Hakka People

'Red shirts' target the social chasm

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 April, 2010, 12:00am

Thailand's latest rebellion shows that the nation needs a 'social contract' between the elites and the servant class. Even if Thai protesters in red shirts haven't read the work of philosophers Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, they recognise that the present patron-client system based on pii-nong relationships (literally, elder and junior) is no longer sufficient. Many in the traditional underclass of poor, dark-skinned labourers from the north are not satisfied to work as maids and construction workers for US$4 a day.

Yet it is also wrong to assume that this is simply a class conflict between the poor, rural 'red shirts' and the Bangkok elite. The violence on 'Black Saturday' pitted northern farm boys drafted into the military against northerners in the 'red shirt' camp. It was poor against poor. This compelled both sides to pull back from the brink of all-out battle.

From the perspective of cynical Bangkokians, both the soldiers and protesters have been exploited and brainwashed by selfish and greedy figures, such as fugitive billionaire and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

In Thailand, the 'land of the free', the freewheeling Thais generally want the state to help them as Buddhist temples do, not harass them. For many Thais, good governance and a harmonious society, rather than democracy, is the goal.

When I recently asked the 'red shirts' why they protest, they said they want better schools and hospitals. They want their own locally elected leaders to have a voice in government, as they felt they had under Thaksin. They aren't as offended as foreigners are by the vote-buying and corruption that plagued the Thaksin and many other administrations. They aren't protesting to end the civil war in the deep south. They simply want a government that serves them instead of looking down at them.

Many 'red shirts' don't fear anarchy because they feel that they already exist in a state of nature that Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) would describe as 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short', a state where self-interest and the absence of rights and contracts prevent the evolution of a just society.

The 'red shirts' want what John Locke in 1689 called a 'neutral judge'. In the Thai context, this means a media, military and election commission that sides with them sometimes, not always against them.

Jean-Jacque Rousseau's hope in 1762, that citizens could choose the fundamental rules by which they would live, is probably still impossible in a country where many people still worship the king as a semi-divine being.

But it is possible for the Bangkok elite to give more power and opportunities to the dark-skinned underclass. Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is a smart young leader who could help usher in a social contract by sharing power with the 'red shirts'. Perhaps more than any other politician in Thailand, Abhisit would understand the theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau and how they can help to heal the rift in Thai society.

Freelance writer Christopher Johnson, author of Siamese Dreams, has been reporting on Thailand since 1987