This afternoon I received a warning message in my e-mail from my employers here at Legacy Institute in Thailand. The warning was a forwarded message from the US Embassy Consulate office in Chiang Mai, with whom I am not on a first name basis as of yet . At any rate, the warning stated that on Sunday, September 18, the “Red Shirts” (about whom I will speak of more in a bit) will be having a demonstration at the moat (the center of Chaing Mai) to honor the fifth anniversary of the September 18, 2006 coup that removed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power and put in place an unpopular military dictatorship. Americans have been warned to stay away from the demonstration area since the Red Shirts are known to be hostile to Americans (they happen to believe us, sometimes erroneously, as in my case, to support antidemocratic military coups that thwart the will of the Thai people ). At any rate, that will require that I delay my trip to Duke’s for another Sunday, since I have no desire to be part of a potentially provocative riot where I would be unwelcome and outnumbered several thousand to one. There’s no sense in putting one’s self directly into harm’s way without good reason.
In Thailand, the face of populism wears a red shirt. The red shirts, as a political movement (Thailand, like the United States, seems to consider politics as a matter of color. The Red Shirts are on one side, the Yellow Shirts on the other, and the multi-colored more or less neutral but pro-democracy as a whole, which is where I seem to fit in personally) are populist in nature. They support the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose younger sister Yingling Shinawatra recently won Thailand’s most recent election in a landslide . The demonstration on the fifth anniversary of the coup that removed Taksin from power is a subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) reminder that the Red Shirts remember the military’s action and consider a repeat performance unacceptable. Obviously, it is a tense moment.
In Thailand populism is associated with the left-wing. The prime supporters of the Red Shirt movement come from the old Lanna kingdom of the North of Thailand (which was based out of Chiang Mai, the home of the Shinawatra clan and only a few short kilometers from my own base of operations here), as well as the Lao-Thai Isan areas of Northeastern Thailand and their ethnic cohorts who have moved to the area around Bangkok. The Red Shirts have a slight majority of support in a nation with notoriously fragmented politics, so they have won every free election since 2000. Despite this, the frequent interference of the military has removed them from power at least twice so far. In my judgment, the popularity of the red shirts is due to underlying tensions in Thai society where the Isan and Lanna regions do not feel fully respected and honored within Thailand by Thai society, considered as second-class citizens. The fact that they have a majority of the population within Thailand means that their chosen political leaders seem to lack legitimacy in the eyes of Bangkok’s elites. This means that Thai democracy is a fragile project where the wishes of the people and the desires of the elites are at dangerous and frequently violent cross-purposes. It certainly adds a level of tension to the life of those Americans here who are in favor of respect and dignity for all and widespread democracy, given that neither side is likely to view people like me as very friendly to its cause.
That said, from my own view the populism of the Red Shirts seems very similar to that of another group of populists with whom I am familiar from the United States, the Tea Party. In the United States, the Tea Party is a populism of the right, the other face of the movement. Despite a general similarity in the fear and hostility that elites have for such people, the condescending insults about being ignorant and uneducated (which mirror the thoughts that elites have about the Red Shirts here in Thailand), the basic political principles of the Tea Party and Red Shirts are very distinct. The Red Shirts support increased minimum wages and increased socialism, while the Tea Party is harshly libertarian, supporting drastic cuts or elimination of socialism as it exists in the United States and a restoration of the enforcement of the original meaning and intent of the Constitution (other than the institution of slavery, thankfully). Both movements have “grassroots support,” and are generally hostile to the capital elites in both Thailand and the United States. Both of them seem to have risen as a result of a growing crisis in democracy in both countries where rulers are dangerously out of touch with those they rule, and where there seems to be no legitimacy on the part of those elites in the eyes of substantial parts of the country.
We ignore such movements at our peril. By and large I am at least moderately sympathetic with populism. I come from a very modest background myself, and despite the fact that populism usually appears to be anti-intellectual, my own background allows me to understand (and often strongly identify with) its grievances, if not its methods, approaches, or specific positions. It would appear to me that a great deal of the anger that motivates movements like the Tea Party or the Red Shirts would be solved if leaders of nations that claim to be democracies would act like the servants of the people rather than the lords. Treating people, all people, no matter their background or where they come from, with respect would go a long way in drawing the sting from populist movements. If we want to preserve peace and order within our societies, we need to show respect and honor for all, so that there are no discontents that threaten our social orders. It is injustice that threatens order with anarchy, and so those of us that are true friends of order are also true friends of justice, so that no one has cause for hostility towards authority. That requires authority behave properly. Such good government is the exception rather than the rule, unfortunately, with all of the instability and tyranny that result from evil and insecure men in positions of power, often opposed by evil men desiring to use legitimate grievances to take that power for themselves.