportunity to strike back by abusing power and profiting personally from it. A billionaire telecommunications tycoon, Thaksin presided over the trebling of his family's assets in the stock market. He also engineered an extrajudicial drug-suppression campaign that claimed 2,275 lives.
His sins became the basis of the rise of his yellow-shirted opponents, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which entered the electoral arena as the New Politics Party. The PAD spent much of last year demonstrating against the two successive Thaksin-influenced governments that arose from the December 2007 election, reinvigorating Thai Rak Thai's red-shirted allies, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD).
After more than three years, Thailand's crisis has become a complicated saga. Mr Abhisit's pledges of reform and reconciliation in the wake of April's
riots have made little headway. The PAD wants to maintain the 2007 charter. The UDD favours reinstating the 1997 Constitution. Enraged by a sense of social injustice, the reds rail against the establishment's double standards, while the pro-establishment yellows have hunkered down for a battle of attrition.
In the process, what had been a pro- and anti-Thaksin fight has gradually become a pro- and anti-monarchy struggle. The rigidly hierarchical forces of the establishment are insecure and fearful of what will happen after the King dies. Lese majeste cases alleging insults against the immediate royal family are on the rise. Many thousands of websites challenging establishment interests and deploring post-coup machinations have been blocked.
Thaksin's appeal splits the reds. Many repudiate his corruption but, in challenging the post-coup status quo, have no choice but to use him as a rallying symbol. Likewise, all yellows find Thaksin's misrule intolerable, but not all are fanatical royalists. A stalemate has taken hold, with the denouement likely to be reached only after the royal succession.
A new consensus is imperative if Thailand is to regain its footing. That consensus would have to be based on mutual recognition and accommodation. The reds will need to distance themselves from Thaksin's abuses of power and the yellows will have to accept some of his policies, particularly opportunities for jobs, education and upward mobility among the rural majority.
The writer is a professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.