Thai woe and Tin Shui Wai aren't so far apart

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 April, 2010, 12:00am

Experiencing the 'red shirt' anti-government demonstrations that have been paralysing parts of central Bangkok, I was struck by the similarity of the demonstrators' grievances to those of Hong Kong's lower-income groups. Of course, as a city state and dependent territory, it is most unlikely that Hong Kong will ever see the turmoil that provincial Thailand has brought to its modern metropolis. But the protests still provide lessons for this city, as well as for China.

First, there is deep resentment at the way a supposedly democratic system has been distorted by a military coup, monarchist power holders and Bangkok commercial interests to deprive them of their proper voice in the distribution of growing national wealth. One could say that large parts of Hong Kong's middle- and lower-income groups have similar feelings about the way the institutionalised corruption of functional constituencies and the tycoon lobby have combined with the bureaucracy and Beijing to deny them the power to better distribute community wealth and opportunity.

Do not imagine that this is just Bangkok against the provinces. The waves and cheers for the 'red shirts' from security guards, taxi drivers, street vendors and other low- income workers in Bangkok's elite district were evidence of a deep class division. It is not that income distribution in Thailand has been getting significantly worse. But there has been a revolution of rising expectations among deprived groups, particularly from the impoverished northeast. Incomes have been rising gradually but expectations have been rising faster as low birth rates have reduced job pressure and the mostly uncensored media and mobile phones have increased awareness of wealth gaps.

Thailand has several equivalents of Hong Kong's property cartel, including the rice millers and exporters who get most of the benefit from efforts to stabilise prices for farmers, and in the Crown Property Bureau, a secretive royal investment monster that evicts established communities in Bangkok for luxury hotel and office developments.

Many low-income people in locations such as Tin Shui Wai are cut off from work opportunities by the high cost of transport; in Bangkok, you won't find too many construction workers and security guards on the two clean, modern, air-conditioned urban railways, either - they can't afford it.

There is much that is worrying about the demagogic and often contradictory rhetoric of 'red shirt' leaders. Many who sympathise with their goals loathe their tactics, and their links with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. There are fears events may lead to a Latin American-style dictatorship of left or right. Economic and educational development do not necessarily lead to liberal democracy. But they do lead, one way or another, to the destruction or marginalisation of the old order. The longer the latter resists, the bigger the problem. Thailand's old order is under threat not just from the 'red shirts' but from the decline of the prestige of the monarchy, the divisions within the military about how to respond to the political situation, and the uncertain influence of once-revered institutions such as the courts.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the old order has become more entrenched and defensive since the handover. That explains why discontent is high and rising despite, as in Thailand, the absence of an economic crisis.

As for China, its political structure may be stronger, its military more ruthless. But, sooner or later, rising expectations of the deprived classes, rural and urban, will create just the stresses that Thailand is experiencing. Indeed, they may be worse because the gaps are even bigger and the political system more inflexible - Thailand has never had the equivalent of China's Communist Party, but has had decades of on-and-off democracy and a freewheeling media. That experience provides the best hope that the turmoil will end with little bloodshed and real political effort to address real grievances.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator